The chemical fingerprints of potentially life-building molecules have been detected in the Orion nebula by Europe's Herschel Space Observatory.

The Orion nebula is a nearby stellar nursery, brimming with gas, dust and infant stars. It is known to be one of the most prolific chemical factories in space, although the full extent of its chemistry and the pathways for molecule formation are not well understood.

Researchers have used one of Herschel's instruments, which looks at the cosmos in the far infrared wavelengths of light, to provide more insight into how organic molecules form in space.

By sifting through the pattern of spikes in Orion nebula's light signature, or spectrum, astronomers have identified a few common molecules that are precursors to life-enabling molecules, including water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, methanol, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur oxide and sulfur dioxide. Each spike in the spectrum corresponds to a particular molecule.

"This HIFI spectrum, and the many more to come, will provide a virtual treasure trove of information regarding the overall chemical inventory and on how organics form in a region of active star formation. It harbors the promise of a deep understanding of the chemistry of space once we have the full spectral surveys available," said Edwin Bergin of the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of the HEXOS Key Program on Herschel.

Because of Herschel's unique infrared observing abilities, this new spectrum is already an improvement on previous one's taken of the Orion nebula.

"We obtained this spectrum in a few hours and it already beats any other spectrum, at any other wavelength, ever taken of Orion," said Frank Helmich, Herschel HIFI principal investigator of SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

Built by the European Space Agency, Herschel launched in May 2009 on a mission to scan the universe in the far-infrared range of the spectrum. The observatory is expected to last until 2012 and has the largest single mirror ever built for a space telescope.