The ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array) in Chile is known to be one of the world’s largest bases for astronomical research. It has 66 radio telescopes and is designed to provide astronomers with a way to explore the most remote and undiscovered regions of the cosmos. It definitely succeeded in August 2012, when it played a major role in one of the strangest – and possibly most decisive – breakthroughs of the last decade: the discovery of sugar floating in space.
Sugar Floating In Space
At that time, stargazers were studying a recently formed star, attractively named IRAS 16293-2422, when they discovered the existence of sugar molecules in the warm gases surrounding the star. Further investigation revealed that they found glycolaldehyde, a kind of odorless sugar consisting of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.
The team behind this finding believes that it was the constitution of IRAS 16293-2422 itself that led to the establishment of these molecules. In many cases, new stars are formed when huge clouds of dust and gas collide. The resulting extreme cold can produce gas atoms that “freeze” on the dust particles; when many gases bind to the same element, they can fuse to form molecules such as glycolaldehyde. Interestingly, it was mainly these frozen dust materials that caused the discovery.
Since the star formed, the temperature has begun to rise and the molecules have evaporated back into gas. ALMA then identified the mixture of this gas by studying the radiation it emitted in the form of radio waves.
Although glycolaldehyde is not the similar type of sugar you add to your coffee (i.e. sucrose), this does not mean that this breakthrough is not significant: it shows that glycolaldehyde is actually one of the basic building blocks of life. As it mixes with many other molecules, it forms the member of the sugar family known as “ribose”. This is a fundamental element of nucleic acids such as RNA and – most importantly – DNA, which we cannot (of course) do without.