A new study of another star system has found evidence of the kind of complex organic molecules necessary to life here on Earth, a groundbreaking find that could have big implications.
A new study of the protoplanetary disk of a young star finds the same kinds of molecules that are found on the comets in our own solar system, according to the study, which was published in Nature, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Lead author Karin Öberg, an astrochemist who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that while scientists know that life originated somehow in the solar system, and it would be extremely exciting to find that it also originated in a completely different location, so the finding is “really good news that we’re not that special,” she said according to the report.
The fact that this sort of chemical makeup can be found in a completely separate solar system “removes a barrier” to it being true that life can be found elsewhere.
Earth’s life is based on carbon and other elements including nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, but scientists have long wondered whether such a chemical makeup conducive to life could be found elsewhere.
Öberg and other researchers used Chile’s huge telescope array known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). They studied the star system MWC 480, about 455 light years from the constellation Taurus. It is a young star with a lot of protoplanetary debris circling the star, still assembling into planets, asteroids, comets, and moon to form a fully developed solar system. It’s almost a snapshot of a point in time when our solar system was still developing, making it a good subject for study to understand the origins of life.
The scientists actually weren’t looking for signs of complex organic molecules, but they found a surprising signal from complex cyanides, including hydrogen cyanide, cyanoacetylene, and methyl cyanide. These chemicals were about 30 to 100 astronomical units — an astronomical unit is an Earth-sun distance — from the star, which is pretty far away and is where comets would be forming.
The molecules include carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen, which are also found in our own solar system’s comets. Comets are like time capsules, preserving material from from the reaches of a sun and remaining relatively unchanged for billions of years.
Scientists also believe that comets may have been responsible for bringing water and organic compounds to a young Earth, which gave it a head start to begin producing the building blocks of life.