Organic molecules – the basic ingredient in all known forms of life – have been detected around a distant star, astronomers say.
The complex organic molecules have been identified in a dust and gas disc surrounding the young star MWC 480, which is located in a star-forming region around 450 light years from Earth.
The discovery suggests that our own solar system is not the only one to contain such complex molecules, said study lead author Karin Öberg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
"The very rich organic chemistry present in the young solar system, as evidenced by cometary compositions, is far from unique," she said.
"It thus seems likely that the prebiotic chemistry that took place in the solar system, including Earth, is also happening elsewhere."
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile, researchers learned that the million-year-old MWC 480 is surrounded by methyl cyanide, a complex molecule based on carbon.
The molecules are located in the farthest reaches of the newly formed disk around the star, in a region astronomers compare to our solar system's Kuiper Belt — home to icy comets and planetesimals. Comets from the Kuiper Belt retain the chemistry present in our solar system during the time of planet formation.
"Studies of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned our sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds," Öberg said. "We now have evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own."
Some of the dust and gas in the disk surrounding MWC 480 will spiral down into the star as it continues to grow, the researchers explained, while some will be lost — thrown out toward interstellar space.
What remains will almost certainly come together as planets, comets and asteroids, and eventually form a solar system.
Some of the worlds of that new system may well carry organic chemicals and water – both building blocks of life – into the new star's habitable zone, the scientists said.
That would mimic what almost certainly took place in our own solar system billions of years ago, said Geoffrey Blake, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who did not participate in the published study.
"From studies such as these," he said, "we are learning that the pivotal chemical compounds needed to seed early worlds with the volatiles required for life are universal."
The study was published online in the journal Nature.