“Galactic Disinfectant”: Isopropanol detected near the center of the Milky Way

Near giant black hole
Disinfectant discovered at the center of the Milky Way

On Earth, skin or surfaces are disinfected with it – now a research team has detected the substance isopropanol near the center of the Milky Way. Other organic molecules have already been discovered there. They could play a role in the origin of life.

Astronomers report an amazing-sounding discovery in space. They detect disinfectants near the center of our Milky Way. What’s going on, has the corona virus already gotten that far? This is nonsense, of course, but the find is still amazing. Because the disinfectant is an alcohol called isopropanol. It is the largest alcohol molecule discovered in space to date, announced the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn.

Many people have already held isopropanol in their hands: the alcohol is used to disinfect skin or surfaces. The substance was discovered when examining a molecular cloud in the Sagittarius B2 region. The area is the birthplace of new stars and is close to supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Many organic molecules have been detected there in the past, which is why the region is a real treasure trove for astronomers. An international research group led by Arnaud Belloche from the MPIfR has now been able to track down the isopropanol used as a disinfectant on earth – as well as the related propanol. It is the largest alcohol molecule discovered in interstellar space to date.

According to Belloche, the chemical composition of the Sagittarius B2 region has been under investigation for 15 years. “These observations were successful and, in particular, led to the first interstellar detection of a number of organic molecules.” Since 2014, isopropyl cyanide, which is used on earth for the production of insecticides, among other things, N-methylformamide and urea have been found.

Search for “fingerprints”

However, detecting organic molecules in the spectra of star-forming regions is anything but easy. The researchers use the ALMA radio telescope in Chile for this purpose. “The larger the molecule, the more spectral lines it will emit at different frequencies,” says Holger Müller from the University of Cologne. In a source like Sagittarius B2, there are so many molecules that their spectra overlap, making it difficult to unravel their “fingerprints” and identify them individually.

Why all this? The researchers want to understand how organic molecules form in the interstellar medium, especially in regions where new stars are born. They also want to find out how complex these molecules can be. One motivation behind this is to make connections to the chemical composition of bodies in the solar system such as comets, such as that provided by the “Rosetta” mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko a few years ago. Comets could have supplied organic molecules to early Earth billions of years ago – and thus possibly contributed to the emergence of life.


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