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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

Perfect storm brewing for extreme politicians

Data: Axios research; Table: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Redistricting and a flood of departing incumbents are paving the way for more extreme candidates in this year's midterm elections.

Driving the news: At least 19 House districts in 12 states are primed to attract such candidates — hard partisans running in strongly partisan districts — according to an Axios analysis of districts as measured by the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index (PVI).

Updated 3 hours ago - Technology

3D printing's next act: big metal objects

Chief Scientist Andy Bayramian makes modifications to the laser system on Seurat's 3D metal printer. Photo courtesy of Seurat Technologies.

A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.

Why it matters: 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

Updated 4 hours ago - Technology

Mayors see cryptocurrency as a way to address income inequality

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors' meeting in D.C. this week, there's buzz around the idea of giving cryptocurrency accounts to low-income people.

Why it matters: Cities have been experimenting with newfangled ways to address income inequality — like guaranteed income programs — and the latest wave of trials could involve paying benefits or dividends in bitcoin, stablecoin or other digital currencies.

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