Magazine article Science News

Cyanides Signal Complex Chemistry: Biomolecule Precursors Found in Disk around Young Star

Magazine article Science News

Cyanides Signal Complex Chemistry: Biomolecule Precursors Found in Disk around Young Star

Article excerpt

Cyanide shows up in apple seeds, toxicology reports and now a planetary nursery encircling a young star. Compounds found in a planet-forming disk suggest that the brew of organic compounds in asteroids and comets around our sun might also be common in other solar systems.

A vapor of hydrogen cyanide, methyl cyanide and cyanoacetylene swirls around the star MWC 480, about 460 light-years away in the constellation Auriga. The molecules, possible precursors to substances needed for life, appear in abundances similar to those found in local comets, report astrophysicist Karin Oberg of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and colleagues in the April 9 Nature.

"One of the existential questions is how unique our solar system is," says Oberg. Now that we know planets are common around other stars, the next step "is to figure out how unique our chemistry is."

Oberg and colleagues used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile to detect radio waves emitted by the cyanide molecules. Oberg's team mapped cyanide abundances around MWC 480 at distances from the young star that are about 30 to 100 times farther than Earth is from the sun. The team figured this was a region where comets probably form.

"People used to say that disks inherited their chemical composition from the interstellar medium and ... that's the end of the story," says Joan Najita, an astrophysicist at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson. …

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