A team of physicists have discovered that the environment of a molecular cloud in interstellar space can support the existence of fatty acids, a key component of life on Earth.
Astronomers have made great strides over the past few years in identifying a variety of organic and prebiotic molecules in interstellar gas clouds. These molecules, rich in carbon and oxygen, form the basic building blocks of the chemistry used by life. For example, astronomers have recently discovered some amino acids, which are the fundamental components of all proteins used by life on Earth.
As astronomers continue to discover ever more complex organic molecules, it’s natural to wonder what else could be out there. But space is an exceptionally harsh environment for life, not just because of its low temperatures, but also because of the intense radiation constantly flooding through any region of interstellar space.
Despite these challenges, a team of physicists have ran a series of computer simulations of the typical interstellar environment and discovered that fatty acids can form and stabilize. Fatty acids are chains carbon and hydrogen atoms that form the building blocks of every kind of fat that we consume and maintain in our bodies. The researchers discovered that carbon and hydrogen can naturally link together in spite of the low temperature and low pressure environments of interstellar gas clouds. These chains then form stable bonds that can persist for long timescales.
Fatty acids also combine with amino acids to form much more complex protein structures, and so the discovery of fatty acids in nebulae would confirm that the ingredients for life are abundant throughout the cosmos.
To find these fatty acids the astronomers discovered that we can use existing techniques. One such technique is called microwave rotational spectra. The fatty acids can rotate in certain ways which release particular frequencies of microwave radiation that we can detect. Further observations will be necessary to discover if these essential ingredients truly exist in the depths of space.