Largest molecule discovered in a planet-forming disc

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Researchers have discovered the largest molecule identified in such a planet-forming disc to date.

Dimethyl ether – a nine-atom organic molecule commonly seen in star-forming clouds – has been detected in the planet-forming disc around the young star IRS 48 (also known as Oph-IRS 48) with the help of Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

Researchers say they have also possibly detected methyl formate, a complex molecule similar to dimethyl ether that is also a building block for even larger organic molecules.

IRS 48, located 444 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus, has been the subject of numerous studies because its disc contains an asymmetric, cashew-nut-shaped “dust trap”. This region, which likely formed as a result of a newly born planet or small companion star located between the star and the dust trap, retains large numbers of millimetre-sized dust grains that can come together and grow into kilometre-sized objects like comets, asteroids and potentially even planets.

Many complex organic molecules, such as dimethyl ether, are thought to arise in star-forming clouds, even before the stars themselves are born. In these cold environments, atoms and simple molecules like carbon monoxide stick to dust grains, forming an ice layer and undergoing chemical reactions, which result in more complex molecules.

Researchers recently discovered that the dust trap in the IRS 48 disc is also an ice reservoir, harbouring dust grains covered with this ice rich in complex molecules. It was in this region of the disc that ALMA has now spotted signs of the dimethyl ether molecule: as heating from IRS 48 sublimates the ice into gas, the trapped molecules inherited from the cold clouds are freed and become detectable.

The discovery of dimethyl ether suggests that many other complex molecules that are commonly detected in star-forming regions may also be lurking on icy structures in planet-forming discs. These molecules are the precursors of prebiotic molecules such as amino acids and sugars, which are some of the basic building blocks of life.

By studying their formation and evolution, researchers can therefore gain a better understanding of how prebiotic molecules end up on planets, including our own.

Future studies of IRS 48 with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile and set to start operations later this decade, will allow the team to study the chemistry of the very inner regions of the disc, where planets like Earth may be forming.