Building blocks of life in the cosmos abound

Dense molecular clouds have been identified in deep space. Located 6,500 light-years away, the majestic Eagle Nebula or M16 - the now famous "Pillars of Creation" photographed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990s - contains over 1 million atoms per cubic inch.

The elements of life are abundant in our universe. Organic, life-forming chemicals are common in giant molecular clouds throughout deep space. The fact that life arose here on Earth is testament to the fact that other places will harbor it, too. It seems apparent that complex and self-replicating living systems exist elsewhere on the planets of moons of other solar systems yet to be detected.

While the term "dense" to describe these clouds is used loosely here, astronomers consider dense molecular clouds to be the breeding grounds for the chemicals of life. (Aside: If you examine the photograph of the Pillars of Creation pictured in the online Wikipedia article titled "Eagle Nebula," our solar system, if added to the image for scale, would appear as a dot smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. The pillars are 2-3 light years long!)

While the heart of the Eagle Nebula may be extremely cold, such a high vacuum environment does not get in the way of producing life's basic elements and other things.

Inside the nebula, ice particles are like Velcro for atoms and molecules. Exposed to intense ultraviolet radiation from young stars burning inside the nebula, ice particles are a nursery for highly reactive chemical events. Eventually, large molecules accumulate in the cloud as gravity helps collapse the molecules into vast protoplanetary disks. Then a rain of organic compounds contributes to the mounting inventory of life-forming materials. As the rain progresses the rate of organic synthesis skyrockets. This is exactly the way our solar system formed; on Earth the organic rain met the right conditions and then life arose, emerging first from deep inside our planet's crust.

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