One of the more persuasive arguments in favor of the potential existence of life beyond Earth is that the well-known chemical building blocks of that life are found throughout the galaxy. These chemical components aren’t all present in all examined solar systems and planets, but they are common and behave in ways familiar to scientists here.
And when it comes elements and compounds found on distant planets but not found here, there just aren’t many. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist — some unstable compounds in interstellar space, for instance — but rather that the cosmos holds many surprises but none have involved extraterrestrial elements or compounds near planets or stars.
This is in large part the result of how elements are formed in the universe. Other than hydrogen and helium, all other elements are forged in the thermonuclear explosion of stars that have exhausted their supply of fuel. These massive explosions (supernovae) then shoot the newly-formed elements out into space where they can and do collect in gas and dust clouds that will form other new stars. They are spread throughout the disks that form around new stars and over time they become components of new planets in formation.
This galactic evolution includes the bonding together of carbon-based organic compounds — the building blocks of life as we know it. They are an essential component to any theory of a planet’s habitability and, while their presence in space and star nurseries has been known for some time, they have remained a subject of great interest but limited detailed knowledge.
That is why an international team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. set out to intensively study five disks forming around young stars to determine more precisely what organic compounds were present and available for objects developing into planets.
And the results are striking: The abundance of organic material detected was 10 to 100 times more than expected.
“These planet-forming disks are teeming with organic molecules, some of which are implicated in the origins of life here on Earth,” said team leader Karin Öberg. “This is really exciting; the chemicals in each disk will ultimately affect the type of planets that form and determine whether or not the planets can host life.”… Read more