Complex organic molecule found in interstellar space - Water on distant Neptune-sized planet


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26 September 2014 Last updated at 10:56

Complex organic molecule found in interstellar space By Michael Eyre Science reporter Alma telescope
The scientists searched for the molecule deep in the Milky Way

Scientists have found the beginnings of life-bearing chemistry at the centre of the galaxy.Iso-propyl cyanide has been detected in a star-forming cloud 27,000 light- years from Earth.Its branched carbon structure is closer to the complex organic molecules of life than any previous finding from interstellar space.

The discovery suggests the building blocks of life may be widespread throughout our galaxy.Various organic molecules have previously been discovered in interstellar space, but i-propyl cyanide is the first with a branched carbon backbone.

The branched structure is important as it shows that interstellar space could be the origin of more complex branched molecules, such as amino acids, that are necessary for life on Earth.

Dr Arnaud Belloche from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy is lead author of the research, which appears in the journal Science.

"Amino acids on Earth are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are very important for life as we know it. The question in the background is: is there life somewhere else in the galaxy?"

Alma telescope to unlock secrets of the Universe

13 March 2013 Last updated at 13:27 Help The Alma project, built in the Atacama Desert in Chile, officially opens on Wednesday.The telescope is expected to help scientists unlock new information about the Universe.

The BBC's Vladimir Hernandez reports.

BBC News - Alma telescope to unlock secrets of the Universe


Watch the skies The molecule was detected in a giant gas cloud called Sagittarius B2, an active region of ongoing star formation in the centre of the Milky Way.As stars are born in the cloud they heat up microscopic dust grains. Chemical reactions on the surface of the dust allow complex molecules like i-propyl cyanide to form.The molecules emit radiation that was detected as radio waves by twenty 12m telescopes at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (Alma) in Chile.

Each molecule produces a different "spectral fingerprint" of frequencies. "The game consists in matching these frequencies… to molecules that have been characterised in the laboratory," explained Dr Belloche.

"Our goal is to search for new complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium."

Previously discovered molecules in the Sagittarius B2 cloud include vinyl alcohol and ethyl formate, the chemical that gives raspberries their flavour and rum its smell.

But i-propyl cyanide is the largest and most complex organic molecule found to date - and the only one to share the branched atomic backbone of amino acids.

"The idea is to know whether the elements that are necessary for life to occur… can be found in other places in our galaxy."

Alma graphic


Prof Matt Griffin, head of the school of physics and astronomy at Cardiff University, commented on the discovery.

"It's clearly very high-quality data - a very emphatic detection with multiple spectral signatures all seen together."

Prof Griffin added that the quantity of i-propyl cyanide detected is significant.

Molecule model

The molecule i-propyl cyanide has a branched backbone of carbon atoms "There seems to be quite a lot of it, which would indicate that this more complex organic structure is possibly very common, maybe even the norm, when it comes to simple organic molecules in space.

"It's a step closer to discovering molecules that can be regarded as the building blocks or the precursors… of amino acids."

The hope is that amino acids will eventually be detected outside our Solar System. "That's what everyone would like to see," said Prof Griffin.

If amino acids are widespread throughout the galaxy, life may be also.

"So far we do not have the sensitivity to detect the signals from [amino acids]… in the interstellar medium," explained Dr Belloche. "The interstellar chemistry seems to be able to form these amino acids but at the moment we lack the evidence.

"Alma in the future may be able to do that, once the full capabilities are available."

Prof Griffin agreed this could be the first of many further discoveries from the "fantastically sensitive and powerful" Alma facility.

BBC News - Complex organic molecule found in interstellar space

Published on 13 May 2014

ALMA and the Supercomputer - Episode 14 of Astronomy: Secrets of the Universe Revealed Segment 1: All Systems Go for Highest Altitude Supercomputer [6:33]

One of the most powerful supercomputers in the world has now been fully installed and tested at its remote, high altitude site in the Andes of northern Chile. This marks one of the major remaining milestones toward completion of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the most elaborate ground-based telescope in history. The special-purpose ALMA correlator has over 134 million processors and performs up to 17 quadrillion operations per second, a speed comparable to the fastest general-purpose supercomputer in operation today.

Published on 24 Sep 2014 Observations of planet HAT-P-11b by the Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes were used to make the discovery. The planet is 120 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus. Full Story: Water Vapor Found on Neptune-size Alien Planet


24 September 2014 Last updated at 20:21

Clear skies reveal water on distant Neptune-sized planet


Artwork Neptune Artwork: The exoplanet HAT-P-11b is four times the size of Earth, or about the same size as Neptune

A cloud-free atmosphere has allowed scientists to pick out signs of water vapour on a distant planet the size of Neptune: the smallest "exoplanet" ever to reveal its chemical composition.Previously, only larger, Jupiter-like giants have been studied in this way.Working with three space telescopes, astronomers deduced the of water by measuring the colours of light the planet absorbed when it passed in front of its star.

The find appears in the journal Nature.

It was made by a team of researchers led from the University of Maryland, US.

The planet, designated HAT P-11b, orbits a sun in the constellation Cygnus some 124 light-years - about a quadrillion kilometres - from Earth. It is roughly four times the width of our home world.

The scientists studied the planet's atmosphere with the aid of the US space agency's Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler telescopes.Their observations were also greatly assisted by there being no clouds on HAT P-11b, which would otherwise have frustrated their attempts to probe its gaseous envelope.The team determined that the far-off world's atmosphere contained about 90% hydrogen, but also significant quantities of water vapour as well.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Eliza Kempton from Grinnell College, Iowa, said the Maryland group had taken another important step in the study of exoplanets - planets beyond our Solar System.

"Astronomers have detected water vapour in the atmospheres of larger planets - planets that are closer in size to Jupiter. But you can imagine that eventually we want to be able to detect molecules in the atmospheres of even smaller planets.

"We'd like to be able to look at an Earth-sized planet and measure its gaseous composition. So this is a step on the ladder; we're stepping down the ladder towards smaller and smaller planets," she told this week's Science In Action programme on the BBC World Service.

Water has obvious implications for life, although HAT P-11b is too close to its star - and therefore too hot - to be habitable.But in the future study of Earth-sized exoplanets, the presence of water will be an important consideration as scientists search for biology elsewhere in our galaxy.


Artwork of transit Artwork: A planetary atmosphere's composition is revealed by the light it absorbs from the background

BBC News - Clear skies reveal water on distant Neptune-sized planet