The building blocks of life as we know it, organic molecules, can be elusive to catch in developing star systems. If we can get a glimpse of a young star system with these molecules, it will give us a snap shot of what our own Solar System looked like when it was first formed. Karen Oberg, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has led a group of researchers that confirmed the first finding of organic material surrounding a young star.
They detected the presence of two molecules around the star MWC 480, a star with a mass roughly twice that of our Sun located 455 light-years away. While there are no planets currently surrounding the star, there is a large quantity of cosmic gas and dust, the prerequisites for planet formation, which form a protoplanetary disk. The current state of the MWC 480 system is close to that of the Kuiper Belt, which is a formation of cold and very old asteroids orbiting the Sun, which scientists had previously used to model the early phases of the Solar System.
In our own Solar System organic molecules are found all over the place, on planets and moons and especially asteroids. For MWC 480, the molecules were found using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). The team located both methyl cyanide and hydrogen cyanide. While sounding dangerous at first mention, the two complex molecules contain bonds of carbon and nitrogen. These bonds are the basis for protein which in turn is the basis for life as we know it.
While interstellar gas clouds often contain these organic molecules, it was assumed that due to the intense heat and radiation from a young star that the bonds would likely not hold when in close proximity. The study found that the bond did in fact hold, and that there was a greater amount of the two cyanides than previously predicted. The implication is that they are able to form somewhat quickly within the protoplanetary disk.
If previous theories are correct, this discovery will support the hypothesis that our own Solar System was formed with dust and gas particles. Now that we know complex organic molecules can survive the power of a young sun, it is possible to extrapolate how the molecules ended up on asteroids and eventually, the Earth.
While you may not be able to seee the organic molecules, take a look at the stars in Aspen, Colorado’s clear-as-crystal starry sky: