Astronomers discover complex organic matter in the universe

October 28, 2011

A spectrum of complex organics from the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory superimposed on an image of the Orion nebula, where these compounds are found (credit: NASA, C.R. O'Dell, S.K. Wong/Rice University)

Organic compounds of unexpected complexity exist throughout the universe, Prof. Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of the University of Hong Kong have discovered, suggesting that complex organic compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.

The organic substance they found contains a mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components that are so complex, 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.

Unidentified radiation from the universe

The researchers investigated an unsolved phenomenon: a set of infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space, and galaxies, known as “Unidentified Infrared Emission features.” From observations taken by the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang showed that the astronomical spectra have chemical structures that are much more complex that previously thought. 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, and ejecting it into the general interstellar space, the region between stars.

“Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions,” says Kwok. “Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening.”

Most interestingly, this organic star dust is similar in structure to complex organic compounds found in meteorites. Since meteorites are remnants of the early Solar System, the findings raise the possibility that stars enriched the early Solar System with organic compounds. The early Earth was subjected to severe bombardments by comets and asteroids, which potentially could have carried organic star dust. Whether these delivered organic compounds played any role in the development of life on Earth remains an open question.

Ref.: Sun Kwok & Yong Zhang, Mixed aromatic–aliphatic organic nanoparticles as carriers of unidentified infrared emission features, Nature, 2011; [DOI:10.1038/nature10542]