Not only have researchers recently found water worlds and exoplanets in the habitable zone and an exoplanet with an atmosphere, but now the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile has detected “the biological basis for life as we know it” in a burgeoning star system already shown to also contain simple sugars.
The three-star system is called IRAS 16293-2422 (pictured above), and it’s 400 light-years from Earth. In addition to the previously-detected simple sugars, we now know the star system contains methyl isocyanate, a complex organic molecule which is essential to forming peptides and amino acids which in turn build proteins. It’s been described as “a chemical building block of life.”
This is the first time this prebiotic molecule has been found near a “solar-type protostar” (meaning the type of young star from which our own Solar System developed). Studying this system could shed new insight into how our own planet formed. The discovery was detailed in two papers published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, one co-authored by Neil Ligterink and Audrey Coutens and the other co-authored by Rafael Martín-Doménech and Víctor M. Rivilla. The latter authors said, “We are particularly excited about the result because these protostars are very similar to the sun at the beginning of its lifetime, with the sort of conditions that are well suited for Earth-sized planets to form.”
One of the authors of the first paper, Neil Ligterink, has also found methyl isocyanate forming in cold environments (like outer space), suggesting this building block of life is, in his words, “likely to be present near most new young solar-type stars.”
Here’s the photo of IRAS 16293-2422 again, with the circle denoting where methyl isocyanate was found, and the insert showing its molecular structure.