Life's building blocks found around sun like our own

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Sugar molecules have for the first time been spotted in the gas surrounding a young sun-like star.

The discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers found molecules of glycolaldehyde - a simple form of sugar - in the gas surrounding a young binary star, with similar mass to the sun, called IRAS 16293-2422.

Glycolaldehyde's been seen in interstellar space before - but never so near to a sun-like star. The discovery shows for the first time that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this system at while planets were being formed.

"In the disc of gas and dust surrounding this newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde, which is a simple form of sugar, not much different to the sugar we put in coffee," says Jes Jørgensen  of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark.

"This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which - like DNA, to which it is related - is one of the building blocks of life."

Even more excitingly, the ALMA observations reveal that the sugar molecules are falling in towards one of the stars of the system - meaning that they're not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but are also going in the right direction.

"A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets?" says Jørgensen.

"This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery."