Sweet Discovery

StarDate: February 25, 2009

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Life is sweet, so anyplace you find sweetness is a potential home for life. That keeps astronomers looking for "sweet spots" in the universe -- and an international team has found one.

All of this "sweet talk" is about sugar.

The team of astronomers found a sugar molecule in a stellar nursery that's about 26,000 light-years away. The nursery is a cloud of gas and dust that's collapsing to give birth to new stars -- and perhaps planets, too.

The nursery may contain enough material to make several thousand stars as massive as the Sun. It may already have given birth to some hot, heavy stars that are lighting up the rest of the cloud.

Astronomers scanned the nursery with a radio telescope in France. They found the chemical "fingerprint" of a simple sugar molecule, known as glycolaldehyde. It can bind with other organic molecules to form one of the components of RNA, which is one of the key ingredients for life.

This same molecule had already been found in another cloud, near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. But conditions there may be too harsh for life. The new stellar nursery is in a sparsely populated region of the outer galaxy, which provides more comfortable surroundings.

The nursery itself is so young that there probably hasn't been enough time for life to develop. But the building blocks for life are there, in a region that may someday have hundreds or thousands of new planets.

Tomorrow: racing past the stars.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008

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