Life can't develop without it - and it's been discovered in space for the first time ever.
The search for life originating elsewhere in the universe has taken many forms, with astronomers searching for clues from liquid water to entire planets that fall within the “habitable zone” of their host star. But according to a report from Science Alert, researchers from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have made a discovery that provides scientists with a fresh new lead.
For the first time, astronomers have detected a complex organic molecule known as a chiral molecule in outer space. The molecule, propylene oxide in this instance, was detected in a massive cloud of gas called Sagittarius B2, lying roughly 390 light-years from the center of the Milky Way. The cloud is truly huge – it has a mass roughly 3 million times that of our own sun.
According to chemist Brett McGuire from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, “This is the first molecule detected in interstellar space that has the property of chirality, making it a pioneering leap forward in our understanding of how prebiotic molecules are made in the universe and the effects they may have on the origins of life.”
Chirality refers to the arrangement of atoms in a molecule; two asymmetric molecules may have a nearly identical composition, but are distinguishable by their own mirror images. Think of a left and a right hand grasping each other to form the perfect handshake – this property is critical to some of the processes that allow life to develop here on Earth.
A huge number of molecules involved with forming amino acids, proteins, enzymes and sugars have chiral properties, which is why the discovery is so important. The discovery that this property is present and possibly even abundant in molecules throughout the universe suggests that life could have possibly arisen somewhere other than on our own planet.
According to team member Brandon Carroll of the California Institute of Technology, “Propylene oxide is among the most complex and structurally intricate molecules detected so far in space. Detecting this molecule opens the door for further experiments determining how and where molecular handedness emerges, and why one form may be slightly more abundant than the other.”
A press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory describing the details of the study can be found here.