Distant galaxy holds key ingredients for life, astronomers report

January 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: How do you work out if a signal from space is a message from aliens?

Related Stories

Massive outburst in neighbor galaxy surprises astronomers

January 7, 2013

(Phys.org)—The surprising discovery of a massive outburst in a neighboring galaxy is giving astronomers a tantalizing look at what likely is a powerful belch by a gorging black hole at the galaxy's center. The scientists ...

The hidden galaxy in the zone of avoidance

August 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 say the least. ...

Giant hydrogen cloud spotted around the Triangulum Galaxy

May 12, 2016

(Phys.org)—While peering into the nearby Triangulum Galaxy known as M33, astronomers have detected what appears to be a giant cloud of hydrogen around it. According to research published online on May 5 on the arXiv pre-print ...

Scientists search for dark galaxies through the AGES

April 5, 2006

First results from the Arecibo Galaxy Environment Survey (AGES) suggest the discovery of a new dark galaxy. The AGES survey, which started in January 2006, is the most sensitive, large-scale survey of neutral hydrogen to ...

Recommended for you

Fast radio bursts may be firing off every second

September 21, 2017

When fast radio bursts, or FRBs, were first detected in 2001, astronomers had never seen anything like them before. Since then, astronomers have found a couple of dozen FRBs, but they still don't know what causes these rapid ...

1 comment

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.