An international collaboration of astrophysicists, astronomers, and chemists has achieved a significant breakthrough by detecting carbonic acid (HOCOOH) in interstellar space—a first-of-its-kind discovery. Their findings, detailed in The Astrophysical Journal, shed light on the location, implications, and potential relevance of this finding to the study of life’s origins.
Previous research has unveiled the presence ofacetic and formic acid in interstellar environments, both being carboxylic acids akin to carbonic acid. These compounds are considered fundamental building blocks of life, and their identification in distant spaces lends weight to the hypothesis that they could have been transported to Earth via comets or meteorites. In their latest investigation, the team focused on the molecular cloud G+0.693-0.027 near the Milky Way’s center, where evidence of HOCOOH was uncovered.
Carboxylic acids encompass a carbon atom bonded to an oxygen atom with a double bond, along with a single bond to a hydroxyl group. Carbonic acid emerges on Earth when CO2 dissolves in water, producing the tangy taste in soft drinks and contributing to the increasing ocean acidity due to rising atmospheric CO2 levels.
While carbonic acid has been identified on several of Jupiter’s moons, comets, Mercury, and Mars, this marks the inaugural detection of it within interstellar regions. The researchers underline the complexity implied by carbonic acid’s presence in an interstellar molecular cloud, which could hint at the potential existence of amino-acid-related compounds. This encourages further investigation into other acids such as glycolic, cyanoacetic, propanoic, and glycine.
The study also establishes an upper limit for HOCOOH abundance in relation to diatomic hydrogen within the molecular cloud, hinting at the possible abundance of carbonic acid in interstellar spaces. The challenge of spotting carbonic acid, despite its apparent prevalence, has been attributed to its resistance to detection via radio astronomical observations.
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