Science Space Porn

We are stardust: #RIT boffins discover evidence of organic compounds in interstellar space

There are stars and comets and asteroids and matter formed into all manner of shape and size in the universe; there are black holes and red dwarves; there are nebulae and clusters. Galaxies are made up of these things, plus clouds of dust and ice. Our little planet exists on the lonely edge of one of these, the Milky Way. But beyond our galaxy and in between all that stuff, it is generally understood, are unknowably vast stretches of nothing. A vacuum, perforated by radiation from stars, that is otherwise empty.

But perhaps not.

Professor Donald Figer and a team of scientists at RIT have discovered evidence that maybe that interstellar space isn’t quite as empty as we thought. They have picked up on data suggesting that floating within that nothingness may be the very same organic chemicals that formed life on Earth. Dr. Figer wasn’t looking for anything of the sort. In fact, he was readying research for a soon-to-be-published paper on his field of study, super-massive stars, when he happened upon an irritating irregularity in his data that turned out to be this rather amazing discovery.

A spectrum band of white light.

The story of this discovery is all about a research method known as spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is the process of bending light through a prismatic system to get the classic rainbow effect you see when viewing light through any prism. Scientists measure the intensity and width of the bands to determine the chemical makeup of the star whose light they are studying.

Spectrum showing absorption lines

However, between the star and our own planet, there may be matter that absorbs some of the star’s light. When this happens, black bands appear in the spectroscopy where a specific element has absorbed a specific frequency of light. These are known as Absorption Lines. The process of identifying which element is causing which absorption line to appear is based on some of your old Chemistry class math: the amount of energy required to make an electron of a given atom jump to various excited states.

The crazy thing is: while science has positively identified hundreds of elements in absorption lines, many lines are unaccounted for. To further complicate the picture, molecules (which may have multiple elements) appear as what you might call “tone clouds” of several absorption lines, close together.

Back to Professor Figer’s research, in studying super massive stars, the assumption was that they would not be getting any absorption lines at all, since they didn’t anticipate any matter between the stars and the sensors. Again: interstellar space should be empty. And since the light from super massive stars tends to be reliably balanced white light, they expected to find perfectly even spectra. As you no doubt have guessed by now, that was not the case.

Instead, team member Tom Geballe found those tightly-packed absorption lines, 500 in all, occluding not one but every single observation of every star they looked at. Consistency is evidence in science, and this particular evidence pointed to one conclusion: whatever was causing the absorption lines must be present in interstellar space, not simply around one or two stars.

And based on the above-mentioned math, Professor Figer and his team have determined that the “whatever” in question is likely to be organic material, once thought to be fairly rare in the universe and definitely central to our understanding of life.

Is this organic material RNA? Is it the seed from which the Panspermia theory says we all evolved? Well, that’s a lot of “maybe’s” that Professor Figer isn’t speculating on. But certainly, his discovery points to organic compounds being even more ubiquitous in the universe than first thought. Rather than simply appearing as specks of simple amino acids and peptides on meteor fragments, this evidence points to a universe shot through with the stuff of life. A cloud of potential, from which any number of colonies of life might suddenly be formed in almost any corner of the universe.

Ed Note: This article was checked for accuracy by Professor Figer and some small changes made to reflect that accuracy.