Herschel spots the fingerprints of life-enabling molecules
Orion, the hunter, has stalked the skies since before the memory of man. His bronze club, held aloft, drips with the blood of his underworld quarry while around his waist, hanging in anticipation, is his hunter’s sword. Well, that’s how the ancients saw the constellation of Orion. We’ve learned a little about the stellar warrior since then. His famous sword (a chain of three stars also known as Orion’s belt), rather than being a life-taker, is actually a life giver.
The second star in the chain is a nebula – a sort of stellar nursery where stars and planets are formed from collapsing clouds of gas and dust. The Orion nebula is one of the most studied in the heavens and recently Europe turned the gaze of its latest addition to the heavenly pantheon – the Herschel Space Observatory - to have a look.
Herschel has revealed another ‘life-giving’ side to hunter – the chemical ‘fingerprints’ of a complex soup of potentially life-enabling organic molecules. The Orion nebula is known to be one of the most prolific chemical factories in space although the full extent of its chemistry and how it manufactures the molecules is not well understood. Using its high-definition spectroscope (HIFI), Herschel has identified water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulphur oxide and others. It hardly sounds like an enticing mix of ingredients – most of them are fatal to humans – but they do make up the basic Lego set of ingredients needed to make the most basic building blocks of life, amino acids.
Although the results do not prove the existence of alien life, they do prove that the universe is awash with the ingredients needed to build it (given the right combination of circumstance)