This cute bugger to the left is the molecule amino acetonitrile, a close cousin of amino acids. It’s an organic molecule – it’s based on carbon – and it’s thought to be a precursor, a building block of the simplest amino acid, glycine.
Well, yeah, but that’s not the thing. The thing is, this molecule has been found floating in space near the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
We know that there are complex organic molecules in space. Just like individual atoms, molecules can emit light at very specific colors, and by finding those colors of emitted light we can detect the molecules. In general, the light is actually in the radio wavelength part of the spectrum, so giant radio telescopes are used to find them. The observations are a bit tricky, because molecules have lots of ways of emitting different kinds of light, so the total energy the molecule has to emit at any particular color gets gets spread out over all the different colors.
Think of it this way: if you poke a hole in a milk carton, the milk will rush out, but if you poke 100 holes, the milk will dribble out of each hole. Think of it this way: the more lottery winners there are, the less each winner gets from the contest. In the same way, because molecules can emit light in many colors, each color gets less of the total energy, making it fainter and harder to detect.
So molecules, especially complex organic ones like amino acetonitrile, are pretty faint emitters and hard to see. But scientists at Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, did it. They identified 51 different specific colors of radio light coming from a dense hot cloud of gas near the galactic center, and those colors are tagged as being from our friend above. This cloud, called B2, is a known haven for organic molecules such as formaldehyde, ethyl alcohol, and acetic acid (given those last two, my guess is that alien winemakers in B2 have their successes and failures).
Amino acids are the building blocks of life, as biologists are fond of saying; they are the basis of proteins and
are the way our genetic code is mapped in our DNA our DNA is coded to make them. Finding them in space is an interesting task, because that would mean the conditions to form amino acids are easy to come by. Plus, it’s possible for them to literally rain down from space. Amino acids have been found in meteorites, for example. But never in space.
So finding amino acetonitrile is a big step in finding a proper amino acid in space. It means that another big piece of the amino acid puzzle is available in space, and that’s encouraging. Finding a true amino acid source in space may just mean we need to be more diligent and look more carefully. It’s there, and announcing its presence, but it’s whispering.