Astrophysicists at the University of Leeds in the UK have discovered an abundance of life-giving organic molecules in space, previously thought to occur only under rare cosmic circumstances.
Now researchers say there may be as much as 100 times more of these molecules than previously thought, circling the 400 billion or so stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.
Their study revealed that these molecules have been collecting in abundance within “protoplanetary discs” of gas and dust that are known to orbit each star. All that’s left needed to spark life on a planet is water and a viable distance from a host star, also known as the “Goldilocks zone,” researchers explained.
“It’s possible the molecules needed to kick-start life are readily available in all planet-forming environments,” said Leeds’ Dr. Catherine Walsh, who led the study alongside co-author Dr. John Ilee. Their work was published in “The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series” on Thursday.
“These large complex organic molecules are found in various environments throughout space,” said Dr. Ilee.
Scientists believe that this chemical “soup” comprises “raw ingredients” that are essential to Earth. “They create sugars, amino acids and even the components of ribonucleic acid (RNA) — under the right circumstances,” said Ilee.
“We wanted to understand more about where exactly, and how much of, these molecules were present in the birthplaces of planets — protoplanetary discs,” he added.
It’s been estimated that every star in the galaxy has at least one planet attached to its orbit. Radio signals emitted from newly formed stars, set in the sights of the ALMA radio telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile, indicated these key molecules may be present in up to 80% of protoplanetary discs spinning throughout the galaxy.
Current theories hold that Earth was “seeded” by comets, asteroids and meteorites containing these potent chemicals, encouraging life. This is the first study to show that protoplanetary discs outside our solar system may be brimming with similar potential.