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Mirror molecules found in interstellar space

Image: Chiral molecules
The propylene oxide molecules were detected in a massive star-forming region known as Sagitttarius B2, which is close to the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy (noted as Sgr A* in this image). The white features in this composite image are bright radio sources. The background image is from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. (Credit: B. Saxton / NRAO / AUi / NSF / NRL / SDSS)

Researchers say they’ve found the first evidence of mirror-image molecules in interstellar space – a discovery that relates to the chemistry that gave rise to life here on Earth.

The molecules of propylene oxide were detected in a huge cloud known as Sagittarius B2 North, about 28,000 light-years from Earth, during a scan that used the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

Mirror-image molecules are notable because they come in left-handed or right-handed molecular orientations, like the molecules that serve as the building blocks for life on Earth. That “handedness” is known as chirality.

“This is the first molecule detected in interstellar space that has the property of chirality, making it a pioneering leap forward in our understanding of how prebiotic molecules are made in the universe and the effects they may have on the origins of life,” Brett McGuire, a chemist with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said in a news release.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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