Let's Talk About: Space sugar

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Space dazzles us in countless ways. It first captures our eyes when we see the stars shining in the night sky. Soon, our hearts are enraptured by the romantic myths of the constellations. Then, mankind’s exploration of the cosmos fills our minds with unparalleled curiosity and inspiration.

But if twinkling stars, sky-borne heroes and astronauts are not enough to catch your interest, consider this: Outer space is a rather impressive domain if you have a sweet tooth. That’s right. There is sugar in space.

No, it’s not the sugar we stir by the spoonful into our iced tea on a hot summer day. Rather, when scientists say “sugar,” they’re referring to organic molecules comprising carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (what we know as carbohydrates). Meteorites and interstellar clouds are prime examples of environments that allow this “space sugar” chemistry to exist. In 2012, scientists working with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile discovered a simple sugar called glycoaldehyde in a star-forming region near our solar system.

While our universe may not actually resemble a cosmic candy bar, its sugar is still cause for excitement. Simple sugars such as the ones detected by ALMA are considered pre-biotic, meaning they help create the chemical conditions necessary for life to form. More specifically, they contribute to the structure and energy of cells, which, of course, are the “building blocks of life.”

With this insight, we gain vital clues as to how life may have originated on Earth when sugar-carrying bodies such as meteors and comets bombarded our planet about 4 billion years ago. Furthermore, it tells us that the same life-forming phenomenon is possible elsewhere in our universe where similar impacts occur.

A starry sky sprinkled with sugar seems like fantasy, but when you look up at night, revel in the reality that there is, indeed, sugar in space that may be giving rise to life.

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