Distant galaxy holds key ingredients for life, astronomers report

Jan 15, 2008

Astronomers from Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, have detected for the first time the molecules methanimine and hydrogen cyanide -- two ingredients that build life-forming amino acids -- in a galaxy some 250 million light years away.

When combined with water, the molecules form glycene, the simplest amino acid and a building block of life on Earth.

The astronomy team, led by Arecibo astronomer Christopher Salter, announced the discovery Jan. 11 in a poster presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

The Arecibo astronomers focused on the distant galaxy Arp 220, an ultra-luminous starburst galaxy, because it forms new stars at a very high rate. They used the 305-meter, or 1,000-foot diameter, Arecibo radio telescope, the world's largest and most sensitive, to observe the galaxy at different frequencies. The observations, made in April 2007, were the first use of the 800 megahertz wide-band mode of the telescope's main spectrometer.

The molecules were found by searching for radio emission at specific frequencies. Each chemical substance has its own unique radio frequency, much like people have unique fingerprints.

"We weren't targeting any particular molecule, so we didn't know what we were going to find -- we just started searching, and what we found was incredibly exciting," said Tapasi Ghosh, an Arecibo astronomer.

"The fact that we can observe these substances at such a vast distance means that there are huge amounts of them in Arp 220," said Emmanuel Momjian, a former Arecibo astronomer, now at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, N.M. "It is indeed very intriguing to find that the ingredients of life appear in large quantities where new stars and planets are born."

In addition to Salter, Momjian and Ghosh, the other researchers included Arecibo astronomers Robert Minchin and Mikael Lerner; Barbara Catinella, a former Arecibo astronomer now at the Max Plank Institute for Astrophysics in Germany; and Mayra Lebron, a former Arecibo astronomer now at the University of Puerto Rico.

Source: Cornell University

Explore further: Swarm of microprobes to head for Jupiter

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The hidden galaxy in the zone of avoidance

Aug 11, 2011

There are some places astronomers dare not tread. One of the prime places is beyond the disk of our own galaxy where the numerous stars and clouds of dust along the line of sight make observations messy to ...

Radio-burst discovery deepens astrophysics mystery

Jul 10, 2014

The discovery of a split-second burst of radio waves by scientists using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico provides important new evidence of mysterious pulses that appear to come from deep in outer ...

Black hole trio holds promise for gravity wave hunt

Jun 25, 2014

The discovery of three closely orbiting supermassive black holes in a galaxy more than four billion light years away could help astronomers in the search for gravitational waves: the 'ripples in spacetime' ...

Recommended for you

Swarm of microprobes to head for Jupiter

3 hours ago

A swarm of tiny probes each with a different sensor could be fired into the clouds of Jupiter and grab data as they fall before burning up in the gas giant planet's atmosphere. The probes would last an estimated ...

A recoiling, supermassive black hole

8 hours ago

When galaxies collide, the central supermassive black holes that reside at their cores will end up orbiting one another in a binary pair, at least according to current simulations. Einstein's general theory ...

Chandra celebrates the International Year of Light

Jan 23, 2015

The year of 2015 has been declared the International Year of Light (IYL) by the United Nations. Organizations, institutions, and individuals involved in the science and applications of light will be joining ...

Why is Andromeda coming toward us?

Jan 23, 2015

I don't want to alarm you, but there's a massive galaxy heading our way and will collide with us in a few billion years. But aren't most galaxies speeding away? Why is Andromeda on a collision course with ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hibiscus
1.5 / 5 (2) Jan 16, 2008
So what they measured is 250 million years ago. If there is life over there, it could already be pretty intelligent by now :-)

Or maybe there is still only glycene?

Maybe we should give these researchers another billion ?

And they used an earth based telescope?

Maybe they just measured our own atmosphere.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.