interstellar molecule

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Any molecule that occurs naturally in clouds of gas and dust in space. More than 150 such molecules have already been identified, chiefly by their emission or absorption of radio waves at particular wavelengths. The simplest molecule, H2, is also the most abundant. Other known molecules include simple groupings such as carbon monoxide (CO), ammonia (NH3), and water (H2O); simple organic molecules such as ethyl alcohol (CH3CH2OH), formaldehyde (H2CO), and acetic acid (CH3COOH); and a variety of ions and radicals which are unstable on Earth, such as hydroxyl (OH), sulphur monoxide (SO), and the formyl ion (HCO+). Many isotopic variants are also found, for example HDO, a form of water in which one hydrogen atom has been replaced by an atom of deuterium, a heavy form (isotope) of hydrogen. The largest molecule yet identified is cyanodecapentayne (HC11N). More complicated molecules could be responsible for spectral lines that have been detected but not identified. Interstellar molecules regulate the temperature of the gas clouds by radiating away energy at radio wavelengths. This energy loss allows some of the densest regions of the cloud to collapse into stars. Molecules are also formed in the envelopes of gas and dust around old stars. These are usually termed circumstellar molecules because they have formed from material that came from the star, whereas interstellar molecules are formed from general interstellar matter.

Subjects: Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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