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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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  • Life (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:05PM (#43111795) Homepage Journal

    I have a feeling that if we could get out there and explore we'd find at least 'primitive' life is near ubiquitous. The precursors are all around, and given the vastness of the Universe there has got to be plenty of life out there. It is unfortunate that we might never leave our Solar System with meaningful exploratory tools, but I'm still hopeful. We probably won't know in our lifetime though.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Why would we never leave our solar system? We're already knocking on Mars' door...

      • Re:Life (Score:4, Informative)

        by Jamu ( 852752 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:40PM (#43112061)
        Which is just 4 light-minutes away. Voyager 1 is 17 light-hours away, and has taken 35 years to get that far. The next nearest star system is Proxima Centauri, and that is 4 light-years away...
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          There's a misrepresentation in your post. It is true that Voyager 1 is 17 light hours away and it has taken 35 years, yes, but that's not the point of Voyager 1. The mission of Voyager 1 wasn't to see how far it could get in 35 years. If we needed to get a craft 17 light hours from Earth in the fastest time possible it certainly wouldn't take 35 years, even with 1960s technology.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Gavagai80 ( 1275204 )
            Nonetheless, we don't have the capability to go significantly faster than the voyager probes. Consider New Horizons -- designed to go as fast as possible to the furthest reaches of the solar system.
            • by rossdee ( 243626 )

              Realistically we (humans, not just robotic probes) are not going to be going to other star systems until we invent/discover: Warp Drive/Hyperdrive/hyperspace/jumpgates/stargates/Alderson points/Warp points or [Insert your favorite FTL technology here]

              • Nope, it's far more simple than that, thanks to Einstein's discoveries. All we need is a ship that can produce a 1g thrust over a long time. This is still a big technological jump from where we are now, but it's well within the realms of known physics. With a 1g thrust we could be on the other side of the galaxy, 100,000 light years away, in just over 22 years of ship time. That's relatively easy, no pun intended, and doesn't require any fancy new physics. The Earth time for the journey will be around
                • > Nope, it's far more simple than that, thanks to Einstein's discoveries. All we need is a ship that can produce a 1g thrust over a long time ...

                  Sure. I've done the math. Theoretically, you'd reach the speed of light in about a year's time. But it won't happen and in fact, Einstein's "discoveries" were among the first to explain WHY it can't happen. :)

                  1. As you accelerate toward the speed of light (so-called "relativistic" speed), your mass approaches infinity. You reach a point where you can't generate

                  • We'll kill each other off before we even come close to interstellar space travel.
                  • 1. As you accelerate toward the speed of light (so-called "relativistic" speed), your mass approaches infinity. You reach a point where you can't generate enough reaction to "push" the ship any faster.

                    Incorrect. You can always push the ship faster because the relativistic mass never reaches infinity, it just asymptotically approaches is. Yes, it gets harder to accelerate the ship, but at no point does it become theoretically impossible.

                    Time passes more slowly for *you* on that ship, but that's not much

          • 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.
          • There's a misrepresentation in your post. It is true that Voyager 1 is 17 light hours away and it has taken 35 years, yes, but that's not the point of Voyager 1. The mission of Voyager 1 wasn't to see how far it could get in 35 years. If we needed to get a craft 17 light hours from Earth in the fastest time possible it certainly wouldn't take 35 years, even with 1960s technology.

            The Helios probes did set the record at 157,000 mph which is much faster than Voyager's 38,000 mph. However, Helios did not sustain that speed, while Voyager has. But even if a probe of sufficient size to do the job could sustain that speed, in 35 years, it would still be less than 3 light days away.

        • The nearest star system is Alpha Centauri. The nearest star is Proxima Centauri.

    • We probably won't know in this lifetime, but anything is possible.

  • Hey, wait a sec... (Score:5, Informative)

    by ibmleninpro ( 2859905 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:21PM (#43111913)
    I recognize this story...
    I'm on one of the graduate students on this project! Feel free to ask me anything if you're interested!
    Since the article didn't post a link to the paper (my #1 pet peeve as a scientist), here it is on arxiv: []
    • by ThorGod ( 456163 )

      Very cool, man, very cool.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      So how will this play into the fate of Green Bank?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        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.
    • So I'm not a biologist and am a little confused why discovering these molecules is a big deal, since we've already found amino acids in space. Is this just because it means that amino acids might be really more common than realize?
      • by rusty0101 ( 565565 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:47PM (#43112129) Homepage Journal

        It's not just finding amino acids. Yes, as yous say amino acids are have been detected before. the problem is that there are a lot of different amino acids, and only some of them are essential to the fundamental building blocks of life. What this research is showing is that they have detected some of the essential amino acids, rather than the general variety known about before. It's somewhat like the difference between knowing that there is carbon in interstellar space, and finding diamonds, graphine or bucky-tubes. Knowing that there is carbon there does not imply that you will find one of the specific forms, but if you find one of those forms, you can deduce that it is much easier to start from there as a building block for other things (presuming you know things that use them as building blocks.)

        Likewise just because the building blocks of life are in interstellar space doesn't mean that life is everywhere, just that when conditions are favorable, it's reasonable to presume that the amino acids necessary can show up.

        • Likewise just because the building blocks of life are in interstellar space doesn't mean that life is everywhere, just that when conditions are favorable, it's reasonable to presume that the amino acids necessary can show up.

          We hear this a lot about having the building blocks of life and amino acids and such (I'm not a scientist), so if it is known all the blocks that make life and theorized it's possible, how come we are not running experiments constantly pulsing electricity through millions of different combinations of these building blocks to see if we can jumpstart life ourselves in the lab (or are we)? Or has it happened and just not made the 'joe public' newscast? Stories such as this come across as taking for granted

          • by Anonymous Coward

            There is a lot of data available on that. I remember reading about at least 100 different experiments from Nat Geo and biology textbooks. It's out there and I'm tempted to say "google" but wikipedia is maybe a more direct alternative, start digging through sources. We've even created self replicating molecules at this point I think in a lab somewhere but don't cite me on that.

          • Abiogenisis [] (turn up your speakers), has been studied quite well, I believe (but cannot prove) the missing ingredient in the experiments is time.
            • > the missing ingredient is time

              Yep. But given that the age of the universe is about 14 billion years, and that it spent the first 8-9 billion years of that creating all of those chemicals (primarily via stellar nucleosynthesis -- i.e, supernovae), there's not a whole lot of time available, on a cosmic scale. Whatever finally ends up being proposed for abiogenesis will have to be a VERY efficient process.

              Finding the pre-biotic chemicals in stellar clouds is an important first step. This is amazing stuff.

              • Another problem in searching for life is that anything that is intelligent enough to start outputting radio transmissions will take time to evolve to that point. There may be quite a few advanced civilizations out there, but light only travels so fast.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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

      • 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).
    • How can you tell that the spectra you are observing is definitely something from the object being observed at that distance as opposed to an organic molecule in our Earth's atmosphere which is interposed between the observatory and the object being observed? [i apologize if this is a naive question; I am still in high school].
      • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:56PM (#43112183)

        The radio telescopes that are used technically do record a full "column" of signal in the path between here and the molecular cloud. They key is we assume the atmosphere is relatively uniform across the time of the measurement so the telescope actually moves and points away from the source to collect a "background". This allows us to remove any signal coming from the atmosphere.

        Additionally we can see the temperature these molecules are at. For this example the molecule is only sitting at a few K which is far too cold to be in the earths atmosphere (even the upper atmosphere).

      • I'm not an astronomer, but this is likely solved by atmospheric subtraction. The telescope gets pointed to a specific radio-quiet area in space, and everything that shows up get subtracted out. I don't know if this is the exact process (I worked on the laboratory part of this experiment, as I'm a chemist), but I'd wager it's pretty close to that.
        • re : (I worked on the laboratory part of this experiment, as I'm a chemist),
          Ah, so you measured the spectra of the organic compounds in the laboratory environment for comparison to the astronomical observations, eh? Very cool... Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question.
      • 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 CODiNE ( 27417 )

      How does this speak to the statistical probability of amino acids forming protein chains? What would the density of them be and in comparison to an earthly origin would there be greater or lesser odds?

      • by ibmleninpro ( 2859905 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @10:26PM (#43112387)
        It doesn't really resolve any of these issues. This is really a result about the formation of simple biomolecules, like glycine (in the case of ethanimine) or adenine (cyanomethanimine). In other words, this is a hint towards solving the mystery of why we have amino acids in the first place, and nothing towards figuring out the synthesis of more complex structures.
        • > It doesn't really resolve any of these issues.

          I'm reminded of a comment made to me once by one of your fellow chemists. This guy was sharp, had even published a few papers in the literature.

          I'm going from memory, but it went something like this: "you know," he said, "over in the Chemistry department, we're spending zillions of dollars, in state of the art laboratories, with tons of carefully-calibrated equipment, just to figure out how to synthesize a chemical from a sample obtained from nature.

          "And ye

    • You're on one of the students? Is he/she hot?

      Kidding aside, very cool. Nice work.

    • by Type44Q ( 1233630 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @11:36PM (#43112761)

      I'm on one of the graduate students on this project!

      I trust it's consensual? :p

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        >>I'm on one of the graduate students on this project!

        >I trust it's consensual? :p

        Do you think ibmleninpro would be able to post on /. at the same time if it wasn't consensual?

    • Any thoughts on the contributions of wandering comets passing between stars to the distribution of these substances over time? It's a contemporary question since the comet that's scheduled to just miss Mars (but Mars may pass through its halo and hence catch some of its composition) may be hyperbolic.
    • Very interesting. My specialty is mathematics and I am somewhat of a science critic, so I shouldn't have an opinion but that has never stopped me before.

      What OTHER complex chemicals are found in the dust clouds in the universe?

      While there is naturally an interest in detecting our own Earth-based type of life, I feel we can get distracted by DNA-centric prejudice and may be missing out on the chemical precursors of other types of life that may even predominate in the universe.

      As a meta-scientist I looked for

  • Fermi Paradox (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dcmcilrath ( 2859893 ) on Thursday March 07, 2013 @09:22PM (#43111921)
    The Fermi Paradox, this thing [], 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

      Not to argue with Adams, but it's more like the minute molecule of "peanut stuff" that causes some allergic kid to die when he inhaled it than a whole peanut, much less peanuts, plural.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by physburn ( 1095481 )
      May be it takes a very long time to evolve complex life, life was single celled for over a billion years, before multicellar life came about, may be that step is even rarer than we throught and earth just got lucky.
    • I have heard some serious claims that life is pretty ubiquitous in space dust but its not commonly accepted or known about. See conspiracy. There's now been several meteors that have made noise in the scientific community which are still hotly debated by people that care to. There has also been interesting spectroscopy from mars. The scientific data from viking is still interpretable as proof for life rather then dis-proof. Its just not enough data to say "Yes life for sure". Tons of blogs and articles roam

      • You seem to be claiming that there is ample evidence of extraterrestrial life, but it's covered up. If I misinterpreted your post, my apologies. If I did not, it's futile to respond, but consider this:

        There are tens of thousands of people working on various projects, in various capacities, that would have access to this evidence. *All of them* (and their wives) would have to keep their mouths shut in order for your conspiracy to work. I cannot even imagine which sets of different motivations must be necessa

  • See, no matter how hard I squint at it, the best I have seen in a galactic cloud is an giraffe being chased by a lion. Long back I could not get past bunny rabbits or ice cream cones. But by and by I got better and now I see more dynamic pictures in these clouds. Takes a lot of squinting though. But these guys are good. Way better than me! They saw a clue to the origin of life.

    Wait, are you thinking what I am thinking? Are they just teenagers with raging hormones who see images of "origin of life" in eve

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Yet more buzz words to entice funding. You could have all the cursors and pre-cursors of life themselves and it still wouldn't be life as we know it/define it. Just dig up any buried body and there you have it all, but yet it's not life, unless you know of some way to reanimate the dead? Do you know how to make zombies?
  • 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?
  • Molecules mean nothing. When y'all figure out how to use random methods to arrange ALL of the amino acids laevo-rotarily, we'll talk.
  • by bistromath007 ( 1253428 ) on Friday March 08, 2013 @01:18AM (#43113167)
    You'd think God would at least know better than to rely on cloud services. I bet he didn't even read the EULA.
  • by TMB ( 70166 ) on Friday March 08, 2013 @12:12PM (#43116601)

    To any of you who think this is cool science and want to make sure more of it gets done: The GBT is under very severe threat of shutting down. In the recent NSF Portfolio Review, it was recommended that given the "current" funding situation (this was last year), the NSF divest itself of certain observatories including Green Bank. That means the telescope will shut down, unless a private consortium (i.e. of universities) can scrape together enough money to take it over.

    Note also that the "current" funding situation referred to was even before the sequester, so the chances of getting the NSF to change their minds have dropped significantly - there is just not enough money in the budget. But please lobby your congressional representatives to restore funding for basic research if you think this is important!

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.