With help from the ALMA telescope in the Atacama Desert of Chile, scientists have spotted sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star for the first time.
According to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which administered the project, the finding signals the potential for life elsewhere in the universe.
“This is the first time sugar has been found in space around such a star, and the discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star,” the ESO said.
While this type of sugar has been seen in space before, this is the first spotting of the compound so close to a Sun-like star, at distances comparable to the distance of Uranus from the Sun in the Solar System.
“This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which – like DNA, to which it is related – is one of the building blocks of life,” explained Jes Jørgensen, the lead author of the findings.
“A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets? This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery,” Jørgensen concluded.
The high sensitivity of ALMA was critical for these observations, according to the ESO. Since ALMA is a system of radio telescopes, its physical position in a high and dry site in the desert is crucial.
The ALMA site, located outside of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, is in one of the driest places on Earth – and at an altitude of over 16,000 ft (5,000 m), it’s also one of the highest observatories on the planet. Unparalleled conditions like these have made Chile the world’s premiere site for astronomical research.