Article image

New molecule detected in space where stars are born

Space is a never-ending source of fascination for us Earthlings. From the twinkle of stars to swirling galaxies, there’s always something new to discover. Scientists at MIT recently announced the discovery of a new space molecule in the dust clouds where stars are born.

Molecules in space

Space is not just an empty void; it’s filled with diverse chemical compounds. It contains simple life-essential molecules like water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Additionally, space harbors more complex organic molecules, some similar to industrial solvents.

The interactions of compounds in the interstellar medium are intriguing. They transform in ways that may reveal how life’s building blocks originated. Interestingly, these processes could provide clues about the emergence of life itself.

Space experts hunt for new molecule

A research team at MIT, led by Professor Brett McGuire, is actively studying the molecular composition of the vast interstellar clouds where stars and planetary systems form. This work aims to answer fundamental questions about the chemical processes that occur during these formative stages.

“Our group tries to understand what molecules are present in regions of space where stars and solar systems will eventually take shape,” explained Zachary T.P. Fried, a graduate student in the McGuire group and the lead author of the publication.

“This allows us to piece together how chemistry evolves alongside the process of star and planet formation. We do this by looking at the rotational spectra of molecules, the unique patterns of light they give off as they tumble end-over-end in space.”

Spectral signature

Understanding chemical environments at early stages is essential. The molecules in these environments affect the properties of forming planets and their ability to support life.

The MIT team uses powerful telescopes to observe electromagnetic radiation from deep space molecules. Each molecule interacts with light uniquely, creating a distinct spectral signature. This signature helps identify the molecule.

The research process begins by selecting a target molecule. Scientists analyze the molecule in a laboratory setting to precisely determine its spectral signature. They then use telescopes to scan star-forming regions, searching for a match between the laboratory-derived signature and the telescopic observations. A positive match confirms the presence of the target molecule within the distant interstellar cloud.


In 2023, an AI-driven computer program played a key role in astronomical research. It identified a molecule called 2-methoxyethanol as a promising target for observation. This molecule is a complex organic compound, not commonly found in everyday products.

“There are a number of ‘methoxy’ molecules in space, like dimethyl ether, methoxymethanol, ethyl methyl ether, and methyl formate, but 2-methoxyethanol would be the largest and most complex ever seen,” said Fried.

After collaborating with global scientists, the MIT team predicted the molecule’s spectral signature. They then embarked on an intensive search effort. To detect the faint signals emitted by molecules in distant space, they utilized the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a state-of-the-art international observatory located in Chile’s high-altitude Atacama Desert.

ALMA’s exceptional sensitivity and resolution allow astronomers to probe the depths of the universe in search of even the most subtle molecular emissions. The team meticulously analyzed the vast dataset generated by ALMA, searching for the specific spectral pattern associated with 2-methoxyethanol. 

“Ultimately, we observed 25 rotational lines of 2-methoxyethanol that lined up with the molecular signal observed toward NGC 6334I (the barcode matched), thus resulting in a secure detection of 2-methoxyethanol in this source,” said Fried.

“This allowed us to then derive physical parameters of the molecule toward NGC 6334I, such as its abundance and excitation temperature. It also enabled an investigation of the possible chemical formation pathways from known interstellar precursors.”

Significance of new space molecule

The vast clouds of gas and dust where stars are born act as complex chemical environments. Within these clouds, a diverse array of molecules exist, ranging from simple compounds to larger, more intricate structures.

These molecules represent the fundamental building blocks from which planets, asteroids, and potentially even the precursors to life can form. The presence of increasingly complex molecules within these regions suggests a wider range of possibilities for the types of environments that can develop within emerging planetary systems.

The discovery of 2-methoxyethanol, a relatively large and complex organic molecule, highlights the surprising chemical processes that can occur in the seemingly harsh conditions of deep space. This discovery suggests that even in the coldest depths of the cosmos, the conditions exist to create molecules of significant complexity.

“Continued observations of large molecules and subsequent derivations of their abundances allows us to advance our knowledge of how efficiently large molecules can form and by which specific reactions they may be produced,” said Fried.

“Additionally, since we detected this molecule in NGC 6334I but not in IRAS 16293-2422B, we were presented with a unique opportunity to look into how the differing physical conditions of these two sources may be affecting the chemistry that can occur.”

The study is published in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day