The large organic molecules, the “stepping stones” between simple carbon structures and more complex molecules, were identified in protoplanetary disks surrounding newly-formed stars.
These disks are dense collections of gas and dust, formed immediately after the collapse of a molecular cloud.
Laboratory and theoretical studies have suggested that these ‘raw ingredients’ can create sugars, amino acids, and in some situations even the components of ribonucleic acid (RNA) – a single-strand molecule, akin to half of the helix in DNA.
Its believe that the Earth was seeded with this material after the impacts of asteroids and comets, but it was unclear whether all protoplanetary disks contained these molecules.
The researchers, from the University of Leeds, looked to investigate this question by using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (or ALMA) radio telescope in Chile to look for three molecules - cyanoacetylene (HC3N), acetonitrile (CH3CN), and cyclopropenylidene (c-C3H2) – in disks between 300 and 500 light years from Earth.
These molecules were found in four of the five disks observed – and in much greater quantities than had been expected.
“ALMA has allowed us to look for these molecules in the innermost regions of these disks, on size scales similar to our Solar System, for the first time”, Dr John Ilee, a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds.
Our analysis shows that the molecules are primarily located in these inner regions with abundances between 10 and 100 times higher than models had predicted.”
The regions where the molecules were located were also the same as where asteroids and comets from, meaning the process that happened on Earth could form live on other planets too.
"The key result of this work shows that the same ingredients needed for seeding life on our planet are also found around other stars. It is possible that the molecules that are needed to kick-start life on planets are readily available in all planet-forming environments”, said Dr Catherine Walsh, from the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy.
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