A distant sea of proto-life molecules could mean we're not alone

The building blocks of life have been observed for the first time in a fledgling planetary system light-years away from Earth, a thriving sea of complex organic molecules equal to our own oceans. The discovery, which lends further weight to the idea that our solar system is not the only place where life could have arisen in the universe, was made by astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Perhaps even more impressive than their very existence is the fact that the proportions of molecules are similar to those discovered in comets in our own region of space.

"Studies of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned our Sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds," Karin Oberg, lead author of the paper and an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said of the research. "We now have evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own."

At the center of the molecular cloud is star MWC 480. Only roughly a million years old, it's approximately 455 light-years from us, and currently surrounded by a "protoplanetary disK" made up of various chemicals.

That includes methyl cyanide (CH3CN) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN), both potential forebears to amino acids, which themselves go on to create proteins.

The existence of such molecules in space wasn't a mystery. What scientists weren't sure about was whether they could handle – much less thrive – in the unruly area of a forming solar system.

"The astronomers now know that these molecules not only survive," the team concludes now, "but thrive."

"Now we know we're not unique in organic chemistry," Oberg says. "Once more, we have learned that we're not special. From a life in the universe point of view, this is great news."

It's still a long way to go from molecular material being discovered to the creation of actual life, but that hasn't stopped scientists from predicting big events there in the next few years. For instance, NASA said earlier this week that it expects to find evidence of alien life within one to two decades.

SOURCE Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics