Baby planets marinate in a life-giving cyanide 'soup,' analysis reveals

A new study has found that the universe is brimming with molecules necessary for life. These results are based on the most detailed maps of chemical locations in gas and dust around newborn stars.
Stars are formed from huge clouds of dust and gas. These clouds collapse under their own weight to form disk-shaped structures. These disks heat up by friction and increasing pressure, until they ignite into fusion powered stars. Meanwhile, the surrounding matter slowly clumps together to form ever-larger pieces.

Live Science spoke with Karin berg, an astrochemist from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We know for some time that planets are formed in disks around young star and that these disks have molecules of interest to predict the future compositions" she said.

Related: Curiosity Rover discovers evidence of Mars past life may have been lost

A few years ago, berg and her colleagues decided to use the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a telescope in Chile that sees in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum, as a part of the Molecules with ALMA at Planet-forming Scales (MAPS) program. ALMA scientists believe that different chemicals vibrate differently due to their unique shapes and the bonds within them. These signatures can be captured by ALMA.

The team examined five protoplanetary disks that were between 1 million to 10 million years old. They are all located within a few hundred lightyears of Earth. "This means that they are in an active planet-forming epoch," berg stated.

MAPS not only determines the exact molecules found in protoplanetary disks, but also their location. "Planets may form at different distances from the star," berg stated. Therefore, it is important to understand what chemicals are available in each location for future planets.

A remarkable 20 papers from this vast mapping project will be published in a future special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. The first of these papers was available on arXiv's preprint server on September 15.

Berg said, "What's so amazing is that there are many pieces instead of one big answer." "I believe that all 20 papers contribute to the puzzle in some way."

One of her most fascinating discoveries was the distribution and abundance of a class known as cyanides. She said that hydrogen cyanide is the simplest member of the family and is often considered poisonous, but many theories about life's origins include a significant role for this class of chemical molecules.

"Seeing them in abundance means that planets are forming as the soup we'd love to see," berg said. This is to fuel the emergence and development of life.

She said that Cyanides were also concentrated in the inner and midplanes, or "MAPS" areas of the disks where they are expected to rise.

Berg said that such molecules can only form in low-oxygen environments with high levels of carbon. This means that planets will have carbon-rich atmospheres. This is another advantage for living things since carbon is the base of organic chemistry.

These results indicate that at most some of the basic building blocks of organic life may be found in other stellar systems. However, this doesn't mean that it is more likely that humans will find living organisms elsewhere.

Berg said that it was promising from an origin-of life point of view. "But there is still much to be done."

Scientists are still trying to determine what the recipe for life is.

Kathrin Altwegg (a planetary scientist at University of Bern in Switzerland) said that there has been much effort in the past to understand the chemistry of the clouds that give rise stars.

Altwegg explained to Live Science that there was a missing stage. This stage determined the chemistry of protoplanetary disks. The results of this project have helped fill in the gaps.

These findings suggest that complex chemical formation occurs well before the birth of stars or planets. This suggests that interstellar clouds are responsible for these molecules being common in space.

Original publication in Live Science