ALMA and Rosetta detect Freon-40 in space

Using data captured by ALMA in Chile and from the ROSINA instrument on ESA’s Rosetta mission , a team of astronomers has found faint traces of the chemical compound [Freon-40] – (CH3Cl), also known as methyl chloride and chloromethane, around both the infant star system IRAS 16293-2422 [1], about 400 light-years away, and the famous comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/C-G) in our own Solar System. The new ALMA observation is the first detection ever of a stable organohalogen in interstellar space [2].

Organohalogens consist of halogens, such as chlorine and fluorine, bonded with carbon and sometimes other elements. On Earth, these compounds are created by some biological processes — in organisms ranging from humans to fungi — as well as by industrial processes such as the production of dyes and medical drugs [3].

This new discovery of one of these compounds, Freon-40, in places that must predate the origin of life, can be seen as a disappointment, as earlier research had suggested that these molecules could indicate the presence of life.

“Finding the organohalogen Freon-40 near these young, Sun-like stars was surprising,” said Edith Fayolle, a researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA, and lead author of the new paper. “We simply didn’t predict its formation and were surprised to find it in such significant concentrations. It’s clear now that these molecules form readily in stellar nurseries, providing insights into the chemical evolution of planetary systems, including our own.”

Exoplanet research has gone beyond the point of finding planets — more than 3000 exoplanets are now known — to looking for chemical markers that might indicate the potential presence of life. A vital step is determining which molecules could indicate life, but establishing reliable markers remains a tricky process.

“ALMA’s discovery of organohalogens in the interstellar medium also tells us something about the starting conditions for organic chemistry on planets. Such chemistry is an important step toward the origins of life,” adds Karin Öberg, a co-author on the study. “Based on our discovery, organohalogens are likely to be a constituent of the so-called ‘primordial soup’, both on the young Earth and on nascent rocky exoplanets.”

This suggests that astronomers may have had things around the wrong way; rather than indicating the presence of existing life, organohalogens may be an important element in the little-understood chemistry involved in the origin of life.

Co-author Jes Jørgensen from the Niels Bohr Institute at University of Copenhagen adds: “This result shows the power of ALMA to detect molecules of astrobiological interest toward young stars on scales where planets may be forming. Using ALMA we have previously found precursors to sugars and amino acids around different stars. The additional discovery of Freon-40 around Comet 67P/C-G strengthens the links between the pre-biological chemistry of distant protostars and our own Solar System.”

The astronomers also compared the relative amounts of Freon-40 that contain different isotopes of chlorine in the infant star system and the comet — and found similar abundances. This supports the idea that a young planetary system can inherit the chemical composition of its parent star-forming cloud and opens up the possibility that organohalogens could arrive on planets in young systems during planet formation or via comet impacts.

“Our results shows that we still have more to learn about the formation of organohalogens,” concludes Fayolle. “Additional searches for organohalogens around other protostars and comets need to be undertaken to help find the answer.”

New receivers improve ALMA’s ability to search for water in the Universe

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile began observing a new range of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is possible thanks to new receivers installed at the telescope’s antennas, which can detect radio waves with wavelengths from 1.4 to 1.8 millimetres — a range previously untapped by ALMA. This upgrade allows astronomers to detect faint signals of water in the nearby Universe. And where there’s water, there’s a high chance of possible life.

ALMA observes radio waves from the Universe, at the low-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum. With the newly installed Band 5 receivers, ALMA has now opened its eyes to a whole new section of this radio spectrum, creating exciting new observational possibilities.

The European ALMA Programme Scientist, Leonardo Testi, explains the significance: “The new receivers will make it much easier to detect water, a prerequisite for life as we know it, in our Solar System and in more distant regions of our galaxy and beyond. They will also allow ALMA to search for ionised carbon in the primordial Universe.”

It is ALMA’s unique location, 5000 metres up on the barren Chajnantor plateau in Chile, that makes such an observation possible in the first place. As water is also present in Earth’s atmosphere, observatories in less elevated and less arid environments have much more difficulty identifying the origin of the emission coming from space. ALMA’s great sensitivity and high angular resolution mean that even faint signals of water in the local Universe can now be imaged at this wavelength [1].

The Band 5 receiver, which was developed by the Group for Advanced Receiver Development (GARD) at Onsala Space Observatory, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, has already been tested at the APEX telescope in the SEPIA instrument. These observations were also vital to help select suitable targets for the first receiver tests with ALMA.

The first production receivers were built and delivered to ALMA in the first half of 2015 by a consortium consisting of the Netherlands Research School for Astronomy (NOVA) and GARD in partnership with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which contributed the local oscillator to the project. The receivers are now installed and being prepared for use by the community of astronomers.

To test the newly installed receivers observations were made of several objects including the colliding galaxies Arp 220, a massive region of star formation close to the centre of the Milky Way, and also a dusty red supergiant star approaching the supernova explosion that will end its life [2].

To process the data and check its quality, astronomers, along with technical specialists from ESO and the European ALMA Regional Centre (ARC) network, gathered at the Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden, for a “Band 5 Busy Week” hosted by the Nordic ARC node [3]. The final results have just been made freely available to the astronomical community worldwide.

Team member Robert Laing at ESO is optimistic about the prospects for ALMA Band 5 observations: “It’s very exciting to see these first results from ALMA Band 5 using a limited set of antennas. In the future, the high sensitivity and angular resolution of the full ALMA array will allow us to make detailed studies of water in a wide range of objects including forming and evolved stars, the interstellar medium and regions close to supermassive black holes.


[1] A key spectral signature of water lies in this expanded range — at a wavelength of 1.64 millimetres.

[2] The observations were performed and made possible by the ALMA Extension of Capabilities team in Chile.

[3] The ESO Band 5 Science Verification team includes: Elizabeth Humphreys, Tony Mroczkowski, Robert Laing, Katharina Immer, Hau-Yu (Baobab) Liu, Andy Biggs, Gianni Marconi and Leonardo Testi. The team working on processing the data included: Tobia Carozzi, Simon Casey, Sabine König, Ana Lopez-Sepulcre, Matthias Maercker, Iván Martí-Vidal, Lydia Moser, Sebastien Muller, Anita Richards, Daniel Tafoya and Wouter Vlemmings.

More information

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”.