Finding More Organics in Space
Scientists Detect Amino Acetonitrile near the Center of our Milky Way
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn have detected for the first time a molecule closely related to an amino acid: amino acetonitrile. The organic molecule was found with a 30 metre radiotelescope in Spain and two radio interferometers in France and Australia in the "Large Molecule Heimat", a giant gas cloud near the galactic centre in the constellation Sagittarius (Astronomy & Astrophysics, in press).
Starting from 1965, more than 140 molecular species have been detected in space, in interstellar clouds as well as in circumstellar envelopes. A large fraction of these molecules is organic or carbon-based. A lot of attention is given to the quest for so-called "bio"-molecules, especially interstellar amino acids. Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and therefore key ingredients for the origin of life, have been found in meteorites on Earth, but not yet in interstellar space.
The scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Bonn selected the "Large Molecule Heimat", as the source has been named by experts, and investigated a dense forest of 3700 spectral lines from complex molecules with the IRAM 30-metre telescope in Spain. Atoms and molecules emit light at very specific frequencies, which appear as characteristic lines in the radiation spectrum. By analyzing these spectral lines, astronomers can determine the chemical composition of cosmic clouds. The more complex a molecule is, the more possibilities it has to radiate its internal energy. This is the reason why complex molecules emit many spectral lines, which are very weak and therefore difficult to identify in the "line jungle".
"Finding amino acetonitrile has greatly extended our insight into the chemistry of dense, hot star-forming regions. I am sure we will be able to identify in the future many new, even more complex organic molecules in the interstellar gas. We already have several candidates!", says Karl Menten, director at the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy and head of the "Millimeter and Submillimeter" research group.
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