A team of international scientists has discovered a complex carbon molecule in a distant nebula that may hold clues to the origins of life.
This represents the first time a carbon compound has been discovered in the depths of space.
The findings were published in the journal Nature.
Researchers believe that photochemistry is the reason for the formation of the compound, known as methyl cation (CH3+), which was discovered in a small star’s protoplanetary disk — a rotating circumstellar disc of dust and/or dense gas surrounding a young star — about 1,350 light-years away in the Orion Nebula using NASA’s James Webb Telescope.
“This detection not only validates the incredible sensitivity of Webb but also confirms the postulated central importance of CH3+ in interstellar chemistry,” said Marie-Aline Martin-Drumel, a scientist in the study, according to NASA.
NASA officials said that the discovery of this compound beyond the solar system holds importance not only for its role in aiding the development of more complex bonds but also in the search for life beyond Earth.
All life on Earth is based on the element carbon and the bonds it forms.
The protoplanetary disk in which this compound was discovered surrounds a small red dwarf star named d203-506. D203-506’s system is being bombarded with copious amounts of ultraviolet radiation from younger stars in the surrounding area.
This radiation appears to have both complimentary and detrimental reactions with this compound. Although UV radiation typically destroys complex organic molecules, scientists theorize it may also be providing the energy necessary for this compound to form, which allows other complex versions to form.
Scientists, however, confirmed that the molecular composition of the disk differs from other protoplanetary disks, particularly in the lack of water molecules.
This discovery of a “crucial” element for life opens up the possibility that complex life like that found on Earth could exist beyond the planet or help explain the origins of life on the planet.
“This clearly shows that ultraviolet radiation can completely change the chemistry of a protoplanetary disk,” said Olivier Berné, lead author of the study, according to NASA. “It might actually play a critical role in the early chemical stages of the origins of life.”