Aliens more likely than thought as study finds ‘raw ingredients’ of life throughout space

Alien life: 'Maybe life out in the universe' says astronomer

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The analysis of the unique fingerprints came from light emitted from material surrounding young stars. Researchers at the University of Leeds have said the basic chemical conditions that created life on Earth could potentially exist elsewhere in the galaxy. They identified the large organic molecules in protoplanetary disks that circled newly formed stars.

A similar kind of disk would have once surrounded the Sun and lead to the formation of the planets in our Solar System.

The researchers said the presence of these molecules is significant because they are “stepping-stones” between more simple carbon-based molecules like carbon monoxide, which is plentiful in space, and more complex molecules that are needed for life to exist.

The team of researchers consisted of 16 international astrophysicists who focus on studying the existence, location and abundance of the precursor molecules needed to form life.

Dr John Ilee, Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and study leader, said: “These large complex organic molecules are found in various environments throughout space.

“Laboratory and theoretical studies have suggested that these molecules are the ‘raw ingredients’ for building molecules that are essential components in biological chemistry on Earth, creating sugars, amino acids and even the components of ribonucleic acid (RNA) under the right conditions.”

“However, many of the environments where we find these complex organic molecules are pretty far removed from where and when we think planets form.

“We wanted to understand more about where exactly, and how much of, these molecules were present in the birthplaces of planets – protoplanetary disks.”

The ‘Molecules with ALMA at Planet-forming Scales’ (MAPS) programme was used to collect data from the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile.

ALMA was able to detect extremely faint signals from the molecules in the very coldest regions of outer space.

It used a network of 60 antennas to detect the signals from the molecules, and each molecule gives off light at uniquely different wavelengths producing a distinct spectral ‘fingerprint’.

What the fingerprints do is allow scientists to identify the presence of the molecules and investigate their specific properties.

Dr Walsh said: “The power of ALMA has allowed us to measure the distribution and composition of material that is actively building planets around nearby young stars for the first time. 

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“The telescope is powerful enough to do this even for large complex molecules that are precursors for life.”

Dr Ilee added: “If we are finding molecules like these in such large abundances, our current understanding of interstellar chemistry suggests that even more complex molecules should also be observable.

“We’re hoping to use ALMA to search for the next stepping stones of chemical complexity in these disks.

“If we detect them, then we’ll be even closer to understanding how the raw ingredients of life can be assembled around other stars.”

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