Naturally Occuring Complex Organic Material Is The By-Product Of Stars

by Tammy Plotner on October 28, 2011

We might think of most of the Universe as a vast, cold, uncaring place where elements rule… But we’d be wrong. Astronomers are now reporting that organic compounds of high diversity exist throughout the Cosmos and aren’t the primary property of life. Are we all just “star stuff”? You bet. Complex organic materials can be produced by stars!

While these complex compounds bear a resemblance to our Earthly coal and petroleum, they’re out there. Professor Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of the University of Hong Kong have found that organic compounds exists throughout the Universe. These stellar by-products are mixture of aromatic (ring-like) and aliphatic (chain-like) components that closely resemble fossil fuels – a remnant of life. Does this raise eyebrows? Darn right it does. It means that “complex organic compounds can be synthesized in space even when no life forms are present.”

How did the team discover these organic compounds? During research, they found a bit of mystery – a set of unidentified infrared emissions in stars, galaxies and even interstellar space. For the last twenty years, this spectral signature has been commonly accepted as being PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules. By utilizing the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang have shown there’s more there than just a PAH… it’s a lot more complex. Through infra-red emissions and spectral studies, the team has shown that a nova event can produce these compounds in a very short period of time. It can happen within weeks.

Not only are the stars producing complex organic materials, but they’re pumping them into interstellar space as well. And the idea isn’t new. Kwok had proposed stars as compound factories and this current research supports his vision. “Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions,” says Kwok. “Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening.”

But that’s not all. These types of complex materials are also found in meteorites. This opens the door to the theory that the early solar nebula may have also been home to organic materials. Could this be the “space seed” that began life on Earth? Just asking…

Original Story Source: Space Ref News Release.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

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