Ever wondered what the center of the galaxy smells like? Depending on your preference, the answer could be raspberries or rum.
As improbable as this sounds, the discovery was made when astronomers from the Max Plank Institute used the IRAM radio telescope in Spain to study Sagittarius B2, a dust cloud near the center of the galaxy. The announcement was made at the time in Astrophysics and has since been confirmed with studies of similar dust clouds.
Among the chemicals for which signals were found was ethyl formate (C3H6O2), the dominant flavor in raspberries, as well as an important one in rum.
Now before enthusiasts start getting too carried away with plans for giant drunken berry picking space voyages there are a few things that need to be pointed out. Ethyl formate “does happen to give raspberries their flavor, but there are many other molecules that are needed to make space raspberries," the Institute's Arnaud Belloche told The Guardian. The density is also far to thin to be useful, and there is that annoying lack of enough oxygen to breathe.
Moreover, the smell is hardly pure. Belloche found nearly 4000 distinct signals in Sagittarius B. "So far we have identified around 50 molecules in our survey, and two of those had not been seen before," Belloche said at the time, but since then progress has been made on establishing the source of some of these.
The finding serves as a reminder that a lot of the chemicals we know as a product of living things can be produced in other ways, including through the impact of ultraviolet light on other molecules, as in this case. Alcohols, including ethanol, turn up quite frequently in space.
On Earth, ethyl formate is usually produced when ethanol reacts with formic acid (the primary constituent of ant venom)
The ambition for astronomers like Belloche is to find amino acids, the building blocks of life. Since glycine, the simplest amino acid, is no larger than ethyl formate, the find boosted their confidence. Claims for the discovery of glycine have been made before, but have attracted little support.
"The difficulty in searching for complex molecules is that the best astronomical sources contain so many different molecules that their 'fingerprints' overlap and are difficult to disentangle," says Belloche.