Astronomers from Denmark and the U.S. have found a simple type of sugar molecule that is a key ingredient in the chemical building blocks of life in the gases surrounding a young sun-like star.
Molecules of glycolaldehyde have been detected in interstellar space before but never so close to a star, the researchers said in a press release Wednesday.
The simple form of sugar was found about as far from the binary star, known as IRAS 16293-2422, as Uranus is from the sun in our solar system.
"In the disc of gas and dust surrounding this newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde, which is a simple form of sugar, not much different to the sugar we put in coffee," said Jes Jorgensen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, the lead author of a paper describing the find to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Glycolaldehyde, with a molecular structure of C2H4O2, is one of the ingredients of ribonucleic acid, or RNA, a compound related to DNA that is essential for the creation of life.
The fact that the molecules were found to be falling toward one of the two stars in the binary system suggests they could be involved in the formation of planets.
"The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction," said Cécile Favre of Aarhus University in Denmark, a member of the team that made the discovery.
The finding was made using the ALMA radio telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The telescopes was able to detect the radiation signatures of the chemical compounds evaporating off the rotating dust cloud surrounding the star, which is about 400 light years from Earth.
"A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets? This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere," said Jorgensen.