Infant star system discovered teeming with compounds for life

9 Apr 2015

Artist impression of the proto-planetary disk surrounding the young star MWC 480. Image via B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

In another space first, a team of astronomers has discovered an infant star system that shows evidence of complex organic molecules that could potentially spawn life one day.

It’s been a profitable few weeks for astronomers using the incredibly powerful Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope that only this week captured a stunning image of the cosmic phenomenon known as the Einstein ring.

Now, however, a team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), led by astronomer Karin Oberg, has used it to analyse the asteroid-filled proto-planetary disk that surrounds the million-year-old star designated MWC 480, which has been found to contain vast amounts of the chemicals methyl cyanide (CH3CN) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN), both of which are carbon-based molecules.

According to Smithsonian Science News, the same organic compounds found in this distant star system are also found in the asteroids and comets that exist in our own solar system.

‘We have learned that we’re not that special’

Located approximately 455 light years away, the rocky disk that surrounds MWC 480 shows that planet formation is yet to occur, having only recently coalesced out of a cold, dark nebula of dust and gas.

Putting the amount of molecules discovered in more understandable terms, the researchers say that the quantity of CH3CN that surrounds the star would be able to completely fill up all of Earth’s oceans.

Most importantly, the molecules were detected at a distance of somewhere in the region of between 4.5bn and 15bn km from MWC 480, so it lies comfortably within the zone of comet formation, which, according to the researchers, could lead to them one day forming comets that could find their way to a hospitable planet, much like what is speculated as happening on Earth.

Speaking of the findings, Oberg said: “From the study of exoplanets, we know our solar system isn’t unique in having rocky planets and an abundance of water. Now we know we’re not unique in organic chemistry. Once more, we have learned that we’re not special. From a life in the universe point of view, this is great news.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic