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There’s a massive cloud in the center of our galaxy, and it’s full of alcohol. Party in the Milky Way! But how did it get there? And what does it have to do with the search for life elsewhere in the universe? SciShow Space explains!

Hosted by: Reid Reimers
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A cloud of booze in space. Kinda sounds like a metaphor for college, but it's actually a real thing. There's a massive cloud in the center of our galaxy, and it's full of alcohol. And if you could somehow take a whiff of this cloud, it would smell just like rum. And if you were to taste it, it would taste a little bit like raspberry. 

So, why is there the celestial equivalent of Stoli Raspberries sitting in the middle of the Milky Way? Well, let me explain.

In the early 1950's, astronomers discovered an enormous molecular cloud called Sagittarius B2 near the center of our galaxy. Little did they know that future astronomers would find all kinds of complex molecules in this cloud, which would hold important clues to the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Or, that it contains lots and lots of alcohol.

Molecular clouds are cold, dense collections of gas and dust that eventually form stars. Most of the particles in these clouds are normally gases, like nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, and they're moving around really fast. But sometimes they stick to microscopic grains of dust, solid particles. This slows them down, and they start acting more like solids. As different molecules attach to a single grain of dust, they can bond with each other, and create simple molecular compounds. And more complex molecules form from these simpler ones, with the smaller molecules acting like building blocks, bonding to one another, with the help of yet more dust particles.

Astronomers are especially interested in these complex compounds, because they're hoping to find amino acids, the basic components of proteins, which are essential to life on Earth. Scientists have found amino acids embedded in asteroids before, suggesting that they do exist in space, but so far we haven't found any definitive proof that they're drifting around in these clouds.

So, in the 1970's, researchers from Spain, Germany, and the United States began the electromagnetic radiation coming from Sagittarius B2 to study its composition, in the hopes of discovering amino acids. And, while they didn't find any amino acids, they discovered did contain alcohol. Specifically ethanol, the kind of alcohol that's in beer and wine, as well as vinyl alcohol, which strikes me as a pretty good band name, and methanol. Sagittarius B2 turned out to have a lot of this stuff, we're talking billions and billions of liters.

This was really exciting, and not just because they found, like, an open bar at the center of the galaxy. When most people talk about alcohol, they usually mean ethanol, the drinkable party time stuff. But, to chemists, alcohol is just one type of organic compound, made up of a chain of carbon atoms plus an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen. Alcohols also happen to be one of the primary ingredients for amino acids.

So in 2009, things got even more promising. A team of astronomers from Germany and the United States discovered trace amounts of ethyl formate in the cloud. Ethyl formate is what forms when ethanol bonds with formic acid. By itself, ethyl formate smells like rum, and it's also one of the chemicals that helps give raspberries their distinctive flavor. But what's most exciting about this discovery is that ethyl formate contains one more atom than the simplest amino acid, glycine. If a compound as complex as ethyl formate can be created in Sagittarius B2, there's a dang good chance that glycine could be in there too.

In 2014, the same team returned their sights to Sagittarius B2, and this time they found isopropyl cyanide. That's an organic compound with a more complex branch structure, instead of a chain of carbon atoms that all other organic compounds in the cloud had. This branch structure is another key characteristic of amino acids, and another sign that life's building blocks may be out there.

These molecules might sound like a fun time, but should you ever find yourself visiting Sagittarius B2, you probably don't want to be tasting any of that cloud. Cyanide is poisonous, and so are vinyl alcohol and methanol. Plus these particles are cold enough to instafreeze your insides, So, you might want to BYOB to that party.

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