Ingredients for life detected in deep space

Astronomers using the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas have detected anthracene, a complex organic molecule that can produce the building blocks of life.

Astronomers using the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands (pictured here) and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas have a complex organic molecule deep in space.

Astronomers have discovered important basic ingredients for life forming in the depths of space. They identified one of the most complex organic molecules known, called anthracene, in a dense cloud of matter between the stars.

It is an exciting find because, when subjected to ultraviolet radiation and combined with water and ammonia, anthracene could produce building blocks of life such as amino acids.

Researchers believe their discovery may help resolve a decades-old riddle about how organic molecules form in space.

IN PICTURES: Single-celled organisms

The breakthrough, reported in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, was made by an international team using the giant William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas.

They detected the anthracene about 700 light-years away from the Sun in the direction of a star called Cernis 52 in the constellation of Perseus.

Dr Susana Iglesias Groth, of the Instituto Astrofísica de Canarias on La Palma, said: “Two years ago, we found proof of the existence of another organic molecule, naphthalene, in the same place, so everything indicates that we have discovered a star formation region rich in prebiotic chemistry.”

Until now, anthracene had been detected only in meteorites and never in the region between stars called the interstellar medium. Oxidized forms of this molecule are common in living systems and are biochemically active.

Other organic molecules including a type of sugar have previously been found in interstellar space. Another, called glycine, was found in dust from a comet that a spaceprobe brought back to Earth.

The findings add further compelling evidence to the idea that life developed on Earth after its key ingredients were delivered by comets and meteorites from deep space.

IN PICTURES: Single-celled organisms

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!

Paul Sutherland blogs at Skymania News

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