Detection of the aromatic molecule benzonitrile (c-C6H5CN) in the interstellar medium

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Science  12 Jan 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6372, pp. 202-205
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao4890

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A specific interstellar aromatic molecule

Aromatic molecules such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are known to exist in the interstellar medium owing to their characteristic infrared emission features. However, the infrared emission only indicates the general class of molecule, and identifying which specific molecular species are present is difficult. McGuire et al. used radio astronomy to detect rotational transitions of benzonitrile emitted from a well-known nearby cloud of interstellar gas (see the Perspective by Joblin and Cernicharo). This molecule may be a precursor to more complex PAHs. The identification of benzonitrile sheds light on the composition of aromatic material within the interstellar medium—material that will eventually be incorporated into new stars and planets.

Science, this issue p. 202; see also p. 156


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles are thought to be widespread throughout the universe, because these classes of molecules are probably responsible for the unidentified infrared bands, a set of emission features seen in numerous Galactic and extragalactic sources. Despite their expected ubiquity, astronomical identification of specific aromatic molecules has proven elusive. We present the discovery of benzonitrile (c-C6H5CN), one of the simplest nitrogen-bearing aromatic molecules, in the interstellar medium. We observed hyperfine-resolved transitions of benzonitrile in emission from the molecular cloud TMC-1. Simple aromatic molecules such as benzonitrile may be precursors for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon formation, providing a chemical link to the carriers of the unidentified infrared bands.

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