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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Precursor molecules of life found in space

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Observatory

Astronomers have found evidence that the Orion nebula (a nearby stellar nursery) contains chemicals consistent with early life. The researchers used the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared (HIFI) on board the Herschel Space Observatory (launched in 2009) to detect infrared light coming from the Orion nebula. The light in turn was subjected to spectrum analysis, which told the scientists what kinds of molecules were present in the nebula.

Among the chemicals found were several molecules that are necessary precursors of life, including water, carbon monoxide, methanol and sulfur dioxide.


Spectrograph of data collected by Herschel. Peaks indicate the presence of the labeled molecules.
Image credit: ESA, HEXOS, HIFI Consortium.

To be clear, this does not indicate whether or not life exists in the far-flung reaches of space. It simply shows that it is not impossible for life to exist there. Actually finding life, if it exists, will be much trickier. Still, it’s nice to know that it could be out there.