Thursday, September 6, 2012

Eye Candy: ALMA Studies A Sweet Star!

Are you ready to take one sweet trip to the eye-candy shop? That's just what the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) did when a team of astronomers discovered simple sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young star. Similar to our Sun, the star cataloged as IRAS 16293-2422 and its sweet envelope herald the fact that the building blocks of life can be present when a solar system forms.

The detected molecules are very similar to what we use on the table. This simple form of sugar known as glycolaldehyde could be used in baking... Baking possible life into a forming planetary system, that is. While glycolaldehyde has been detected twice in space so far, this is the first time it has been documented around a binary star system. The sugar molecules aren't close enough to be browned by the suns themselves, but located away from the stars at roughly a Uranus distance. This means the correct chemical compounds needed to spark life likely exists at the time of planetary formation. However, sugar isn't the only thing ALMA discovered... signatures of complex organic molecules, including ethylene glycol, methyl formate and ethanol were also present.

“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,” explains Jes Jørgensen (Niels Bohr Institute, Denmark), the lead author of the paper. “This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which — like DNA, to which it is related — is one of the building blocks of life.”

According to the news release, the high sensitivity of ALMA — even at the technically challenging shortest wavelengths at which it operates — was critical for these observations, which were made with a partial array of antennas during the observatory’s Science Verification phase. Later this year, ALMA will go fully on-line by adding another 66 satellite dishes to improve her hearing. Even operating at a minimal capacity shows the huge potential of radio telescopes like Atacama.

“What it is really exciting about our findings is that the ALMA observations reveal that the sugar molecules are falling in towards one of the stars of the system,” says team member Cécile Favre (Aarhus University, Denmark). “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.”

What makes this discovery so exciting? Gas and dust clouds compress upon themselves to form new stars - a cold process. During this time, gas can solidify and deposit as ice upon the dust particles. These particles can then bond together to form complex molecules. However, once the star forms in this rotating mass, it heats the interior to roughly room temperture - an action which destroys the chemically complex molecules. The resulting return to gas then emits a specific form of radiation and radio waves which can be detected and studied by sophisticated radio telescopes like ALMA.

Located at about 400 light-years away, this sweet binary star system is close enough to be an excellent target for studying the molecules and chemistry around young stars. Thanks to the capabilities of telescopes like ALMA, researchers have the chance to study intricate details located in the gas and dust envelopes which could be forming planetary systems.

"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, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery,” concludes Jes Jørge.

One lump or two?

Original Story Source: ESO News Release. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Calçada (ESO) & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team.

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