A team of European and American astronomers have found signs of a simple sugar molecule, glycolaldehyde, in a gas cloud surrounding a young sun-like star. Located 400 light-years away, it's the first time that sugar has been located around such a celestial object — and this indicates that the early building blocks of life are present when planets start to form around stars.
To make their finding, lead researcher Jes Jørgensen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). It's an extremely sensitive radio wave receiving device that's capable of capturing exceptionally short wavelengths, and without this feature the discovery would have been impossible.
By using ALMA, the researchers were able to pick up on the characteristic radiation signatures emitted by the sugar molecules. ALMA was able to capture these signatures from radio waves, which the researchers were then able to map and identify.
This is not the first time that glycolaldehyde has been found floating in the depths of interstellar space — but it is the first time that it has been spotted near a sun-like star at distances comparable to the distance of Uranus from the Sun in our solar system. As a result, the discovery is a strong indication that the chemical compounds required to sustain life are already in existence at the time of planet formation.
Specifically, glycolaldehyde is a key component to RNA, which like DNA, is an integral precursor to life.
Moreover, the gas containing the sugar molecules is falling in towards one of the stars in the system. "The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction," Jørgensen noted through a release.
Moving forward, the astronomers are hoping to gain an understanding of just how complex these molecules can get before they're incorporated into new planets — an important clue about the early composition of new planets, and the chemical compounds they carry that could eventually ignite the processes of life.
The entire study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters. I'll update the link once the paper has been published online.
Image: ESO/L. Calçada & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team.