There’s Sugar Floating Around In Space

By Adam Wears on Tuesday, February 25, 2014
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“Caffeine and sugar, the two basic food groups.” —Laurell K. Hamilton, Cerulean Sins

In A Nutshell

In 2012, astronomers studying the warm gases surrounding a newly formed star, IRAS 16293-2422 (pictured above, credit ESO), discovered something strangely familiar: sugar. More precisely, molecules of glycoaldehyde; a type of odorless sugar comprised of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. This discovery is important because—as well as demonstrating that molecules can form in the most barren regions of space—glycoaldehyde is one of the key building blocks of life.

The Whole Bushel

The Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), situated in Chile, is one of the world’s largest astronomy facilities. Home to 66 radio telescopes, its purpose is to provide a way for astronomers and scientists to study the furthest and newest parts of the cosmos, something it certainly achieved in August 2012 when it played a central role in one of the strangest—and potentially most important discoveries—of the past decade.

At this time, astronomers were studying a newly formed star, catchily referred to as IRAS 16293-2422, when they discovered the presence of sugar molecules in the warm gases surrounding the star. Further analysis showed that they’d discovered glycoaldehyde, a type of odourless sugar comprised of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.

The team responsible for this discovery believes that it was the formation of IRAS 16293-2422 itself that resulted in the formation of these molecules. New stars are often formed when massive clouds of gas and dust collapse into each other. The intense cold that this process creates can cause atoms of gas to “freeze” onto stray dust particles; if several gases attach themselves to the same particle they can combine, forming molecules such as glycoaldehyde. Interestingly, it was these frozen dust particles that allowed the discovery in the first place. After the star formed, the temperature began to rise, evaporating the molecules back into gas. The ALMA then located and determined the composition of this gas by analyzing the radiation that it emitted as radio waves.

While glycoaldehyde isn’t the same type of sugar that you stir into your coffee (that would be sucrose), don’t think that this discovery isn’t important: It turns out that glycoaldehyde is actually one of the key building blocks of life. When it combines with several other molecules, the member of the sugar family known as “ribose” is formed. This is a key component of nucleic acids such as RNA and—most importantly—DNA, which (of course) we wouldn’t exist without.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: European Southern Observatory
European Southern Observatory: Sweet Result from ALMA
Space.com: Sugar Molecules Discovered Around Sun-Like Star
National Geographic: Sugar Found In Space: A Sign of Life?