Hunting from a distance of 27,000 light years, astronomers have discovered an unusual carbon-based molecule – one with a branched structure – contained within a giant gas cloud in interstellar space. Like finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack, astronomers have detected radio waves emitted by isopropyl cyanide. The discovery suggests that the complex molecules needed for life may have their origins in interstellar space. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as the ALMA Observatory, a group of radio telescopes funded partially through the National Science Foundation, researchers studied the gaseous star-forming region Sagittarius B2. Astronomers from Cornell, the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, and the University of Cologne describe their discovery in the September 26, 2014 issue of Science. Organic molecules usually found in these star-forming regions consist of a single “backbone” of carbon atoms arranged in a straight chain. But the carbon structure of isopropyl cyanide branches off, making it the first interstellar detection of such a molecule, says Dr. Rob Garrod, Cornell senior research associate at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. This detection opens a new frontier in the complexity of molecules that can be formed in interstellar space and that might ultimately find their way to the surfaces of planets, says Dr. Garrod. The branched carbon structure of isopropyl cyanide is a common feature in molecules that are needed for life – such as amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. This new discovery lends weight to the idea that biologically crucial molecules, like amino acids that are commonly found in meteorites, are produced early in the process of star formation – even before planets such as Earth are formed. Dr.
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