List of interstellar and circumstellar molecules

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This is a list of molecules that have been detected in the interstellar medium and circumstellar envelopes, grouped by the number of component atoms. The chemical formula is listed for each detected compound, along with any ionized form that has also been observed.


The molecules listed below were detected by spectroscopy. Their spectral features are generated by transitions of component electrons between different energy levels, or by rotational or vibrational spectra. Detection usually occurs in radio, microwave, or infrared portions of the spectrum.[1]

Interstellar molecules are formed by chemical reactions within very sparse interstellar or circumstellar clouds of dust and gas. Usually this occurs when a molecule becomes ionized, often as the result of an interaction with a cosmic ray. This positively charged molecule then draws in a nearby reactant by electrostatic attraction of the neutral molecule's electrons. Molecules can also be generated by reactions between neutral atoms and molecules, although this process is generally slower.[2] The dust plays a critical role of shielding the molecules from the ionizing effect of ultraviolet radiation emitted by stars.[3]


The chemistry of life may have begun shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, during a habitable epoch when the Universe was only 10–17 million years old.[4][5]

The first carbon-containing molecule detected in the interstellar medium was the methylidyne radical (CH) in 1937.[6] From the early 1970s it was becoming evident that interstellar dust consisted of a large component of more complex organic molecules (COMs),[7] probably polymers. Chandra Wickramasinghe proposed the existence of polymeric composition based on the molecule formaldehyde (H2CO).[8] Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe later proposed the identification of bicyclic aromatic compounds from an analysis of the ultraviolet extinction absorption at 2175 Å,[9] thus demonstrating the existence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules in space.

In 2004, scientists reported[10] detecting the spectral signatures of anthracene and pyrene in the ultraviolet light emitted by the Red Rectangle nebula (no other such complex molecules had ever been found before in outer space). This discovery was considered a confirmation of a hypothesis that as nebulae of the same type as the Red Rectangle approach the ends of their lives, convection currents cause carbon and hydrogen in the nebulae's core to get caught in stellar winds, and radiate outward.[11] As they cool, the atoms supposedly bond to each other in various ways and eventually form particles of a million or more atoms. The scientists inferred[10] that since they discovered polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — which may have been vital in the formation of early life on Earth — in a nebula, by necessity they must originate in nebulae.[11]

In 2010, fullerenes (or "buckyballs") were detected in nebulae.[12] Fullerenes have been implicated in the origin of life; according to astronomer Letizia Stanghellini, "It's possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth."[13]

In October 2011, scientists found using spectroscopy that cosmic dust contains complex organic compounds ("amorphous organic solids with a mixed aromatic-aliphatic structure") that could be created naturally, and rapidly, by stars.[14][15][16] The compounds are so complex that their chemical structures resemble the makeup of coal and petroleum; such chemical complexity was previously thought to arise only from living organisms.[14] These observations suggest that organic compounds introduced on Earth by interstellar dust particles could serve as basic ingredients for life due to their surface-catalytic activities.[17][18] One of the scientists suggested that these compounds may have been related to the development of life on Earth and said that, "If this is the case, life on Earth may have had an easier time getting started as these organics can serve as basic ingredients for life."[14]

In August 2012, astronomers at Copenhagen University reported the detection of a specific sugar molecule, glycolaldehyde, in a distant star system. The molecule was found around the protostellar binary IRAS 16293-2422, which is located 400 light years from Earth.[19][20] Glycolaldehyde is needed to form ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which is similar in function to DNA. This finding suggests that complex organic molecules may form in stellar systems prior to the formation of planets, eventually arriving on young planets early in their formation.[21]

In September 2012, NASA scientists reported that PAHs, subjected to interstellar medium (ISM) conditions, are transformed, through hydrogenation, oxygenation, and hydroxylation, to more complex organics — "a step along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively".[22][23] Further, as a result of these transformations, the PAHs lose their spectroscopic signature which could be one of the reasons "for the lack of PAH detection in interstellar ice grains, particularly the outer regions of cold, dense clouds or the upper molecular layers of protoplanetary disks."[22][23]

PAHs are found everywhere in deep space[24] and, in June 2013, PAHs were detected in the upper atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn.[25]

In 2013, Dwayne Heard at the University of Leeds suggested[26] that quantum mechanical tunneling could explain a reaction his group observed taking place, at a significantly higher than expected rate, between cold (around 63 Kelvin) hydroxyl and methanol molecules, apparently bypassing intramolecular energy barriers which would have to be overcome by thermal energy or ionization events for the same rate to exist at warmer temperatures. The proposed tunneling mechanism may help explain the common observation of fairly complex molecules (up to tens of atoms) in interstellar space.

