The search for alien life isn’t concerned solely with searching for advanced extraterrestrial races, but also with discovering if the so-called ‘building blocks’ of life exist elsewhere in the cosmos. Earth is so far the only planet on which the necessary ingredients for life are found – based on our current definition and understanding of what life is, that is. Given that all life on Earth is carbon-based, scientists believe the element is one of the most basic components needed to create life. Astronomers still don’t understand where Earth’s carbon came from, and in turn life, but a new discovery in a nearby corner of space now has some scientists wondering if we might have found some of the raw ingredients of life in the universe.
Astronomers using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia discovered the chemical signature of a molecule known as benzonitrile (C6H5CN) in a massive cloud of dust and gas known as the Taurus Molecular Cloud 1. The cloud sits some 430 light-years from Earth in the Taurus constellation and is the nearest star formation region, making it perfect for the study of cosmological processes. Scientists have long been searching for benzonitrile and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the universe as it is believed they may be abundant, but their chemical signatures hasn’t been found prior to this new study. These carbon-rich molecules are believed to a common source of carbon throughout the universe, and therefore in some ways are the main building blocks for life.
Now that we have found at least one source for these molecules, scientists might be able to start piecing together the mystery of where and how life originated in the universe. Georgia Southern University astrochemist Ryan Fortenberry told Scientific American that this discovery could inch us closer towards understanding one of the great mysteries of humankind:
We need carbon to make planets, to make life, to do interesting chemistry. We have this hypothesis about where the carbon is tied up, but we’ve had no way to confirm it. [Benzonitrile] allows us to start looking in the right places.
While right now this discovery is little more than the discovery of a giant carbon-rich gas cloud, it might one day lead us to find where we came from: giant stinking cloud. Did I mention the giant cloud of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons just so happens to smell like almonds, hence their name? Neat.