Life-Enabling Molecules Spotted in Orion Nebula

The chemical fingerprints of potentially life-buildingmolecules have been detected in the Orion nebula by Europe's Herschel SpaceObservatory.

The Orionnebula is a nearby stellar nursery, brimming with gas, dust and infantstars. 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 moleculeformation are not well understood.

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

By sifting through the pattern of spikes in Orion nebula'slight signature, or spectrum, astronomers have identified a few commonmolecules 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 aparticular molecule.

"This HIFI spectrum, and the many more to come, willprovide a virtual treasure trove of information regarding the overall chemicalinventory and on how organics form in a region of active star formation. Itharbors the promise of a deep understanding of the chemistry of space once wehave the full spectral surveys available," said Edwin Bergin of theUniversity of Michigan and the principal investigator of the HEXOS Key Programon Herschel.

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

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

Built by the European Space Agency, Herschel launched in May2009 on a mission to scan the universe in the far-infrared range of thespectrum. The observatory is expected to last until 2012 and has the largestsingle mirror ever built for a space telescope.

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