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Home >> Sci-Edu
UPDATED: 10:40, July 29, 2005
NASA telescope finds life component in distant galaxies
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NASA's Spitzer space telescope has detected organic compounds that could make up life in a far and young universe, astronomers said on Thursday.

These organic molecules, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are comprised of carbon and hydrogen. The molecules are considered to be among the building blocks of life, said researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Using the highly sensitive Spitzer telescope, astronomers discovered these organic molecules in galaxies which existed when our universe was only about 3.5 billion years old, or one-fourth of its current age.

With its ability to observe things billions of light years away, Spitzer is the first telescope to see these molecules so far back in time.

The molecules, very common on Earth, are pervasive in galaxies like our own Milky Way. They play a significant role in star and planet formation, astronomers said.

"This is 10 billion years further back in time than we've seen them before," said Lin Yan of the Spitzer Science Center. Yan is the lead author of a study to be published in the August 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

"Those galaxies are 10 billion light years away from the Earth, so what we see now actually happened 10 billion years ago," she told Xinhua.

"In this study we did not directly link the molecules with life, but it's such a large time span that anything may have happened," she said. "The molecules may have evolved into more complex matters, or even life."

"Why would they not evolve in 10 billion years? At least they have the potential," Yan noted.

Previous missions detected these types of galaxies and molecules much closer to our own Milky Way. Spitzer's sensitivity is 100 times greater than other telescopes, enabling direct detection of organisms so far away.

Since Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old, these organic materials existed in the universe well before our planet and solar system were formed and may have even been the seeds of our solar system, astronomers indicated.

Spitzer found the organic compounds in galaxies where intense star formation had taken place over a short period of time.

These starburst galaxies are nearly invisible in optical images because they are very far away and contain large quantities of light-absorbing dust. But the same dust glows brightly in infrared light and is easily spotted by Spitzer.

Spitzer's infrared spectrometer split the galaxies' infrared light into distinct features that revealed the presence of organic components. These organic features gave scientists a milepost to gauge the distance of these galaxies.

This is the first time scientists have been able to measure a distance as great as 10 billion light years away using the spectral fingerprints of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Source: Xinhua

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