For the first time, astronomers have detected the presence of complex organic molecules, the building blocks of life, in the protoplanetary disk surrounding a young star, suggesting once again that the conditions that spawned life in our solar system are not unique to just us.
Observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have shown that the protoplanetary disc surrounding MWC 480 is composed of both large amounts of methyl cyanide (CH3CN), a complex carbon-based molecule, and, a simpler version, hydrogen cyanide (HCN). These compounds are the same that would have been found in the early development of our own solar system, and are found frozen in comets reaching just past neptune in the Kuiper Belt. The findings were detailed in a study published in the journal Nature.
Cyanides, especially methyl cyanide, are important because they contain the carbon-nitrogen bonds necessary for the formation of amino acids, which are the foundation for proteins and the building blocks of life. Until now, it was unclear if these complex organic molecules commonly formed and survived in the energetic environment of a newly forming solar system, where shocks and radiation can easily break chemical bonds.
Lead author Karin Öberg from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said, “We now have even better evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the Universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own.” It is particularly intriguing, as the compositions found around MWC 480 are very similar to the compositions of comets found in our own solar system.
MWC 480 is located about 450 light years away in the Taurus star-forming region. It is about twice the mass of our Sun. It is relatively young at just about a million years old; hence, there has been no detectable planets forming yet, but given the composition, it is possible that an earth like planet can form along the habitable zone and create the conditions for life as all the ingredients are there.