Astrobiologists find how complex organic molecules form inGalaxy

Astrobiologists find how complex organic molecules form in the Galaxy

3:13 AM, 11th November 2011
Astrobiologists find how complex organic molecules form in the Galaxy
Sweet spots for methanol formation in the galaxy. (C) NASA.


TROY, US: Scientists within the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have compiled years of research to help locate areas in outer space that have extreme potential for complex organic molecule formation. The scientists searched for methanol, a key ingredient in the synthesis of organic molecules that could lead to life. Their results have implications for determining the origins of molecules that spark life in the cosmos.

The findings will be published in the November 20 edition of The Astrophysical journal.” The work is collaboration between researchers at Rensselaer, NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, and Ohio State University.

“Methanol formation is the major chemical pathway to complex organic molecules in interstellar space,” said Douglas Whittet, Lead researcher of the study and Director of NASA-funded centre, Rensselaer. If scientists can identify regions where conditions are right for rich methanol production, they will be better able to understand where and how complex organic molecules needed to create life are formed.

Using powerful telescopes on Earth, scientists have observed large concentrations of simple molecules such as carbon monoxide in clouds that give birth to new stars. In order to make more complex organic molecules, hydrogen needs to enter the chemical process. In right conditions, carbon monoxide on the surface of interstellar dust can react at low temperatures with hydrogen to create methanol (CH3OH). Methanol then supports formation of much more complex organic molecules that are required to create life. Scientists have known that methanol is out there, but to date there has been limited detail on where it is most readily produced.

Whittet and his collaborators have discovered that methanol is most abundant around a very small number of newly formed stars. The scientists conclude in the paper that there is a “sweet spot” in the physical conditions surrounding some stars that accounts for large discrepancy in methanol formation. “If the carbon monoxide molecules build up too quickly on the surfaces of dust grains, they don’t react and form complex molecules,” said Whittet. “If the buildup is too slow, the opportunities for reaction are also much lower.”

This means that under right conditions, the dust surrounding certain stars could hold greater potential for life than most of its siblings. Scientists could also look at concentrations of methanol in comets to determine the amount of methanol that was in the solar system at its birth. The findings suggest, “Our solar system wasn’t particularly lucky and didn’t have the large amounts of methanol that we see around some other stars in the galaxy,” said Whittet. “But, it was obviously enough for us to be here.”

The results show that there could be solar systems even luckier in the biological game than we were, according to Whittet. As we look deeper into the cosmos, we may eventually be able to determine what a solar system bursting with methanol can do.

(C) Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute News




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