Carl Sagan once said, "We are all stardust." This very well could be true, if the discovery of a molecule found in a region of deep space known for star formation is confirmed: a complex carbon molecule associated with life.
Sagitarrius B2 takes is about 27,000 light-years from Earth. However, we can observe this part of space with telescopes, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is actually a group of 66 Earth-based radio telescopes pointed at the sky.
Thanks to ALMA, astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Cologne recently discovered a carbon-based molecule in that region of interstellar space.
That carbon-based molecule is interesting because it has a branched structure, suggesting that it's isopropyl cyanide. This particular find is groundbreaking because isopropyl cyanide is often found in molecules associated with life, such as amino acids. As a star forms, it produces isopropyl cyanide in an early part of its formation process.
Usually, organic molecules found in such regions of deep space are simpler: a single chain of carbon atoms. However, because of the way isopropyl cyanide branches off, it is easily identifiable and gives off a specific wavelength signature that telescopes recognize. That means that this is the first time we've detected this molecule in interstellar space.
"Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are important ingredients of life on Earth," says Arnaud Belloche, the study's lead author. "We are interested in the origin of amino acids in general and their distribution in our galaxy."
The implication of this discovery suggests that life originated in deep space and somehow made its way to Earth, most likely on meteorites as isopropyl cyanide is often found inside them.
"Understanding the production of organic material at the early stages of star formation is critical to piecing together the gradual progression from simple molecules to potentially life-bearing chemistry," says Belloche.
Initially, scientists were looking at the general chemical makeup of Sagittarius B2 because of its closeness to the center of the Milky Way. A full spectral survey of this patch of sky turned up the discovery.
ALMA, located in Chile, has ten times the sensitivity and resolution of other surveys, making it one of the most likely candidates to potentially answer the question, "Is there life out there?"