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Scientists confirm the presence of acetonitrile in a distant interstellar gas cloud using a radio telescope — ScienceDaily


The origin of life on Earth is a topic that has piqued human curiosity since probably before recorded history began. But how did the organic matter that constitutes lifeforms even arrive at our planet? Though this is still a subject of debate among scholars and practitioners in related fields, one approach to answering this question involves finding and studying complex organic molecules (COMs) in outer space.

Many scientists have reported finding all sorts of COMs in molecular clouds — gigantic regions of interstellar space that contain various types of gases. This is generally done using radio telescopes, which measure and record radiofrequency waves to provide a frequency profile of the incoming radiation called spectrum. Molecules in space are usually rotating in various directions, and they emit or absorb radio waves at very specific frequencies when their rotational speed changes. Current physics and chemistry models allow us to approximate the composition of what a radio telescope is pointed at, via analysis of the intensity of the incoming radiation at these frequencies.

In a recent study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Dr Mitsunori Araki from Tokyo University of Science, along with other scientists from across Japan, tackled a difficult question in the search for interstellar COMs: how can we assert the presence of COMs in the less dense regions of molecular clouds? Because molecules in space are mostly energized by collisions with hydrogen molecules, COMs in the low-density regions of molecular clouds emit less radio waves, making it difficult for us to detect them. However, Dr Araki and his team took a different approach based on a special organic molecule called acetonitrile (CH3CN).

Acetonitrile is an elongated molecule that has two independent ways of rotating: around its long axis, like a spinning top, or as if it were a pencil spinning around your thumb. The latter type of rotation tends to spontaneously slow down due to the emission of radio waves and, in the low-density regions of molecular clouds, it naturally becomes less energetic or “cold.”

In contrast, the other type of rotation does not emit radiation and therefore remains active without slowing down. This particular behavior of the acetonitrile molecule was the basis on which Dr Araki and his team managed to detect it. He explains: “In low-density regions of molecular clouds, the proportion of acetonitrile molecules rotating like a spinning top should be higher.

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Materials provided by Tokyo University of Science. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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