New Molecule Discovery: Milky Way Yields More Secrets
Something wonderful has been discovered 27,000 light-years away in the centre of the Milky Way – iso-propyl cyanide!
Okay, so it doesn’t sound very exciting, but does actually suggest that the life-bearing chemistry and building blocks of life could be widespread throughout our galaxy. This makes it more probable that there is life out there other than us on Earth.
What makes this discovery so important is that iso-propyl cyanide is the first of the organic molecules to have been discovered in interstellar space to have a branched carbon structure. This means that the molecule is also closer to the complex molecule of life than any previous finding. The research has been published in Science.
And what does all that mean? Well, some of the more complex branched molecules that are necessary for life on Earth, such as amino acids, could have originated in interstellar space. (That’s the physical space in our galaxy not occupied by other planetary systems or stars.)
The molecule was discovered by astronomers in Germany Using the telescopes at the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array) observatory in Chile. The twenty huge telescopes – around 39ft/12m tall – were able to detect the iso-propyl cyanide in a giant gas cloud in our Milky Way called Sagittarius B2.
The region has stars forming in it, and as they are born, surrounding microscopic dust particles are heated up. This in turn initiates a chemical reaction on the surface of the dust that allows for complex molecules like iso-propyl cyanide to form. These molecules emit a radiation signal that was able to be detected as radio waves by the ALMA telescopes.
“Amino acids on Earth are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are very important for life as we know it,” said study lead Dr Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. “The question is, is there life somewhere else in the galaxy?”
He explained that each molecule emits a different frequency, and his team needs to work out which frequencies belong to which molecule. And now that they know that molecules like the iso-propyl cyanide can be found in interstellar space, they can keep an eye out for more.
“The detection of a molecule with branched carbon backbone… shoes that interstellar chemistry is indeed capable of producing molecules with such a complex, branched structure,” Dr Belloche concluded. “The idea is to know whether the elements that are necessary for life to occur can be found in other places in the galaxy.”