Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have detected the faint molecular fingerprint of methyl chloride – a chemical commonly produced by industrial and biological processes here on Earth – around an infant star system known as IRAS 16293-2422. Traces of this organic compound were also discovered in the thin atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/C-G) by the Rosetta space probe.
Methyl chloride (CH3Cl), also known as Freon-40, is one of a class of molecules known as organohalogens. This new ALMA observation is the first detection ever of a stable organohalogen in interstellar space. The results are published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
The cosmic discovery of this organic compound, however, is disappointing news for astrobiologists, who previously suggested searching for methyl chloride in the atmospheres of alien worlds as a possible indicator of life. The recent ALMA and Rosetta detections raise doubts about that proposal, however. They indicate that methyl chloride forms naturally in interstellar clouds and endures long enough to become part of a forming solar system.
IRAS 16293-2422 is a collection of several infant stars, or protostars, each about the same mass as our Sun. It is located about 400 light-years from Earth and is still surrounded by its natal cocoon of dust and gas.
ALMA is able to function as an interstellar chemical analyzer by detecting the faint radio signals naturally emitted by molecules in space. Each molecule has a distinctive fingerprint, or series of spikes, in the radio spectrum. For large, organic molecules, however, that signal can be difficult to detect. Larger molecules emit a wider range, though subsequently weaker, series of spikes in the spectrum. It takes incredibly sensitive instruments like ALMA to tease out the telltale signal from molecules like methyl chloride.
The Rosetta spacecraft was able to detect the molecule in the atmosphere of comet 67P/C-G using the onboard instrument known as the Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA).
The researchers also note that abundant organohalogens around a young Sun-like analog demonstrates that the organic chemistry present in the interstellar medium involves halogens, which was previously not known.
In addition, both ALMA and Rosetta detected this molecule in similar abundance ratios. Since comets are a remnant of the formation of our solar system and retain a chemical fingerprint of that era, the new observations support the idea that a young solar system can inherit the chemical make-up of its parent star-forming cloud.
This research was presented in a paper appearing in the journal Nature Astronomy titled “Protostellar and Cometary Detections of Organohalogens” by Edith C. Fayolle, Karin I. Öberg, Jes K. Jørgensen, Kathrin Altwegg, Hannah Calcutt, Holger S. P. Müller, Martin Rubin, Matthijs H. D. van der Wiel, Per Bjerkeli, Tyler L. Bourke, Audrey Coutens, Ewine F. van Dishoeck, Maria N. Drozdovskaya, Robin T. Garrod, Niels F. W. Ligterink, Magnus V. Persson, Susanne F. Wampfler & the ROSINA team. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities.