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Astronomers spot tantalizing large molecule near star with 'comet factory'

Astronomers spotted the largest molecule yet found in a planet-forming disk, which they say will tell us more about the origin of life.

The molecule, dimethyl, is a precursor to organic molecules like methane that in some cases may be indicative of life. The team also may have found methyl formate, which is deemed a "building block" to constructing even larger organic molecules.

The discovery was made around the young star Oph-IRS 48, with the sharp eyes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which is optimized to look at dust around young clouds. The star also hosts a "comet factory" where dust is trapped, allowing small worlds like comets and asteroids to form.

Related: 8 Cool Facts About the ALMA Telescope

This image from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) shows dust trapped in the disk surrounding the system Oph-IRS 48.  (Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Nienke van der Marel)

"From these results, we can learn more about the origin of life on our planet, and therefore get a better idea of the potential for life in other planetary systems," lead author Nashanty Brunken, a master's student at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, said in a statement (opens in new tab) released on Wednesday (March 8) by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). "It is very exciting to see how these findings fit into the bigger picture."

The disk surrounding Oph-IRS 48 has already been the subject of several studies looking at how dust clumps and eventually forms into small worlds like comets and asteroids; scientists believe that these worlds in turn form larger worlds like moons or planets.

Molecules are shown in the disc of Oph-IRS 48, a young star, in observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). (Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/A. Pohl, van der Marel et al., Brunken et al.)

The new observations mark the first time that scientists have identified dimethyl ether — or any other molecule containing nine atoms — in one of these disks. The researchers hope that the new results open the door to detecting other complex organic molecules in planetary disks.

"What makes this even more exciting is that we now know these larger complex molecules are available to feed forming planets in the disk," Alice Booth, an astrochemist also at Leiden Observatory. "This was not known before as in most systems these molecules are hidden in the ice."

The finding may point to the eventual formation of prebiotic molecules like amino acids or sugars, which assist with the building blocks of life. More studies into such molecules could show how prebiotic molecules work during the evolution of planets more generally.

A study (opens in new tab) based on the research will be published today (March 8) in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.