How Sweet It Is! Sugar Discovered Around A Sun-like Star

Grains of refined sugar sucrose commonly used in baking and sweetening. Credit: Lauri Andler / Wiki

A sweet tooth. I love that little euphemism used by people who like to eat candy. Yes, I have a sweet tooth with a weakness for intensely sweet (and sour) stuff like gummy worms and sugar-coated bears. I also use sugar to sweeten my tea.

Sugar on Earth is found in sugar cane, maple syrup, honey, sugar beets, milk numerous fruits, trees and some vegetables. We often consume it in the form of high fructose corn syrup manufactured from corn.

Alien sugar was first found in this giant molecular cloud called Sagittarius B2 (North) in the central hub of the Milky Way in 2000. The cloud is 3 light years across. Credit: R. Gaume, M. Claussen, C. De Pree, W.M. Goss, D. Mehringer, NRAO/AUI/NSF

If we ever run out, there’s plenty more. In outer space that is. Harvesting won’t be easy since it’s spread across light-years-wide clouds of stellar gas and dust called molecular clouds.

Space sugar was first spotted near the center of the Milky Way galaxy back in 2000. Rotating sugar molecules give off a faint whiff of radio energy detectable in a large radio telescope. To date about 172 interstellar molecules have been found through the energy they emit in radio, microwave and infrared (heat).

Scientists used the 12 Meter Telescope, a radio telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona to pick up that first faint signal and identified it as the simple sugar glycoaldehyde, an 8-atom molecule composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. It’s a simple sugar similar to what you’d put in your coffee or tea. Glycoaldehyde can combine with other molecules to form more complicated sugars like glucose and the sugar ribose found in RNA, which is related to DNA. I smell gummy bears.

Artist’s impression of the simple sugar glycolaldehyde molecules, showing its molecular structure (C2H4O2). Carbon atoms are shown as grey, oxygen atoms as red, and hydrogen atoms as white. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Calcada (ESO)

Finding sugar in the Milky Way shows yet again that life-related organic molecules can form in even the most rarefied and hostile places. Getting all the bits and pieces together under the right conditions for the spark to set the works in motion seems to be the trick. To date, Earth’s the only place we know of where life forms stand out in the bitter cold waiting for a bus.

The universe got even sweeter today with another sugar sighting from a team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) of 66 radio telescopes in Chile.  Sugar molecules (glycoaldehyde again) were detected for the first time in the disk of gas and dust surrounding a sun-like star in a double star system in the constellation Ophiuchus.

Astronomers have found simple sugar molecules (inset) around a sun-like star IRAS 16293-2422 located about 400 light years away in the Rho Ophiuchi star forming region, here shown in infrared light. Click photo for more information on the discovery. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Calcada (ESO) & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

“What is really exciting about our findings is that the ALMA observations reveal that the sugar molecules are falling in towards one of the stars of the system,” says team member Cécile Favre. “The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction.”

Sugar-sweetened planets get my nod of approval. Kidding aside, astronomers are very interested in just how complicated molecules can become before they’re incorporated into planets. If sufficiently complex molecules around stars are common, including them in newly formed planets might increase the chances for life to arise by providing plenty of the right ingredients.

There’s something about the mindlessness of nature that I relish almost as much as candy. That under the right conditions, complexity and even life are inevitable, given time and the propensity for stuff to collect and connect. I find this simple “is-ness” of nature to be both beautiful and mysterious. Definitely something to sink your sweet tooth into.

4 Responses

  1. Richard Keen

    Space sugar, what a concept!
    Perhaps we’ll find that those dark C asteroids are not carbonaceous, but Chocolate. Dark chocolate.
    Here’s another sweet idea – carbon free sugar. Check out this ad from Domino for carbon free sugar…
    First person to figure out what carbon free sugar is gets a free cup of it, right in their own home.
    Hint: it’s been found on Earth, Mars, quite a few moons, some asteroids, and every comet. And we don’t have to buy the stuff; we’re all already full of it!

    1. astrobob

      What an unintended misnomer – carbon-free! My aunt in Kentucky used to always ask us when we were kids to give my grandmother down there a hug, but she referred to it as “a little sugar”.

  2. leslie

    I know whether isn’t your thing… but people are talking about lights in the sky in San Diego… And how it Isn’t lightening…. They’re saying something from space… Please tell me they’re crazy..
    thanks bob

    1. astrobob

      They’re crazy. No, seriously, I can’t find anything out at the moment on this story. Could be a meteor, plane, rocket launch, etc. Aliens in space ships – nawwwwwww.

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