PARIS (AFP) - Astronomers say they have spotted a cloud of alcohol in deep space that measures 463 billion kilometres (288 billion miles) across, a finding that could shed light on how giant stars are formed from primordial gas.
The vast bridge-shaped cloud of methyl alcohol has been spotted in a region of our galaxy, the Milky Way, that is called W3(OH), where stars are being formed by the gravitational collapse of concentrations of gas and dust, the discoverers said in a press release.
Methanol, an organic (carbon-based) molecule, is a cousin of ethanol, which is found in alcoholic beverages. Methanol is not suitable for human consumption.
The cloud was spotted by astronomers based at Britain's Jodrell Bank Observatory led by Lisa Harvey-Smith. Their work was to be presented on Tuesday at a meeting in Leicester, central England, of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).
In 2004, methanol, also called methyl alcohol, was spotted for the first time in one of the disk-like clusters that form around nascent stars.
That discovery opened up a new area of debate in astrophysics, challenging the conventional view that interstellar chemistry could not provide the conditions for creating complex molecules, as they would be ripped apart by ultraviolet radiation from stars and other tough conditions.
Around 130 organic molecules have also been identified so far in outer space, fuelling speculation that these complex molecules may have helped to sow the seeds for life on the fledgling Earth.