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Space Science

Clues of Life's Origins Found In Galactic Cloud 80

astroengine writes "Finding things like amino acids in space directly is a difficult business. So, instead of finding them directly, a team using West Virginia's Green Bank Telescope, led by Anthony Remijan, discovered two other molecules – cyanomethanimine and ethanamine — both of which are precursor molecules. In other words, these molecules are the early steps in the chain of chemical reactions that go on to make the stuff of life. The researchers found these molecules near the center of the Milky Way inside a hulking interstellar cloud known as Sagittarius B2 (Sgr B2), spanning 150 light-years in size, up to 40 times as dense as any other cloud the Milky Way has to offer."
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Clues of Life's Origins Found In Galactic Cloud

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  • Fermi Paradox (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dcmcilrath ( 2859893 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:22PM (#43111921)
    The Fermi Paradox, this thing [wikipedia.org], says that we should not only have encounted "life" by now, but we should have encountered life at least as complex as ours over and over again by now.

    Kinda creepy to think about the endless possibilities out there. To quote Douglas Adams: "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space"
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:53PM (#43112161)

    We've found amino acids in a comet yet but thats only 1 instance in our local area (glycine in a comet) where we already know life exists. The question now is understanding how these molecules got there, can the others be produced, and how abundant can we expect them to be.

    The chances of detecting the full amino acid by IR or radio astronomy is very slim unless they were very very high in abundance(due to their "large" size and large number of species in the sample) thus in order to understand if they are actually there we are forced to search for smaller more abundant molecules so that we can create and accurate chemical model that represents the chemistry of space. Right now those models are off by orders of magnitude so finding a precursor in the line to another amino acid can be rather exciting. Right now thats as close as we are to seeing/[identifying] a biologically relevant molecule outside our solar system.

  • by ibmleninpro ( 2859905 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @10:22PM (#43112367)
    I'm not one to really speculate on this, since I'm a spectroscopist, not an astrobiologist, but I'll give it a shot. There is a BIG difference chemically (and temporally) between what we detect in clouds in star-forming regions and what we detect on comets or any kind of interstellar surface. There's definitely a cause-and-effect thing going on here, but the real gap in knowledge is what's the mechanism to go from cloud consitutents to cometary material (then obviously to planetary surfaces).

    What's really interesting in the context of chemistry is the chemical or physical mechanism for generating complex molecular substance in an early protoplanetary system (either in a cloud, or a disk around a young star, or whatever). We can't really attempt to recreate the conditions of space -- we can do cold, we can do fairly low pressures (though obviously not as low as interstellar space), we can make stuff on surfaces, we can even bombard it with an intense and high-energy photons -- but it's mostly just simple models for the intense conditions of a star forming region.

    Most of the research does point to the conclusion that most of the complex organic material gets formed on surfaces of various ices or grains -- it's really the only thermodynamically viable way of forming stuff at such extreme conditions. But how do we probe this spectroscopically? It turns out spectroscopy on surfaces kind of sucks (no offense to surface scientists) -- the absorptions are broad and fairly uncharacteristic, especially on a surface with a potentially complex mixture of molecules of both high and low abundance. It turns out the best way to get resolution is to go to gas-phase. Problem here is that it's damn cold! Complex stuff can't get formed sub-20 K temperatures. But we do see stuff, like this molecule, that give us some sense of what's really going on. There's no way to detect whether or not this stuff is being made on ices or grains and then getting heated off by the absorption of a photon, or whatever, but it's likely the case (especially since there is experimental evidence of ethanimine and cyanomethanimine being formed on cold ice surfaces).

    Amino acids (and nucleic acids) might be a lot more abundant than we know. But it's likely this stuff sticks to the ices and grains, or gets formed a lot later in the star formation cycle. That being said, finding these molecules that are studied precursors to major biomolecules is a good sign that the field's on the right track (for the most part. There's a lot of old ideas in the field, and with the advent of the next generation of radio astronomy starting this decade, I think we'll start to see a lot more results like this).
  • by ibmleninpro ( 2859905 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @10:31PM (#43112415)
    I should also add that it's possible to even map out a molecule's "location" in a region of space. We've done some work with spatially-resolved studies of nitrile-containing molecules (which is where these discoveries came out of) where you can see the specific regions of the cloud where these molecules are most abundant. You can learn a ton about the formation of these molecules from this, since the cloud is actually quite a chaotic beast -- there are cold patches, like temperatures below 20 K, then there are patches where the temperature is 100 K or even more. The chemistry is very drastically different in each of these areas, and learning about which molecules show up where tells us a ton about molecular formation processes in a star-forming region.
  • by ibmleninpro ( 2859905 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @10:33PM (#43112427)
    Sadly none at all, I don't think. It's a really wonderful telescope, a hidden scientific treasure of the Americas. I hope it goes to private control, like how SRI runs Arceibo now. But ALMA is the big boy now (not a bad thing, ALMA will be incredible when it's fully up and running), and what ALMA wants, ALMA (mostly) gets.
  • Why aminoacids? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RicardoKAlmeida ( 2790435 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:09PM (#43112621)
    Life on Earth is made of strings. The beads are amino acids, nucleic acids. Why acids? Is there a thermodynamic reason this specific organization is the most likely to become alive? Or it's just Earth's environment 3 billion years ago, the specific context that determined amino acids and nucleic acids as the building blocks? A local set of constraints determines the most likely solution. How many different sets of constraints are there in the Universe? How many different solutions they determine?
  • Re:Life (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AchilleTalon ( 540925 ) on Friday March 08, 2013 @02:45AM (#43113525) Homepage
    Even if we could go a thousands times faster than Voyagers, this won't be enough. Also, a long trip in the interstellar space imply no solar energy and nuclear energy sources are limited to about 40 years. Just think about are current nuclear reactors which need major upgrade after 25-30 years of operation. And massive shielding against cosmic rays will be needed since life in such a vessel will be constantly bombarded by cosmic rays at high energy for decades if not centuries. A single round-trip of less than two years to Mars may already be a problem for humans. Sorry, but Hollywood isn't the best place to seek for advice on deep space exploration.

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