Scientists have found that ultraviolet light from stars plays a key role in creating the fundamental substances essential for life, rather than “shock” events that create turbulence, as was previously thought. “The sun is the driving source of almost all the life on Earth. Now, we have learned that starlight drives the formation of chemicals that are precursors to chemicals that we need to make life,” first author of the study Patrick Morris, researcher at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, said in a statement released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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Life exists in a myriad of wondrous forms, but if you break any organism down to its most basic parts, it’s all the same stuff — carbon atoms connected to hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.
But how these fundamental substances are created in space has been a longstanding mystery.
One of the leading theories about the origins of basic hydrocarbons has been that they formed in “shock,” events that create a lot of turbulence, such as exploding supernovae or young stars spitting out material.
For the study, the scientists studied the ingredients of carbon chemistry in the Orion Nebula, the closest star-forming region to Earth that forms massive stars.
They mapped the amount, temperature and motions of the carbon-hydrogen molecule (CH, or “methylidyne” to chemists), the carbon-hydrogen positive ion (CH+) and their parent — the carbon ion (C+). An ion is an atom or molecule with an imbalance of protons and electrons, resulting in a net charge.
Combining data from the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory with models of molecular formation, the scientists found that ultraviolet light is the best explanation for how hydrocarbons form in the Orion Nebula.