Life 'chemistry' in star system
Building blocks of life have been found for the first time in a distant infant star system.
Astronomers detected complex organic molecules in a disc of dust and gas around a young star 455 light years away where planets are likely to be forming.
The discovery suggests the conditions that spawned life on Earth are not unique to our solar system.
Radio telescope observations showed the disk surrounding the million-year-old star MWC 480 to be "brimming" with the complex carbon-based molecule methyl cyanide.
Both this molecule and its simpler organic cousin hydrogen cyanide were identified in the cold outer reaches of the newly formed disc.
The region can be compared with our solar system's Kuiper Belt, a realm of icy mini-worlds and comets beyond Neptune.
Experts believe comets and asteroids from the outer solar system seeded the young Earth with water and organic molecules to set the stage for life to evolve.
US astronomer Dr Karin Oberg, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said: "Studies of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned our sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds.
"We now have evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own."
The molecules surrounding MWC 480 have been detected in similar concentrations in our own solar system's comets, she pointed out.
The star, which is about twice as massive as the sun, lies in a well studied star-forming region in the constellation Taurus.
Astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (Alma), a powerful suit of interacting radio telescopes in Chile's Atacama desert, to investigate MWC 480.
Previously it was unclear whether complex organic molecules commonly survive the shocks and radiation levels found in a newly forming solar system
Alma's high sensitivity antennae have now shown that such molecules not only form and survive, but thrive.
The findings, reported in the journal Nature, reveal that there is enough methyl cyanide around MWC 480 to fill all of the Earth's oceans.
Among complex organic molecules, cyanides - especially methyl cyanide - are important because they contain carbon-nitrogen bonds essential for the formation of amino acids, the components of proteins.
As the MWC 480 system evolves it is likely that organic molecules locked away in comets and other icy bodies will be ferried closer to the star where conditions may be suitable for life, the scientists believe.
Dr Oberg added: "From the study of exoplanets, we know our solar system isn't unique in having rocky planets and an abundance of water. Now we know we're not unique in organic chemistry.
"Once more, we have learned that we're not special. From a life in the universe point of view, this is great news."