Looks like NASA’s Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan may have over-estimated how long it would take to find extraterrestrial organisms. For the first time in the history of astronomy, scientists have discovered two complex organic molecules, which is vital to the formation of life as we know it, outside of our solar system. Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts actually found three forms of cyanide — specifically hydrogen cyanide (HCN), methyl cyanide (CH3CN), and cyanoacetylene (HC3N) — circling a star known as MWC 480. These are the same sorts of chemicals (and in the same concentrations!) that were present in comets orbiting our own solar system back when life here got its start. And while cyanide is super-duper toxic to living organisms, it’s absolutely necessary for life’s formation. In short, this discovery is a huge deal because it means that the seeds of life aren’t confined to Sol alone.
“We know that the solar system isn’t unique in its number of planets or abundance of water,” Harvard-Smithsonian astrochemist Karin Öberg said in a statement. “Now we know that we’re not unique in organic chemistry. From a life in the universe point of view, this is great news.”
The star’s practically a newborn (only a million years old or so) and is located in the Taurus constellation, just 450 light-years from Earth. While we have found the more basic HCN compounds elsewhere in the galaxy, this is the first time we’ve spotted its two more complicated cousins outside of our own solar system.
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