Over 130 molecules have been identified in the interstellar gas and circumstellar shells, the largest among them is a carbon chain with 13 atoms and molecular weight of 147 (twice that of the simplest amino acid glycine). The high reliability of astronomical identifications, as well as the fairly accurate quantitative analysis which can often be achieved, is emphasized. Glycine itself has been claimed, but a recent analysis indicates that few, if any, of the astronomical radio lines attributed to glycine are actually from that molecule. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have long been proposed as the source of the unidentified infrared bands between 3 and 16 μm, but no single PAH has been identified in space, partly because PAHs generally have weak or non-existent radio spectra. A remarkable exception is the non-planar corannulene molecule (C20H10) that has a strong radio spectrum; in the rich molecular cloud TMC-1, it is found that less than 10−5 of the carbon is contained in this molecule, suggesting that PAHs are not the dominant large molecules in the interstellar gas, as has been claimed. Owing to inherent spectroscopic limitations, determining the structures of the large molecules in space may require capture of the dust grains, which are continually entering the outer Solar System.
One contribution of 19 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Conditions for the emergence of life on the early Earth’.
- © 2006 The Royal Society