Thursday, January 03, 2008

Red Dust In Planet-forming Disk May Harbor Precursors To Life

ScienceDaily reports that Astronomers have found the first indications of highly complex organic molecules in the disk of red dust surrounding a distant star. The eight-million-year-old star, known as HR 4796A, is thought to be in the late stages of planet formation, suggesting that the basic building blocks of life may be common in planetary systems. These observations were taken with the Near-Infrared Multi-Object Spectrometer aboard the Hubble Space Telescope. Researchers found that the spectrum of visible and infrared light scattered by the star's dust disk looks very red, the color produced by large organic carbon molecules called tholins. The spectrum does not match those of other red substances, such as iron oxide. Tholins are hypothesized to have existed on the primitive Earth billions of years ago and may have been precursors to the biomolecules that make up living organisms. Tholins have been detected elsewhere in the solar system, such as in comets and on Saturn's moon Titan, where they give the atmosphere a red tinge. This study is the first report of tholins outside the solar system.

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