28 October 2011

Stars Discovered Producing Complex Organic Compounds

Astronomers have discovered one of the strangest things in the Universe; complex organic compounds. It seems that aside from living organisms, stars can also manufacture these naturally in the vacuum of outer space.

Prof. Sun Kwok and Dr. Yong Zhang of the University of Hong Kong discovered a substance in outer space that contains a combination of aromatic (ringlike) and aliphatic (chainlike) elements. These are commonly found all through the Universe. The complexity of the substance is similar to that of coal and of petroleum. Common perception is that coal and oil is a by-product of living organisms. The discovery of these substances leads to the suggestion that complex organic compounds can be created in outer space even when no there are no living things present.

Video: Organic materials on another planet

The researchers investigated an unsolved phenomenon: a set of infrared emissions detected in stars, interstellar space, and galaxies. These spectral signatures are known as "Unidentified Infrared Emission features". For over two decades, the most commonly accepted theory on the origin of these signatures has been that they come from simple organic molecules made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) molecules. From observations taken by the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, Kwok and Zhang showed that the astronomical spectra have features that cannot be explained by PAH molecules. Instead, the team proposes that the substances generating these infrared emissions have chemical structures that are much more complex. By analyzing spectra of star dust formed in exploding stars called novae, they show that stars are making these complex organic compounds on extremely short time scales of weeks. Source

Aside from the production of this organic matter, stars are also ejecting it into outer space particularly in general interstellar space which is the region between stars.

Kwok says, "Our work has shown that stars have no problem making complex organic compounds under near-vacuum conditions. Theoretically, this is impossible, but observationally we can see it happening."

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