An astronomer has discovered the first interstellar molecule containing phosphorus, a significant finding because it supports the possibility that other forms of life could exist in the universe.
Lucy Ziurys, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts, said she first detected the molecule, known as phosphorus nitride, in a large gas cloud in the Orion constellation about 1 1/2 years ago and then confirmed her finding in May. Astronomers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak, Ariz., also have confirmed her discovery.
"People have been searching for years for phosphorus in these clouds," Ziurys said. "If life begins in these clouds, you've got to see phosphorus. It's just one piece in a big picture."
The find means "the basic building blocks for life as we know it are out there," added William Irvine, director of the Five College Radio Observatory at the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts, where Ziurys made the discovery.
Phosphorus-containing molecules form the backbone of DNA, which contains the genetic information for all living things. More than 70 molecules have been discovered by radio astronomers in gas clouds in the last 20 years, but none have contained phosphorus.
"These big gas clouds are seen throughout our galaxy, and in external galaxies as well," Ziurys said. "And they're important because they're where stars and planets form."