The burning acid behind ant stings was seen around two stars

By | March 16, 2024

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Astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope have discovered common chemical ingredients found in vinegar, ant stings and even margaritas around two young stars, according to NASA.

The complex organic molecules they observed using the space observatory’s Mid-Infrared Instrument included acetic acid, a component of vinegar, and ethanol, also known as alcohol.

The team also found simple molecules of formic acid, which causes the burning sensation associated with ant stings, as well as sulfur dioxide, methane and formaldehyde. Scientists believe that sulfur-containing compounds such as sulfur dioxide may have played a key role on early Earth, ultimately paving the way for life to form.

The newly detected molecules were seen as icy compounds surrounding IRAS 2A and IRAS 23385, two protostars, or stars so young that they have not yet formed planets. Stars form from swirling clouds of gas and dust, and planets are formed from the material left over from star formation.

According to previous research, the protostar IRAS 23385 is estimated to be 15,981 light-years away from Earth in the Milky Way.

The new observation intrigues astronomers because the molecules detected around the stars could be crucial ingredients for potentially habitable worlds, and these ingredients could be incorporated into the planets that are likely to eventually form around the stars.

Space is full of heavy metals and chemical elements and compounds created and released over time by star explosions. In turn, the chemical elements are incorporated into clouds that form the next generation of stars and planets.

On Earth, the right combination of elements allowed life to emerge, and as the famous astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “We are made of stardust.” But astronomers have long wondered how common the elements necessary for life are in the cosmos.

The search for complex molecules in space

Previously, scientists using Webb discovered ices made of different elements in a cold, dark molecular cloud, an interstellar clump of gas and dust where hydrogen and carbon monoxide molecules can form. Dense clumps in these clouds can collapse and form protostars.

Detecting complex organic molecules in space helps astronomers determine the origin of the molecules, as well as that of other larger cosmic molecules.

Webb's detections revealed simple and complex molecules that could be used to form potentially habitable worlds.  -NASA/ESA/CSA/L.  Hustak

Webb’s detections revealed simple and complex molecules that could be used to form potentially habitable worlds. -NASA/ESA/CSA/L. Hustak

Scientists believe that complex organic molecules are created by the sublimation of ice in space, or the process by which a solid turns into a gas without first becoming a liquid, and the new Webb detection provides evidence for that theory.

“This finding contributes to one of the long-standing questions in astrochemistry,” said Will Rocha, team leader of the James Webb Observations of Young ProtoStars program and a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in a statement. “What is the origin of complex organic molecules, or COMs, in space? Are they made in the gas phase or in ice? The detection of COMs in ice suggests that solid-phase chemical reactions on the surfaces of cold dust grains can form complex types of molecules.”

A study detailing the new protostar findings has been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

A look into the early solar system

Understanding the shapes that complex organic molecules take can help astronomers better understand the ways in which the molecules are incorporated into planets. Complex organic molecules trapped in cold ice could eventually become part of comets or asteroids, which collide with planets and essentially provide ingredients that can support life.

The chemicals found around the protostars may reflect the early history of our solar system, giving astronomers a way to look back at what was present when the sun and the planets around it, including Earth, formed.

“All these molecules can become part of comets and asteroids and ultimately new planetary systems when the icy material is transported to the planet-forming disk as the protostellar system evolves,” says co-author Ewine van Dishoeck, professor of molecular astrophysics in Leiden. University, in a statement. “We look forward to following this astrochemical trail step by step with more Webb data in the coming years.”

The team dedicated the results of their research to studying co-author Harold Linnartz, who died unexpectedly in December, shortly after the paper was accepted for publication.

Linnartz, who headed the Leiden Laboratory for Astrophysics and coordinated the measurements used in the study, was a “world leader in laboratory studies of gaseous and icy molecules in interstellar space,” according to a press release from Leiden University.

He was reportedly thrilled with the data Webb was able to capture, and what the findings could mean for astrochemical research.

“Harold was especially happy that laboratory work could play an important role in the COM assignments, as it took a long time before this happened,” says Van Dishoeck.

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