Using data captured by ALMA in Chile and from the ROSINA instrument on ESA's Rosetta mission , a team of astronomers has found faint traces of the chemical compound [Freon-40] -- (CH3Cl), also known as methyl chloride and chloromethane, around both the infant star system IRAS 16293-2422, about 400 light-years away, and the famous comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/C-G) in our own Solar System. The new ALMA observation is the first detection ever of a stable organohalogen in interstellar space.
Organohalogens consist of halogens, such as chlorine and fluorine, bonded with carbon and sometimes other elements. On Earth, these compounds are created by some biological processes -- in organisms ranging from humans to fungi -- as well as by industrial processes such as the production of dyes and medical drugs.
This new discovery of one of these compounds, Freon-40, in places that must predate the origin of life, can be seen as a disappointment, as earlier research had suggested that these molecules could indicate the presence of life.
"Finding the organohalogen Freon-40 near these young, Sun-like stars was surprising," said Edith Fayolle, a researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA, and lead author of the new paper. "We simply didn't predict its formation and were surprised to find it in such significant concentrations. It's clear now that these molecules form readily in stellar nurseries, providing insights into the chemical evolution of planetary systems, including our own."
Exoplanet research has gone beyond the point of finding planets -- more than 3000 exoplanets are now known -- to looking for chemical markers that might indicate the potential presence of life. A vital step is determining which molecules could indicate life, but establishing reliable markers remains a tricky process.
"ALMA's discovery of organohalogens in the interstellar medium also tells us something about the starting conditions for organic chemistry on planets. Such chemistry is an important step toward the origins of life," adds Karin Öberg, a co-author on the study. "Based on our discovery, organohalogens are likely to be a constituent of the so-called 'primordial soup', both on the young Earth and on nascent rocky exoplanets."
This suggests that astronomers may have had things around the wrong way; rather than indicating the presence of existing life, organohalogens may be an important element in the little-understood chemistry involved in the origin of life.
Co-author Jes Jørgensen from the Niels Bohr Institute at University of Copenhagen adds: "This result shows the power of ALMA to detect molecules of astrobiological interest toward young stars on scales where planets may be forming. Using ALMA we have previously found precursors to sugars and amino acids around different stars. The additional discovery of Freon-40 around Comet 67P/C-G strengthens the links between the pre-biological chemistry of distant protostars and our own Solar System."
The astronomers also compared the relative amounts of Freon-40 that contain different isotopes of chlorine in the infant star system and the comet -- and found similar abundances. This supports the idea that a young planetary system can inherit the chemical composition of its parent star-forming cloud and opens up the possibility that organohalogens could arrive on planets in young systems during planet formation or via comet impacts.
"Our results shows that we still have more to learn about the formation of organohalogens," concludes Fayolle. "Additional searches for organohalogens around other protostars and comets need to be undertaken to help find the answer."
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