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: Finding hints of gravitational waves in the stars

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

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' ...

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 ...

Recommended for you

Gravitational waves according to Planck

11 hours ago

Scientists of the Planck collaboration, and in particular the Trieste team, have conducted a series of in-depth checks on the discovery recently publicized by the Antarctic Observatory, which announced last spring that it ...

Infant solar system shows signs of windy weather

11 hours ago

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have observed what may be the first-ever signs of windy weather around a T Tauri star, an infant analog of our own Sun. This may help ...

Finding hints of gravitational waves in the stars

18 hours ago

Scientists have shown how gravitational waves—invisible ripples in the fabric of space and time that propagate through the universe—might be "seen" by looking at the stars. The new model proposes that ...

How gamma ray telescopes work

19 hours ago

Yesterday I talked about the detection of gamma ray bursts, intense blasts of gamma rays that occasionally appear in distant galaxies. Gamma ray bursts were only detected when gamma ray satellites were put ...

The frequency of high-energy gamma ray bursts

20 hours ago

In the 1960s a series of satellites were built as part of Project Vela.  Project Vela was intended to detect violations of the 1963 ban on above ground testing of nuclear weapons.  The Vela satellites were ...

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.