A particularly large and rich region for detecting interstellar molecules is Sagittarius B2 (Sgr B2). This giant molecular cloud lies near the center of the Milky Way galaxy and is a frequent target for new searches. About half of the molecules listed below were first found near Sgr B2, and nearly every other molecule has since been detected in this feature.[27] A rich source of investigation for circumstellar molecules is the relatively nearby star CW Leonis (IRC +10216), where about 50 compounds have been identified.[28]

In March 2015, NASA scientists reported that, for the first time, complex DNA and RNA organic compounds of life, including uracil, cytosine and thymine, have been formed in the laboratory under outer space conditions, using starting chemicals, such as pyrimidine, found in meteorites. Pyrimidine, like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the most carbon-rich chemical found in the Universe, may have been formed in red giants or in interstellar dust and gas clouds, according to the scientists.[29]

In October 2016, astronomers reported that the very basic chemical ingredients of life—the carbon-hydrogen molecule (CH, or methylidyne radical), the carbon-hydrogen positive ion (CH+) and the carbon ion (C+)—are the result, in large part, of ultraviolet light from stars, rather than in other ways, such as the result of turbulent events related to supernovae and young stars, as thought earlier.[30][31]


The following tables list molecules that have been detected in the interstellar medium, grouped by the number of component atoms. If there is no entry in the molecule column, only the ionized form has been detected. For molecules where no designation was given in the scientific literature, that field is left empty. Mass is given in atomic mass units. The total number of unique species, including distinct ionization states, is listed in parentheses in each section header.

Most of the molecules detected so far are organic. Only one inorganic species has been observed in molecules which contain at least five atoms, SiH4.[32] Larger molecules have so far all had at least one carbon atom, with no N−N or O−O bonds.[32]

Carbon monoxide is frequently used to trace the distribution of mass in molecular clouds.[33]

Diatomic (43)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
AlCl Aluminium monochloride[34][35] 62.5
AlF Aluminium monofluoride[34][36] 46
AlO Aluminium monoxide[37] 43
Argonium[38][39] 41 ArH+
C2 Diatomic carbon[40][41] 24
Fluoromethylidynium 31 CF+[42]
CH Methylidyne radical[30][43] 13 CH+[44]
CN Cyanogen radical[34][43][45][46] 26 CN+,[47] CN[48]
CO Carbon monoxide[34][49][50] 28 CO+[51]
CP Carbon monophosphide[46] 43
CS Carbon monosulfide[34] 44
FeO Iron(II) oxide[52] 82
H2 Molecular hydrogen[53] 2
HCl Hydrogen chloride[54] 36.5 HCl+[55]
HF Hydrogen fluoride[56] 20
HO Hydroxyl radical[34] 17 OH+[57]
KCl Potassium chloride[34][35] 75.5
NH Nitrogen monohydride[58][59] 15
N2 Molecular nitrogen[60][61] 28
NO Nitric oxide[62] 30 NO+[47]
NS Nitrogen sulfide[34] 46
NaCl Sodium chloride[34][35] 58.5
Magnesium monohydride cation 25.3 MgH+[47]
NaI Sodium iodide[63] 150
O2 Molecular oxygen[64] 32
PN Phosphorus mononitride[65] 45
PO Phosphorus monoxide[66] 47
SH Sulfur monohydride[67] 33 SH+[68]
SO Sulfur monoxide[34] 48 SO+[44]
SiC Carborundum[34][69] 40
SiN Silicon mononitride[34] 42
SiO Silicon monoxide[34] 44
SiS Silicon monosulfide[34] 60
TiO Titanium oxide[70] 63.9
The H+
cation is one of the most abundant ions in the universe. It was first detected in 1993.[71][72]

Triatomic (43)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
AlNC Aluminium isocyanide[34] 53
AlOH Aluminium hydroxide[73] 44
C3 Tricarbon[41] 36
C2H Ethynyl radical[34][45] 25
CCN Cyanomethylidyne[74] 38
C2O Dicarbon monoxide[75] 40
C2S Thioxoethenylidene[76] 56
C2P [77] 55
CO2 Carbon dioxide[78] 44
FeCN Iron cyanide[79] 82
Protonated molecular hydrogen 3 H+
H2C Methylene radical[80] 14
Chloronium 37.5 H2Cl+[81]
H2O Water[82] 18 H2O+[83]
HO2 Hydroperoxyl[84] 33
H2S Hydrogen sulfide[34] 34
HCN Hydrogen cyanide[34][45][85] 27
HNC Hydrogen isocyanide[86] 27
HCO Formyl radical[87] 29 HCO+[44][87][88]
HCP Phosphaethyne[89] 44
Thioformyl 45 HCS+[44][88]
HNC Hydrogen isocyanide[90] 27
Diazenylium 29 HN+
HNO Nitroxyl[91] 31
Isoformyl 29 HOC+[45]
KCN Potassium cyanide[34] 65
MgCN Magnesium cyanide[34] 50
MgNC Magnesium isocyanide[34] 50
NH2 Amino radical[92] 16
Diazenylium 29 N2H+[44][93]
N2O Nitrous oxide[94] 44
NaCN Sodium cyanide[34] 49
NaOH Sodium hydroxide[95] 40
OCS Carbonyl sulfide[96] 60
O3 Ozone[97] 48
SO2 Sulfur dioxide[34][98] 64
c-SiC2 c-Silicon dicarbide[34][69] 52
SiCSi Disilicon carbide[99] 68
SiCN Silicon carbonitride[100] 54
SiNC [101] 54
TiO2 Titanium dioxide[70] 79.9
Formaldehyde is an organic molecule that is widely distributed in the interstellar medium.[102]

