European Researchers Discover Complex Molecules in Space

They join a long row of other similar compounds

  Ethyl formate molecule model, which depicts the kind that exists in space
It would appear that the only things that remain to be discovered in space by astronomers are amino-acids, since just about every other complex compound has already been identified. Speaking at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science meeting, held in the UK, a team of researchers have announced that ethyl formate and n-propyl cyanide have been identified in the thick layers of gas that surround a newly formed star in the Sagittarius B2 region of the Milky Way, the BBC reports.

The two compounds, which are part of different chemical classes – esters and alkyl cyanides – have been identified by analyzing spectrum readings of the star. Each type of atom and class of molecule emits its own individual type of radiation, which shows on spectrum charts as “spikes.” The intensity and location of these spikes are the factors that lead experts around the world to say for sure if a certain substance exists in the analyzed cosmic formation or not.

“The difficulty in searching for complex molecules is that the best astronomical sources contain so many different molecules that their 'fingerprints' overlap, and are difficult to disentangle,” expert Arnaud Belloche, based at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, in Bonn, Germany, explained.

“Larger molecules are even more difficult to identify because their fingerprints are barely visible: their radiation is distributed over many more lines that are much weaker,” University of Cologne researcher Holger Mueller added.

“There is no apparent limit to the size of molecules that can be formed by this process – so there's good reason to expect even more complex organic molecules to be there, if we can detect them,” Cornell University Astrochemist Robin Garrod, from Ithaca, New York, US, argued.

Studies have thus far shown that these complex chains of molecules are built step-by-step, so it would stand to reason then that the complexity of these compounds will grow over time, until the basic building blocks of life, amino-acids, are formed and end up on a planet or asteroid with the right conditions.

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By    21 Apr 2009, 14:51 GMT