Scientists used observations from a huge telescope in Chile to see that a disc — on its way to becoming a planet — surrounding a young star is filled with methyl cyanide. That is a complex, carbon-based molecule which is found in huge quantities around the star.
Since comets keep a record of the early solar system, while planets were being formed. Comets and asteroids like those holding the molecules are thought to have put the water and other material on early Earth that helped make conditions for life.
The discoveries show that such materials, likely to be necessary for life to form anywhere, are present elsewhere in the universe. They are also in similar concentrations to those found in our solar system.
The sky around the young star The disc that surrounds the star — which is known as MWC 480, is twice as big as the Sun and is 455 light-years away — is still becoming developed, and so isn’t ready to hold life of its own. But the discovery shows that the conditions that created life on Earth are not unique, and are likely to exist elsewhere in the universe too.
Scientists have long known that the clouds that exist in space would be good at creating the complex molecules. But they didn’t know whether that meant that they did form — since the shock and radiation found there could easily destroy them as soon as they started — but the new discovery shows that they have been.
The research was conducted using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submilliimeter Array (ALMA), which is in the Chilean Andes and is the biggest ground-based astronomical project in the world. It is run by the European Southern Observatory with partners from around the world, and looks out towards some of the coldest parts of the universe to try and find out about how the universe and our planets came into being.