Solar Sugar Daddy

What’s your favorite thing about space? Mine is space. ~Space Core, Portal 2

So, my galleons, when you think of space, I bet the first thing that pops into your mind isn’t sugar. And yet, a rather exciting find from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility with just the most bitchin’ radio telescope array this side of anywhere, deals precisely with those winsome little carbohydrates.

Now, space sugars have been detected before, but what makes this particular sugar spotting so special is where it’s located. Glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar, has been found in the gas surrounding a young binary star (which is of similar mass to Sol herself), called IRAS 16293-2422. The gas cloud isn’t just hanging right up there, breathing down the star’s metaphorical neck, but hanging out about the distance of Uranus from our own sun. So, in astronomical terms… yeah, the cloud’s a clingy little creeper. And it’s that same proximity to the star that makes this particular batch of space sugar so intriguing, because it means that the sugar’s been in the system since the planets were formed.

You know what this means, right? It means sugar, containing little ol’ carbons and hydrogens and oxygens, have been hanging around this system during planet formation. As Jes Jørgensen of Denmark’s Niels Bohr Institute states:

This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which — like DNA, to which it is related — is one of the building blocks of life.

The building blocks of life being seeded to these freshly developing worlds. Are you all atingle as well, dear galleons?

And not only has the sugar been hanging out in this system all along, it’s actually falling in toward the star, giving them an even higher chance of ending up on the newly formed planets.

It’s one of the first finds from ALMA, which technically isn’t complete yet- it’s in the verification phase where observations by the telescope array are being checked to make sure they meet the high quality standard expected of the project. ALMA is scheduled to be complete and fully operational in 2013, so this is just the start of its journey into the inner workings of star and star system formation. Its unparalleled sensitivity (due, in large part, to the sheer number of telescopes hooked up in the installation- 66, for the curious) will allow it to study details of gas and dust discs within star systems previously unavailable to us. So for one of its first real discoveries to be this sugar is pretty spectacular. It appears that ALMA is going to be able to give us incredible information about how planetary systems form and, perhaps, about how life could (and did, at least once) arise within them.

The team plans to keep an eye on the sugars in the IRAS 16293-2422 system. As Jørgensen said:

A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets? This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery.

I mean, unraveling the mysteries of the universe? This is what science is all about. Good job, ALMA.

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