Life outside earth more likely after sugar cloud found in outer space
Source: PA | Published: Saturday June 17, 7:30 AM
LONDON - Sugar has been discovered in a giant gas cloud near the centre of the galaxy, it was disclosed today, boosting chances of life existing outside earth.
What they detected is glycolaldehyde - a simpler molecular cousin of the sugar you put in coffee and on cornflakes.
The eight-atom carbon, oxygen and hydrogen molecule is just a short step away from more complex sugars associated with life, such as ribose and glucose.
Ribose is a building block of nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA which carry the genetic code of living organisms. Glucose, the sugar found in fruit, is an energy source for living things.
Scientists using the 12-metre radio telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, found the sugar 26,000 light years away in a huge interstellar cloud of gas and dust close to the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
Such clouds, often many light-years across, are the material from which new stars are formed.
Within the clouds, complex chemical reactions occur over hundreds of thousands or millions of years.
Dr Jan Hollis, from Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, who worked on the observations, said: "The discovery of this sugar molecule in a cloud from which new stars are forming means it is increasingly likely that the chemical precursors to life are formed in such clouds long before planets develop around stars."
Some scientists have suggested that Earth was 'seeded' with complex molecules by comets made from material from the interstellar cloud which condensed to form the Solar System.
So far about 120 different molecules have been discovered in interstellar clouds. Most are very simple, and only a few have eight or more atoms.
Dr Hollis said: "Finding glycolaldehyde in one of these interstellar clouds means that such molecules can be formed even in very rarified conditions. We don't yet understand how it could be formed there.
"A combination of more astronomical observations and theoretical chemistry work will be required to resolve the mystery of how this molecule formed in space."
The discovery was made by detecting faint radio emissions from the sugar molecules in the cloud.
Molecules rotate, and as they change from one rotational energy state to another, they emit radio waves at precise frequencies. These form a unique 'fingerprint' scientists can use to identify the molecule.
Glycolaldehyde was identified by detecting six frequencies of radio emission in a region of the electromagnetic spectrum between microwaves and infrared radiation.
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