Thought Leaders

Molecule Discovered for First Time in Planet-Forming Disk

Thought LeadersNashanty BrunkenResearcher Leiden University 

AZoQuantum talks to Nashanty Brunken from the University of Leiden about a new molecule, dimethyl ether, that has been discovered for the first time in a planet-forming disk around Oph-IRS 48.

Could you please introduce yourself and your professional career?

My name is Nashanty Brunken and I am an astronomy master's student at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

What are planet-forming disks?

Planet-forming disks are disks of gas and dust that rotate around young stars. They are planetary nurseries because the formation of planets takes place from the materials that are available in these disks. 

What is dimethyl ether, and why is the discovery of this molecule in a planet-forming disk significant?

Dimethyl Ether is a complex organic molecule that forms in the ice mantles that surround dust grains. It is an important discovery because dimethyl ether is the largest complex molecule that we have discovered in a planet-forming disk to date.

Furthermore, its detection in the IRS 48 suggests that it must have an ice origin and the presence of complex ices in the IRS 48 is indirect evidence that large and possibly prebiotic molecules should be available when planets are forming.

How does this molecule relate to larger organic molecules?

Complex organic molecules are the precursors of prebiotic molecules. Dimethyl ether, for example, forms from methanol on icy dust grains, and methanol itself also has a formation route that takes place on the ice. This means that from dimethyl ether we can make larger and more complex molecules such as amino acids and sugars, the building blocks of life. Similarly, there are more molecules that have formation routes on icy grains so this means that if we can find dimethyl ether, more complex species should also be present. 

dimethyl ether, planet-forming disk, molecule, gas

Image Credit: Mr.Yankittaphak Phoyalo/

With this in mind, what does this tell us about life elsewhere in the Milky Way?

The ice origin of Dimethyl Ether suggests that these complex organic molecules are present in the earlier cold cloud phase before the formation of stars even took place. This means that all disks should have the material for prebiotic molecules. This material should therefore be available in exoplanetary systems all across the galaxy, which means that all these exoplanetary systems should have the potential to host life.

Can you explain what makes these molecules difficult to spot in planet-forming disks?

These disks are very cold, and as a result, most of these molecules remain trapped in the ices. This makes it difficult to detect them in the gas phase. The IRS 48 is a hotter star, however, and this causes the ices in the disk to sublimate from the dust grains. Furthermore, the morphology of the disk causes this sublimation to take place at a distance that is far away enough from the star that we can observe the molecules that are being released into the gas phase with ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). 

The researchers. From left to right: Alice S. Booth, Nienke van der Marel, Nashanty G.C. Brunken, Margot Leemker, Pooneh Nazari, Ewine F. van Dishoeck.

What technological advancements have been made in recent years that made this discovery possible?

With the ALMA telescope, we were able to obtain data with higher sensitivity than we ever had before and this made it possible to hunt for these molecules.

Can you explain what is next for this research?

Now that we know that these molecules are present in the IRS 48 we wish to obtain ALMA data with higher sensitivity to search for more complex organic molecules that have similar formation routes as dimethyl ether in this system. We also want to search for nitrogen-bearing species and expand our search to other sources.

How could this research help inform the James Webb Space Telescope in selecting exoplanet targets for investigation?

With the James Webb Space telescope, we will be able to look at ices across different stages of star and planet formation and we will be able to connect this to what we observe in the gas. The telescope will also make it possible to trace the very inner hot regions of these disks.

Where can readers find more information?

A&A publication:


ESO press release:

About Nashanty Brunken

I am a master's student in astronomy at Leiden University in the Netherlands and the lead author of the paper 'A major asymmetric ice trap in a planet-forming diskIII. First detection of dimethyl ether'. 

Interview questions provided in part by Robert Lea. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Skyla Baily

Written by

Skyla Baily

Skyla graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSocSc Hons in Social Anthropology. During her studies, Skyla worked as a research assistant, collaborating with a team of academics, and won a social engagement prize for her dissertation. With prior experience in writing and editing, Skyla joined the editorial team at AZoNetwork in the year after her graduation. Outside of work, Skyla’s interests include snowboarding, in which she used to compete internationally, and spending time discovering the bars, restaurants and activities Manchester has to offer!


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