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Cyanides around young star signal complex organic chemistry

Precursors to molecules needed for life may be common in planetary nurseries

1:00pm, April 8, 2015
A planet-forming disk around a star

CSI SPACE  The planet-forming disk swirling around a young star (illustrated) contains cyanides, which might be precursors to more complex organic molecules.

Cyanide shows up in apple seeds, toxicology reports and now a planetary nursery encircling a young star. Cyanide compounds found in a planet-forming disk suggest that the rich brew of organic compounds in asteroids and comets around our sun might be common in other solar systems as well.

A vapor of hydrogen cyanide, methyl cyanide and cyanoacetylene swirls around the star MWC 480, about 460 light-years away in the constellation Auriga. The molecules, possible precursors to substances essential for life, appear in abundances similar to those found in local comets, report Karin Öberg, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and colleagues in the April 9 Nature.

“One of the existential questions is how unique our solar system is,” says Öberg. Now that we know planets are common around other stars, she says, the next step “is to figure

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