Complex Organic Molecules Discovered in Infant Star System
April 8, 2015 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Astronomers at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have detected the presence of organic cyanide molecules in a protoplanetary disk surrounding the young star MWC 480 in the Taurus star-forming region.

'“Studies of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned our Sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds,” noted Karin Öberg, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and lead author on a paper published in the journal Nature. “We now have evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own.”'

The paper can be viewed at Nature or via the ALMA website (.pdf).
posted by Existential Dread (15 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
(I've said it before, so I can just link it again: ALMA is amazing!)
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:03 PM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Wow. So much can happen in only 6,000 years.

posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:26 PM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

The thought of comets seeding inner planetary bodies with prebiotic organic chemicals drawn from the protoplanetary (remnants of which may exist in our own Kuiper Belt) is fascinating to me. Seeing the possibility of this process occurring in other young solar systems is amazing.
posted by Existential Dread at 2:31 PM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

We need to train this on Louie Gohmert's head to see if it can detect anything in there.
posted by delfin at 2:44 PM on April 8, 2015

Hmmm, so life really did filter down from the stars when the planet was young, eh?
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:50 PM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know why so much is being made of this. Complex organic molecules have been identified in space for decades.
posted by fivebells at 3:58 PM on April 8, 2015

In December I shot a travel feature on the Atacama desert for Rhapsody magazine and shot ALMA as part of it. Unfortunately, I was only able to shoot the ALMA OSF (Operations Support Facility) and not the Array, because even though I'd been in the Atacama for several days and was acclimated to the altitude, the press officer had just arrived that morning and wasn't. (They work 8 days on, 6 days off at ALMA, so most of the professional staff live in Santiago and fly up for their turns.) And at 16,600 feet, the Array is not just something you pop up to the day you arrive.

I was really disappointed, but even shooting the OSF and the various department heads, etc. was cool. The OSF is where they run the Array from and where the data from the Correlator gets dumped to by what they say is one of the biggest data pipes in the world. OSF is also where they maintain and repair the huge radio telescopes. Of which there were several in for work that I was able to shoot. Given the altitude of the Array, all the employees are at the OSF (alt. 9,500 ft) except for the rare occasions when they have to go up to maintain the Array.

Anyway, not exactly a response to the discovery, but a longwinded agreement with RedOrGreen that ALMA is amazing.
posted by chris24 at 4:25 PM on April 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

I don't know why so much is being made of this. Complex organic molecules have been identified in space for decades.

Not an expert, but I think in this case it's the youth of the star, the relative immaturity of the system/protoplanetary disk, and the fact that there is a hydrocarbon featuring a carbon-nitrogen bond (CH3CN), all in combination. This star is only ~ 1 million years old, but surrounded by organic molecules prior to any planetary formation.
posted by Existential Dread at 4:40 PM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

The issue is that just because you have complex organics in the interstellar medium doesn't mean that those same molecules make it down to, e.g., Earth. The process of forming a star potentially involves lots of heat and shocks etc., which could take the fancy organic molecules you built up in the ISM and break them down into boring atoms, and the process of chemistry would have to start again (on comets, or something) once everything had cooled down.

There has recently been a lot of work showing that many of these molecules survive the process of ISM -> protoplanetary disk (or as the caveat in the abstract states, are re-formed so efficiently that the difference doesn't matter). This distinction matters, because when you ask the question "What sets the chemical composition of the stuff that makes up planets", you might get very different answers if your answer is "the densities and radiation field conditions of the cloud" vs "the density, radiation, etc conditions of the disk". Both probably matter in different ways, and this is one part of understanding that difference. This work is adding another part to that story; not only is it simple species like water that survive from the cloud phase into the disk, but complex species like CH3CN.

The subtext (or possibly overt text depending on how one wants to sell it) is that the chemistry that happens in cloud is less likely to be an uncommon fluke than chemistry that happens on/near planets, so if you find life-related compounds (speaking with astronomer-level precision) surviving from the cloud into the disk, you might start thinking that life-like processes are more common than they would be otherwise.
posted by kiltedtaco at 5:13 PM on April 8, 2015 [10 favorites]

Thanks, that was a great explanation.
posted by fivebells at 8:54 PM on April 8, 2015

ALMA is amazing, but I've never seen anyone explain how much larger a Large Millimeter is than a small one.

My favourite ALMA picture is this one of the business end. It's the actual receiver front end. You can think of it like an abattoir where the photons, weary after trekking across measureless expanses of cosmic space, are gently shepherded to their doom as very precisely measured, labelled and packaged slabs of data, to be feasted upon by those monstrous astronomers with their monstrous appetites.

(Actually, my physics isn't very good at this point. Are the photons that impinge on the detectors the same as the ones that enter the telescope, or is a reflected photon different from the pre-reflected one?)
posted by Devonian at 4:51 AM on April 9, 2015 a reflected photon different from the pre-reflected one?

That's a great question, and I hope someone answers it.
posted by clawsoon at 7:40 AM on April 9, 2015

That's perhaps more a philosophical question than anything else.
posted by edd at 10:56 AM on April 9, 2015

>>... is a reflected photon different from the pre-reflected one?
> That's perhaps more a philosophical question than anything else.

Yeah, not sure how to answer that exactly, but I'm pretty sure that if you had two photons that were quantum-entangled, and one of them was reflected, it would still be entangled with the other one. So in that sense, at least, it is still the "same" photon.

Unfortunately, with ALMA, we're on the hairy edge of the photon particle/wave duality, and talking about "a" photon is ... problematic. (See comment above.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:15 PM on April 9, 2015

"Hunting from a distance of 27,000 light years, astronomers have discovered an unusual carbon-based molecule – one with a branched structure – contained within a giant gas cloud in interstellar space.

...This new discovery lends weight to the idea that biologically crucial molecules, like amino acids that are commonly found in meteorites, are produced early in the process of star formation – even before planets such as Earth are formed."

Arnaud Belloche, Robin T. Garrod, Holger S. P. Müller, Karl M. Menten, “Detection of a branched alkyl molecule in the interstellar medium: iso-propyl cyanide“, Science, 26 September 2014:Vol. 345 no. 6204 pp. 1584-1587

posted by Golden Eternity at 3:41 PM on April 11, 2015

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