In the hunt for these molecules, Remijan and colleagues scanned a star-forming region of the Milky Way called L1157-B1 using the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA).
NASA/JPL-Caltech
In the hunt for these molecules, Remijan and colleagues scanned a star-forming region of the Milky Way called L1157-B1 using the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA).
By
updated 1/13/2013 2:44:15 PM ET 2013-01-13T19:44:15

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Astronomers have found tentative traces of a precursor chemical to the building blocks of life near a star-forming region about 1,000 light-years from Earth.

The signal from the molecule, hydroxylamine, which is made up of atoms of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, still needs to be verified. But, if confirmed, it would mean scientists had found a chemical that could potentially seed life on other worlds, and may have played a role in life's origin on our home planet about 3.6 billion years ago.

The findings were presented Jan. 9 at the 221st annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society .

"It's very exciting," said Stefanie Milam, an astrochemist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who was not involved in the study. If the findings can be verified, "this will be the first detection of this new molecule. It gives us a lot of hope for prebiotic chemistry in this particular region."

Some astronomers think that the ingredients for life are formed in cold, gas-, dust- and plasma-filled interstellar clouds. Comets, asteroids and meteors forming in these clouds bear such chemicals, and as they continually bombard planets, they could have deposited the chemicals on Earth or other worlds, said Anthony Remijan, an astrochemist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., who led the research effort. [ 7 Theories on the Origin of Life ]

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So while life may have emerged from hydrothermal vents on Earth — a theory that many scientists support — the molecules that eventually transformed into the earliest life forms had to come from somewhere, and that "somewhere" may have been space.

To test this theory, astronomers look for the chemical fingerprints of simple, inorganic compounds forming in interstellar clouds. These compounds aren't life or even carbon-based, but they can react with other molecules to form some of the building blocks of life, such as amino acids or the nucleotides that make up DNA. In recent years, scientists have found several different prebiotic molecules in space, said Brett McGuire, doctoral candidate in chemistry and chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.

In the hunt for these molecules, Remijan and colleagues scanned a star-forming region of the Milky Way called L1157-B1 using the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA).

They found a very weak signal of hydroxylamine, which makes sense since, inside L1157-B1, a violent gas jet is slamming into the interstellar medium; the shock from this gas outflow would be sufficient force to trigger these chemical reactions in the otherwise frigid depths of an interstellar cloud. The result: hydroxylamine. In turn, hydroxylamine could react with other compounds, such as acetic acid, to form amino acids that could be dumped onto other worlds during space-rock collisions.

"We have some very preliminary evidence of its detection, a very weak signal that kind of looks like a line," McGuire told LiveScience.

The signal is extremely faint and doesn't definitively confirm the presence of hydroxylamine. But the signal does seem to come from the right region, McGuire said. The findings are exciting, but they are not yet a definitive chemical signature of hydroxylamine, Milam told LiveScience. "Every molecule has a fingerprint, and basically what he's presented is the thumb print. So we need all the other fingers to confirm that this is the actual molecule."

To confirm the finding, Remijan's team will keep probing the star-forming region for more signals that could confirm what they're seeing isn't coming from some other chemicals, Milam said.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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