Astrochemistry: November 2011

Sweet Spots for Galactic Organics

Scientists from NAI's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Team have compiled years of research to help locate areas in outer space that have extreme potential for complex organic molecule formation. The scientists searched for methanol, a key ingredient in the synthesis of organic molecules that could lead to life. Their results have implications for determining the origins of molecules that spark life in the cosmos.

The findings appear in the Nov. 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal in a paper titled "Observational constraints on methanol production in interstellar and preplanetary ices." The work is a collaboration between researchers at Rensselaer, NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, and Ohio State University.

"Methanol formation is the major chemical pathway to complex organic molecules in interstellar space," said the lead researcher of the study and director of the NASA-funded center, Douglas Whittet of Rensselaer. If scientists can identify regions where conditions are right for rich methanol production, they will be better able to understand where and how the complex organic molecules needed to create life are formed. In other words, follow the methanol and you may be able to follow the chemistry that leads to life.

Using powerful telescopes on Earth, scientists have observed large concentrations of simple molecules such as carbon monoxide in the clouds that give birth to new stars. In order to make more complex organic molecules, hydrogen needs to enter the chemical process. The best way for this chemistry to occur is on the surfaces of tiny dust grains in space, according to Whittet. In the right conditions, carbon monoxide on the surface of interstellar dust can react at low temperatures with hydrogen to create methanol (CH3OH). Methanol then serves as an important steppingstone to formation of the much more complex organic molecules that are required to create life. Scientists have known that methanol is out there, but to date there has been limited detail on where it is most readily produced.