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Life-Forming Chemicals Found in Distant Galaxy

2008-01-18 19:50:36 | Weblog

Life-Forming Chemicals Found in Distant Galaxy

Arp 220

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Arp 220 is an ultra-luminous galaxy and is so thick with stars that astronomers estimate supernovas, the suicidal explosions of young massive stars, are happening four times a year. Recently radio astronomers detected ingredients there for the building blocks of life.



Radio astronomers collecting data from a galaxy about 250 million light-years from Earth recently stumbled upon something intriguing: building blocks for life.

The astronomers were testing a new, highly sensitive science instrument at the Arecibo Observatory and set their sights on a distant galaxy that seldom disappoints: the ultra-luminous, dual-core Arp 220, a veritable factory for star production.

Arp 220 is so thick with stars that astronomers estimate supernovas, the suicidal explosions of young massive stars, are happening four times a year, as compared to our own relatively quiescent Milky Way galaxy, with a supernova about every half-century or so.

So it was with an open mind and no set agenda that astronomers collected data for about 30 hours last April using a device that analyzes multiple frequencies simultaneously. The instrument can detect chemicals that incoming radio waves have passed through before reaching the telescope's collecting dish.

What they found, however, was totally unexpected: methanimine and hydrogen cyanide.

The discovery, which was unveiled at the American Astronomical Society conference in Austin, Texas, last week, is significant because methanimine and hydrogen cyanide are building blocks for amino acids, the foundation of life.

"Methanimine has barely been seen in our own galaxy," Arecibo astronomer Christopher Salter told Discovery News. "Nobody had looked for it in deep space."

Typically, astronomers use their precious telescope time to search for specific molecules or atoms. The new wide-band spectrometer at Arecibo can digest 800 megahertz chunks of data at a time.

Salter and his colleagues didn't even realize what they had found until they looked up what chemicals matched the distinctive patterns found in their data.

"We found we had discovered methanimine," Salter said.

Scientists are now combing through their data to see if they can detect the simplest amino acid, glycine, which forms when methanimine and hydrogen cyanide are combined with water.

"The fact that we can observe these substances at such a vast distance means that there are huge amounts of them in Arp 220," said Emmanuel Momjian, a former Arecibo astronomer, now at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, N.M.

"It is very intriguing to find that the ingredients of life appear in large quantities where new stars and planets are born."

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