Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Astronomers discover complex organic matter exists throughout the universe

Date:
October 27, 2011
Source:
The University of Hong Kong
Summary:
Researchers from Hong Kong report that organic compounds of unexpected complexity exist throughout the Universe. They indicate that an organic substance commonly found throughout the Universe contains a mixture of aromatic and aliphatic components. The results suggest that complex organic compounds are not the sole domain of life but can be made naturally by stars.

A spectrum from the Infrared Space Observatory superimposed on an image of the Orion Nebula where these complex organics are found.
Credit: Image courtesy of The University of Hong Kong / Background: Hubble image courtesy of NASA, C.R. O'Dell and S.K. Wong (Rice University)

Astronomers report in the journal Nature that organic compounds of unexpected complexity exist throughout the Universe. The results suggest that complex organic compounds are not the sole domain of life but can be made naturally by stars.

Related Articles


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.

Not only are stars producing this complex organic matter, they are also ejecting it into the general interstellar space, the region between stars. The work supports an earlier idea proposed by Kwok that old stars are molecular factories capable of manufacturing organic compounds. "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.

Prof. Sun Kwok is the Dean of Science and Chair Professor of Physics of the University of Hong Kong. He serves as Vice President of Division VI (interstellar matter) of the International Astronomical Union, and is the incoming Vice President of Commission 51 (bioastronomy) of the International Astronomical Union. He has published many books, including the recent book "Organic Matter in the Universe" (Wiley, 2011). Dr. Yong Zhang is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong. This work was supported by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by The University of Hong Kong. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

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

Cite This Page:

The University of Hong Kong. "Astronomers discover complex organic matter exists throughout the universe." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111026143721.htm>.
The University of Hong Kong. (2011, October 27). Astronomers discover complex organic matter exists throughout the universe. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111026143721.htm
The University of Hong Kong. "Astronomers discover complex organic matter exists throughout the universe." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111026143721.htm (accessed December 20, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Matter & Energy News

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Building Google Into Cars

Building Google Into Cars

Reuters - Business Video Online (Dec. 19, 2014) Google's next Android version could become the standard that'll power your vehicle's entertainment and navigation features, Reuters has learned. Fred Katayama reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
AP Review: Nikon D750 and GoPro Hero 4

AP Review: Nikon D750 and GoPro Hero 4

AP (Dec. 19, 2014) What to buy an experienced photographer or video shooter? There is some strong gear on the market from Nikon and GoPro. The AP's Ron Harris takes a closer look. (Dec. 19) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Double-Amputee Becomes First To Move Two Prosthetic Arms With His Mind

Double-Amputee Becomes First To Move Two Prosthetic Arms With His Mind

Buzz60 (Dec. 19, 2014) A double-amputee makes history by becoming the first person to wear and operate two prosthetic arms using only his mind. Jen Markham has the story. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Navy Unveils Robot Fish

Navy Unveils Robot Fish

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Dec. 18, 2014) The U.S. Navy unveils an underwater device that mimics the movement of a fish. Tara Cleary reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins