Credit: NASA, C.R. O'Dell and S.K. Wong
Organic compounds appear to be synthesized without life forms.
Prof. Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of the University of Hong Kong show that an organic substance commonly found throughout the Universe contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components. The compounds are so complex that their chemical structures resemble those of coal and petroleum. Since coal and oil are remnants of ancient life, this type of organic matter was thought to arise only from living organisms. The team's discovery suggests that complex organic compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.
The researchers investigated an unsolved phenomenon: a set of infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space, and galaxies. These spectral signatures are known as "Unidentified Infrared Emission features". For over two decades, the most commonly accepted theory on the origin of these signatures has been that they come from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules. From observations taken by the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang showed that the astronomical spectra have features that cannot be explained by PAH molecules. Instead, the team proposes that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex. By analyzing spectra of star dust formed in exploding stars called novae, they show that stars are making these complex organic compounds on extremely short time scales of weeks.