A multinational team of scientists has detected simple sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star, around 400 light years away. While sugar has previously been detected in molecular gas clouds, this is the first time it has been seen close to a star.

A multinational team of scientists has detected simple sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star, around 400 light years away. While sugar has previously been detected in molecular gas clouds, this is the first time it has been seen close to a star. The findings have been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The discovery shows that sugars, which are the building blocks of life, are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in the makeup of newly forming planets, say
the group of international scientists led by Jes Jørgensen from the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark.

"This simple sugar called glycolaldehyde is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which, like DNA, is one of the building blocks of life," says Jørgensen.

"These are not much different to the sugar we put in coffee."

The team used the newly completed European Southern Observatory Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array radio telescope (ALMA) in Chile, which has provided new opportunities for astro-chemistry research.

"One of the most intriguing questions in studies of the chemistry of the early solar system is whether, how, when and where complex organic and potentially pre-biotic molecules are formed," says Jørgensen.

Jørgensen's team also detected other complex organic molecules around the star including ethylene glycol, methyl-formate and ethanol.

Professor Malcolm Walter from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales said "it's important to know that these molecules can form or at least congregate at distances from a star comparable to where the planet Uranus orbits in our solar system."

"Just as important was their discovery that these molecules were moving inwards, towards the star's habitable zone, where water can exist as liquid."

"That's what we need for the origin of life."