First Detection of Methyl Alcohol in a Planet-forming Disc
15 June 2016
The organic molecule methyl alcohol (methanol) has been found by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in the TW Hydrae protoplanetary disc. This is the first such detection of the compound in a young planet-forming disc. Methanol is the only complex organic molecule as yet detected in discs that unambiguously derives from an icy form. Its detection helps astronomers understand the chemical processes that occur during the formation of planetary systems and that ultimately lead to the creation of the ingredients for life.
The protoplanetary disc around the young star TW Hydrae is the closest known example to Earth, at a distance of only about 170 light-years. As such it is an ideal target for astronomers to study discs. This system closely resembles what astronomers think the Solar System looked like during its formation more than four billion years ago.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) is the most powerful observatory in existence for mapping the chemical composition and the distribution of cold gas in nearby discs. These unique capabilities have now been exploited by a group of astronomers led by Catherine Walsh (Leiden Observatory, the Netherlands) to investigate the chemistry of the TW Hydrae protoplanetary disc.
The ALMA observations have revealed the fingerprint of gaseous methyl alcohol, or methanol (CH3OH), in a protoplanetary disc for the first time. Methanol, a derivative of methane, is one of the largest complex organic molecules detected in discs to date. Identifying its presence in pre-planetary objects represents a milestone for understanding how organic molecules are incorporated into nascent planets.
Furthermore, methanol is itself a building block for more complex species of fundamental prebiotic importance, like amino acid compounds. As a result, methanol plays a vital role in the creation of the rich organic chemistry needed for life.
Catherine Walsh, lead author of the study, explains: “Finding methanol in a protoplanetary disc shows the unique capability of ALMA to probe the complex organic ice reservoir in discs and so, for the first time, allows us to look back in time to the origin of chemical complexity in a planet nursery around a young Sun-like star.”
Gaseous methanol in a protoplanetary disc has a unique importance in astrochemistry. While other species detected in space are formed by gas-phase chemistry alone, or by a combination of both gas and solid-phase generation, methanol is a complex organic compound which is formed solely in the ice phase via surface reactions on dust grains.
The sharp vision of ALMA has also allowed astronomers to map the gaseous methanol across the TW Hydrae disc. They discovered a ring-like pattern in addition to significant emission from close to the central star .
The observation of methanol in the gas phase, combined with information about its distribution, implies that methanol formed on the disc’s icy grains, and was subsequently released in gaseous form. This first observation helps to clarify the puzzle of the methanol ice–gas transition , and more generally the chemical processes in astrophysical environments .
Ryan A. Loomis, a co-author of the study, adds: “Methanol in gaseous form in the disc is an unambiguous indicator of rich organic chemical processes at an early stage of star and planet formation. This result has an impact on our understanding of how organic matter accumulates in very young planetary systems.”
This successful first detection of cold gas-phase methanol in a protoplanetary disc means that the production of ice chemistry can now be explored in discs, paving the way to future studies of complex organic chemistry in planetary birthplaces. In the hunt for life-sustaining exoplanets, astronomers now have access to a powerful new tool.
 A ring of methanol between 30 and 100 astronomical units (au) reproduces the pattern of the observed methanol data from ALMA. The identified structure supports the hypothesis that the bulk of the disc ice reservoir is hosted primarily on the larger (up to millimetre-sized) dust grains, residing in the inner 50 au, which have become decoupled from the gas, and drifted radially inwards towards the star.
 In this study, rather than thermal desorption (with methanol released at temperatures higher than its sublimation temperature), other mechanisms are supported and discussed by the team, including photodesorption by ultraviolet photons and reactive desorption. More detailed ALMA observations would help to definitely favour one scenario among the others.
 Radial variation of chemical species in the disc midplane composition, and specifically the locations of snowlines, are crucial for understanding the chemistry of nascent planets.The snowlines mark the boundary beyond which a particular volatile chemical species is frozen out onto dust grains. The detection of methanol also in the colder outer regions of the disc shows that it is able to escape off the grains at temperatures much lower than its sublimation temperature, necessary to trigger thermal desorption.
This research was presented in a paper entitled “First detection of gas-phase methanol in a protoplanetary disk”, by Catherine Walsh et al., published in Astrophysical Journal, Volume 823, Number 1.
The team is composed of Catherine Walsh (Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands), Ryan A. Loomis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA), Karin I. Öberg (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA), Mihkel Kama (Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands), Merel L. R. van't Hoff (Leiden Observatory, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands), Tom J. Millar (School of Mathematics and Physics, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK), Yuri Aikawa (Center for Computational Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Japan), Eric Herbst (Departments of Chemistry and Astronomy, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA), Susanna L. Widicus Weaver (Department of Chemistry, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA) and Hideko Nomura (Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokyo, Japan).
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).
ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
- Research paper
- Earlier ALMA observations of organic compounds in discs
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- Other press releases featuring ALMA
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