Issue Date: January 14, 2008
Organic Red Goo Found Outside Solar System
Collections of large organic molecules that form a reddish goo, seen in our solar system in places such as the surface of Titan, have now been spotted in a planet-forming disk of dust surrounding a star 220 light-years away (Astrophys. J. Lett., DOI: 10.1086/527546). These molecules, dubbed "tholins" by the late astronomer Carl Sagan from the Greek word for muddy, couldn't exist on Earth???oxygen would destroy them. But in the environment of outer space, ultraviolet light interacting with compounds such as methane or ethane could produce tholins, which are thought to be biomolecule precursors. The newly sighted compounds were observed with the Near-Infrared Camera & Multi-Object Spectrometer aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. That these molecules exist in a system where planets are forming implies they might also exist on nascent planets. "If we see this kind of spectrum around other disks, we could be pretty confident that this is a common occurrence," says John H. Debes of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, one of the astronomers who made the discovery.
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