Sugar in Space
"The discovery of this sugar molecule in a cloud from which new stars are forming means it is increasingly likely that the chemical precursors to life are formed in such clouds long before planets develop around the stars," said Jan M. Hollis of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.
"This discovery may be an important key to understanding the formation of life on the early Earth," agreed Philip Jewell of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Conditions in interstellar clouds may, in some cases, mimic the conditions on the early Earth, so studying the chemistry of interstellar clouds may help scientists understand how bio-molecules formed early in our planet's history. In addition, some scientists have suggested that Earth could have been "seeded" with complex molecules by passing comets, made of material from the interstellar cloud that condensed to form the Solar System.
Left: Glycolaldehyde, the simplest sugar, compared to more complex sugar forms that occur naturally (i.e., the D-sugars). Glycolaldehyde is the only member of the sugar family yet detected in interstellar clouds. Note that the structure of glycolaldehyde is contained in both Ribose and Glucose. Ribose sugars make up the backbone of the ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule which is involved in protein synthesis in living cells. Glucose, the most common sugar, occurs in plant saps and fruits. Credit: NRAO.
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"Finding glycolaldehyde in one of these interstellar clouds means that such molecules can be formed even in very rarefied conditions," added Hollis. "We don't yet understand how it could be formed there. A combination of more astronomical observations and theoretical chemistry work will be required to resolve the mystery of how this molecule is formed in space."
"We hope this discovery inspires renewed efforts to find even more kinds of molecules, so that, with a better idea of the total picture, we may be able to deduce the details of the prebiotic chemistry taking place in interstellar clouds," Hollis said.
Above: The giant molecular cloud, known as Sagittarius B2 (North), as seen by the NSF's Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico. This is the cloud in which scientists using the 12 Meter Telescope detected the simple sugar molecule glycolaldehyde. This VLA image shows hydrogen gas in a region nearly 3 light-years across. The 12 Meter Telescope studied this region at much shorter wavelengths, which revealed the evidence of sugar molecules. CREDIT: R. Gaume, M. Claussen, C. De Pree, W.M. Goss, D. Mehringer, NRAO/AUI/NSF.
The NRAO 12 Meter Telescope used to detect the sugar molecule has been a pioneer instrument in the detection of molecules in space. Built in 1967, it made the first detections of dozens of the molecules now known to exist in space, including the important first discovery of carbon monoxide, now widely used by astronomers as a signpost showing regions where stars are being formed. It is scheduled to be closed at the end of July, in preparation for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, an advanced system of 64 radio-telescope antennas in northern Chile now being developed by an international partnership.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.Web Links
Scientists Discover Sugar in Space -- a Goddard Space Flight Center press release
Scientists Discover Sugar in Space -- NRAO press release, the same as the Goddard version but with more pictures.