Astronomers discover largest molecule yet in a planet-forming disc

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, researchers at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands have for the first time detected dimethyl ether in a planet-forming disc. With nine atoms, this is the largest molecule identified in such a disc to date. It is also a precursor of larger organic molecules that can lead to the emergence of life.

From these results, we can learn more about the origin of life on our planet and therefore get a better idea of the potential for life in other planetary systems. It is very exciting to see how these findings fit into the bigger picture,” says Nashanty Brunken, a Master’s student at Leiden Observatory, part of Leiden University, and lead author of the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Dimethyl ether is an organic molecule commonly seen in star-forming clouds, but had never before been found in a planet-forming disc. The researchers also made a tentative detection of methyl formate, a complex molecule similar to dimethyl ether that is also a building block for even larger organic molecules.

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