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Sweet Discovery

November 14, 2012

Some discoveries are just sweeter than others — sometimes literally. Earlier this year, for example, astronomers discovered a type of sugar molecule close to a distant star. The discovery is especially sweet because sugars form some of the basic chemical building blocks of life.

The sugar was found at a young, Sun-like star that’s part of a binary system. The system is about 400 light-years away, in the constellation Ophiuchus.

The sugar is known as glycolaldehyde. It’s already been seen in giant interstellar clouds near the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. But those clouds are quite cold. The molecules seen in the star system are in a much warmer region — about as far from the star as Uranus — the seventh planet out — is from the Sun. That’s a region where planets could be taking shape.

Glycolaldehyde is a fairly simple molecule. But it can combine with another type of sugar to form one of the chemical building blocks of RNA, one of the basic molecules of life. So if the glycolaldehyde found its way onto the surface of a planet with liquid water, it would complete the list of ingredients needed to form life like that found on Earth.

Of course, it’s a long way from the building blocks of life to life itself. But finding them in the right location increases the odds that we may someday find evidence of life on other worlds — a discovery that could well be the sweetest of all.

Tomorrow: a planet hovers in the west.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012

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