For the first time, a life-essential molecule detected beyond Earth – a quest of over 50 years

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An international team of scientists reported a landmark discovery – a special carbon molecule, crucial to the genesis of biological life, has been detected in space for the first time. The molecule was found in a protoplanetary disc of a young star about 1350 light-years away from us. But that’s not the only oddity in this star system, and for the advancement of science, the more mysteries in the path, the better!

Image Source: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA

Spectral data analysis gathered by the James Webb Space Observatory revealed previously unseen spectral lines. Over four weeks of diligent work, scientists were able to identify the signals to their source – the methyl cation molecule (CH3+). This marks the first confirmed detection of this compound beyond Earth.

Back in the 70s, a theory surfaced suggesting that the genesis of biological life on Earth and in space should involve the formation of such a carbon compound as the methyl cation. It is somewhat of a catalyst or intermediary for initiating many chemical reactions that can eventually lead to the formation of compounds that gave birth to organic chemistry. To confirm this hypothesis, the methyl cation should be detected in space, but radio telescopes are unable to catch it due to the peculiarities of the molecule’s structure, and ground-based infrared telescopes simply do not work.

A breakthrough happened thanks to the James Webb Space Observatory with its revolutionary spectral and infrared sensitivity, along with the highest spatial resolution available today.

The methyl cation molecule was found in the protoplanetary disk of a small red dwarf, d203-506, in the Orion nebula. The peculiarity of this object is that the protoplanetary disk undergoes intense UV bombardment from nearby young and more massive stars. The red dwarf itself is incapable of this. Ultraviolet, as strange as it may sound to us, does not destroy the methyl cation but provides energy to initiate its synthesis process. This probably happens in the early stages of organic chemistry genesis and does not harm it but stimulates its development.

The detection of the methyl cation in the protoplanetary disc of d203-506 was not the only oddity. For instance, no water molecules were found in the system, even though usually their traces are everywhere. Scientists speculate that this is again due to intense ultraviolet radiation at a certain stage of protoplanetary disc development. In any case, researchers have gained more information for tracing the early stages of organic chemistry development and the genesis of life on Earth and in space, which sooner or later will form the basis of a coherent theory and be confirmed by new observations.

Author Profile

Vasyl Kolomiiets
Vasyl Kolomiiets
I'm Vasyl Kolomiiets, a seasoned tech journalist regularly contributing to global publications. Having a profound background in information technologies, I seamlessly blended my technical expertise with my passion for writing, venturing into technology journalism. I've covered a wide range of topics including cutting-edge developments and their impacts on society, contributing to leading tech platforms.

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