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The Taurus Molecular Cloud is the dark, obscured region in the upper left of the image, where the gas and dust are blocking the stars behind the cloud from view. Taken from Charlottesville, VA on January 2, 2018. Credit: Brett A. McGuire

For the first time, scientists have identified a complex molecule in a distant part of the solar system, according to research published Thursday in the journal Science. The find brings scientists closer to solving a 30 year old astronomical mystery.

Why it matters: The researchers identified benzonitrile, a molecule made of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, which is thought to be a building block for two other types of molecules that are possible precursors for life on Earth. By finding it — and developing a technique precise enough to identify specific molecules in distant space — scientists are closer to understanding the types of material that may form planets and the composition of our universe.

The mystery: 30 years ago, scientists saw bands of infrared light in many places in interstellar space that couldn’t be explained. They suspected large groups of two molecules — polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocyles (PANH) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) — could be responsible. By one estimate, 20% of the carbon in the universe is bound up in a PAH. On Earth, they’re considered a carcinogen, and are produced when things burn — like fossil fuels.

Both PAH and PANH are potential precursors to life on Earth but are extremely hard to find in interstellar space so researchers instead chose to hunt for its precursor benzonitrile. Identifying it brings them closer to solving that mystery. Additionally, Brett McGuire and his team at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory noted that benzonitrile could, itself, be involved in the creation of the mysterious infrared bands.

"[The molecules] can form the seeds for interstellar dust. This dust eventually forms rings and planets," McGuire said in a press conference. Additionally, they contain carbon and hydrogen, which are essential for life. When exposed to radiation, they could break down to form life's building blocks, said McGuire.

How they did it: The study authors pointed the Green Bank Telescope at a distant molecular cloud in the Taurus region, and precisely measured the wavelengths the telescope absorbed. They were able to identify a number of molecules, including benzonitrile. Then, they performed a series of lab experiments to confirm that benzonitrile does, indeed, produce the wavelengths seen in Taurus.

One cool thing: Aromatic molecules aren’t called that because of what they smell like, but for the type of bonds they form. BUT: for the curious, benzonitrile smells like almonds.

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”

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