Two scientists, Susan Iglesias-Groth from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and Martina Marín-Dobrincic from the Polytechnic University of Cartagena, have made a remarkable discovery in the Perseus Molecular Cloud. The team has found numerous prebiotic molecules in the star formation region IC348, a young star cluster aged between two to three million years old.
The Perseus Molecular Cloud is one of the closest star-forming regions to the solar system. It contains many young stars with protoplanetary discs where physical processes can take place, giving rise to planet formation. Iglesias-Groth referred to it as an “extraordinary laboratory of organic chemistry” since in 2019, she discovered complex molecules of pure carbon called fullerenes in the same cloud, which are often found as building blocks for the key molecules of life.
Now, new research has detected the presence of numerous biological molecules in the inner part of the region, which includes molecular hydrogen, hydroxyl, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and carbon-bearing molecules. Some of these molecules are the essential building blocks for constructing more complex molecules such as amino acids, which played a significant role in the evolution of ancient microorganisms and brought about the flourishing of life on Earth.
Iglesias-Groth said, “Getting to know the distribution and the abundances of these precursor molecules in regions where planets are very probably forming is an important challenge for astrophysics.”
The team also found the presence of more complex molecules such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and fullerenes C60 and C70. The data suggests that IC 348 is rich and diverse in its molecular content. The researchers found the molecules in the diffuse gas from which stars and protoplanetary discs are forming.
The presence of prebiotic molecules in interstellar sites close to star clusters suggests that accretion processes are taking place onto young planets, contributing to the formation of complex organic molecules. These key molecules could have been supplied to the protoplanetary discs, which could produce a route towards the molecules of life. “This could help to produce the molecules of life on nascent planets in the protoplanetary discs,” said Marín-Dobrincic.
The detection of these molecules was made with the help of NASA’s Spitzer satellite. The researchers are planning to use the powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to take their research further.
“The spectroscopic capacity of the JWST could provide details about the spatial distribution of all these molecules and extend the present search to others, which are more complex, giving higher sensitivity and resolution, which are essential to confirm the very probable presence of amino acids in the gas in this and other star-forming regions,” explained Iglesias-Groth.
There are several current theories about the building blocks of life found in space being responsible for life forming on Earth. One theory suggests that meteorites and comets delivered the necessary organic molecules to Earth, which then combined to form the first living organisms. Another theory suggests that the building blocks of life may have formed in space and were brought to Earth by dust and gas from interstellar clouds.
The discovery of prebiotic molecules in star-forming regions such as the Perseus Molecular Cloud, as described in the press release, supports the latter theory. These regions are considered to be the birthplaces of stars and planets, and the presence of prebiotic molecules in these regions suggests that the building blocks of life may be widespread in the universe.
The presence of these molecules in regions close to young star clusters like IC348 in the Perseus Cloud also suggests that they could have played a role in the formation of complex organic molecules on young planets. This could have contributed to the development of life on Earth and potentially on other planets in the universe.
Further research using advanced telescopes and instruments like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope may help to provide more insights into the distribution and abundance of prebiotic molecules in star-forming regions and their potential role in the origin of life.
The research is published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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