International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

CH3+: A Life-Giving Molecule Detected in Space


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: CH3+

Mains level: Not Much


Central Idea

  • The recent discovery of the CH3+ molecule, also known as methyl cation, by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has provided significant insights into the building blocks of life.
  • This simple organic molecule, consisting of one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms, has been found in the Orion Nebula.
  • This reveals the potential for the formation of complex organic molecules necessary for life.

What is CH3+?

  • The methyl cation, also known as the carbocation CH3^+, is an organic molecular ion consisting of a positively charged carbon atom (C+) with three hydrogen atoms (H) attached to it.
  • It is the simplest carbocation and belongs to the alkyl cation family.
  • The methyl cation is highly reactive due to its positive charge and the electron-deficient nature of the carbon atom.
  • Due to its reactivity, the methyl cation tends to undergo reactions to achieve greater stability by accepting a pair of electrons.
  • It can react with nucleophiles, which are electron-rich species, to form new chemical bonds.

How does it support life?

  • Carbon-Based Organic Molecules: In biological processes, carbon atoms typically exist in stable organic molecules, such as carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids, which are essential for life.
  • Importance of CH3+: The detection of the CH3+ molecule in space indicates the presence of basic building blocks for life beyond Earth.

Significance of discovering CH3+ in Space

  • Molecular Fingerprints: Scientists analyze light emitted or absorbed by atoms and molecules to identify their unique spectroscopic signatures.
  • Spectroscopy with JWST: The JWST observed the Orion Nebula, a swirling disk of dust and gas surrounding a young star, and detected the distinctive fingerprints of CH3+ in its light.


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