Sugar found in space around young star

A team of astronomers has spotted sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star, using the powerful telescope Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

This is the first time sugar been found in space around such a star, and the discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star.

The astronomers found molecules of glycolaldehyde — a simple form of sugar– in the gas surrounding a young binary star, with similar mass to the Sun, called IRAS 16293-2422.

Glycolaldehyde has been seen in interstellar space before, but this is the first time it has been found so near to a Sun-like star, at distances comparable to the distance of Uranus from the Sun in the Solar System. This discovery shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this system at the time of planet formation.

“In the disc of gas and dust surrounding this newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde, which is a simple form of sugar, not much different to the sugar we put in coffee,” explained Jes Jorgensen (Niels Bohr Institute, Denmark), the lead author of the paper.

“This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which — like DNA, to which it is related — is one of the building blocks of life,” Jorgensen said.

The high sensitivity of ALMA — even at the technically challenging shortest wavelengths at which it operates — was critical for these observations, which were made with a partial array of antennas during the observatory’s Science Verification phase.

“What it is really exciting about our findings is that the ALMA observations reveal that the sugar molecules are falling in towards one of the stars of 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,” said team member Cecile Favre (Aarhus University, Denmark).

“A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets? This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery,” concludes Jorgensen.

The work has been described in a paper to appear in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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