Through ALMA, the world’s most sophisticated and powerful telescope of its kind, astronomers have finally been able to prove beyond doubt what poets and mystics have known intuitively all along: Life is everywhere.

With the use of the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array telescope, which can detect “the faint millimeter wavelength radiation that is naturally emitted by molecules in space,” researchers have identified the presence of complex organic molecules essential to life in a protoplanetary disk surrounding ‘MWC 480,’ a million-year-old star.

As Karin Öberg, lead author of the paper that appeared in Nature, explained – “We now have evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own.”

The un-poetically named young star is evidently brimming with methyl cyanide (CH3CN), a complex carbon-based molecule – as well as with hydrogen cyanide (HCN) – in the chillier outer regions of the star’s newly formed disk. Like our solar system’s Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, the disk is home to frozen ‘volatiles’ – such as water, ammonia, and methane – pre-requisites for life.

Carbon-nitrogen bonds, which are essential for amino acid formation, are contained in cyanides – and most particularly methyl cyanide. But scientists were uncertain whether these bonds could survive the shocks and radiation that are part of a newly forming solar system. What they found through ALMA is that the molecules actually thrive under such conditions.

So while it has finally become clear that nothing special is going on in our solar system – that isn’t also happening throughout the Cosmos – it does seem like poetic justice that the name of the ‘eyes’ through which astronomers have gleaned this Truth is ALMA – Spanish for Soul. Truly, the Universe is alive.


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