What do methylidyne, cyanamide, vinyl alcohol, and rugbyballene all have in common? They’re all molecules that have been detected in space — and they’re all included in a recent census of our universe’s chemical makeup.
Cumulative number of known interstellar molecules over time. Commissioning dates of major contributing facilities are noted with arrows. [McGuire 2018]
Looking For Complexity
Since the first detection of methylidyne (CH) in the interstellar medium in the 1930s, scientists have been on the lookout for the many molecules — groups of two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds — they know must exist beyond our own planet.
Observations of molecules can help us to understand the chemical evolution of the interstellar medium, the formation of planets, and the physical conditions and processes of the universe around us. But molecules produce complex spectral features that are difficult to correctly attribute, making definitive observations of specific molecules challenging — which means that we’re still only just beginning to understand the chemical composition of our universe.
In a recent publication, scientist Brett McGuire (Hubble Fellow of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) provides an overall summary of observed interstellar, circumstellar, extragalactic, protoplanetary-disk, and exoplanetary ...