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Scientists have been accumulating data collected by telescopes in the search for the origin of complex molecules in outer space.

Using powerful telescopes on Earth, scientists have been examining molecules in the dust and gas clouds where new stars are born. The international collaboration used their observations to identify regions in outer space that have the right conditions for high levels of methanol production.

"Methanol just happens to be one of the most interesting molecules because of its chemical potential. It is a stepping-stone to much more complex organic molecules that might be relevant to forming new life on other planets around other stars,” explained lead researcher Professor Douglas Whittet, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "The observations [we made] show that most regions of interstellar space have a little [methanol] but only a few have a lot of it, so the latter are the most interesting,” he continued.

By identifying regions where a lot of methanol is produced, it is possible for the scientists to understand more about how and where in the universe complex molecules, from which life can develop, might form. The observations led the group to reach the conclusion that there is a ‘sweet spot’ where the physical conditions are just right for methanol to form in outer space.

About the scientist: Professor Douglas Whittet

What motivated you to become a scientist?

I've been interested in astronomy since I was a child. I guess I'm unusual in that I always knew what I wanted to do.

What is the best thing about the research you do?

Excitement of new discoveries. This new work builds on a lot of previous work and it's nice when a lot of apparently unrelated data from a lot of different sources comes together to paint a coherent picture.