Four atoms (27)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
CH3 Methyl radical[103] 15
l-C3H Propynylidyne[34][104] 37 l-C3H+[105]
c-C3H Cyclopropynylidyne[106] 37
C3N Cyanoethynyl[107] 50 C3N[108]
C3O Tricarbon monoxide[104] 52
C3S Tricarbon sulfide[34][76] 68
Hydronium 19 H3O+[109]
C2H2 Acetylene[110] 26
H2CN Methylene amidogen[111] 28 H2CN+[44]
H2CO Formaldehyde[102] 30
H2CS Thioformaldehyde[112] 46
HCCN [113] 39
HCCO Ketenyl[114] 41
Protonated hydrogen cyanide 28 HCNH+[88]
Protonated carbon dioxide 45 HOCO+[115]
HCNO Fulminic acid[116] 43
HOCN Cyanic acid[117] 43
HOOH Hydrogen peroxide[118] 34
HNCO Isocyanic acid[98] 43
HNCS Isothiocyanic acid[119] 59
NH3 Ammonia[34][120] 17
HSCN Thiocyanic acid[121] 59
SiC3 Silicon tricarbide[34]  64
HMgNC Hydromagnesium isocyanide[122]  51.3
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has also been detected on comets and in the atmosphere of several planets in the Solar System.[123]

Five atoms (19)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
Ammonium ion[124][125]  18 NH+
CH4 Methane[126] 16
CH3O Methoxy radical[127] 31
c-C3H2 Cyclopropenylidene[45][128][129] 38
l-H2C3 Propadienylidene[129] 38
H2CCN Cyanomethyl[130] 40
H2C2O Ketene[98] 42
H2CNH Methylenimine[131] 29
HNCNH Carbodiimide[132] 42
Protonated formaldehyde 31 H2COH+[133]
C4H Butadiynyl[34] 49 C4H[134]
HC3N Cyanoacetylene[34][45][88][135][136] 51
HCC-NC Isocyanoacetylene[137] 51
HCOOH Formic acid[138][135] 46
NH2CN Cyanamide[139] 42
Protonated cyanogen 53 NCCNH+[140]
HC(O)CN Cyanoformaldehyde[141] 55
SiC4 Silicon-carbide cluster[69] 92
SiH4 Silane[142] 32
In the ISM, formamide (above) can combine with methylene to form acetamide.[143]

Six atoms (16)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
c-H2C3O Cyclopropenone[144] 54
E-HNCHCN E-Cyanomethanimine[145] 54
C2H4 Ethylene[146] 28
CH3CN Acetonitrile[98][147][148] 40
CH3NC Methyl isocyanide[147] 40
CH3OH Methanol[98][149] 32
CH3SH Methanethiol[150] 48
l-H2C4 Diacetylene[34][151] 50
Protonated cyanoacetylene 52 HC3NH+[88]
HCONH2 Formamide[143] 44
C5H Pentynylidyne[34][76] 61
C5N Cyanobutadiynyl radical[152] 74
HC2CHO Propynal[153] 54
HC4N [34]  63
CH2CNH Ketenimine[128] 40
C5S [154] 92
Acetaldehyde (above) and its isomers vinyl alcohol and ethylene oxide have all been detected in interstellar space.[155]

Seven atoms (10)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
c-C2H4O Ethylene oxide[156] 44
CH3C2H Methylacetylene[45] 40
H3CNH2 Methylamine[157] 31
CH2CHCN Acrylonitrile[98][147] 53
H2CHCOH Vinyl alcohol[155] 44
C6H Hexatriynyl radical[34][76] 73 C6H[129][158]
HC4CN Cyanodiacetylene[98][136][147] 75
CH3CHO Acetaldehyde[34][156] 44
CH3NCO Methyl isocyanate[159] 57
The radio signature of acetic acid, a compound found in vinegar, was confirmed in 1997.[160]

Eight atoms (11)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass
H3CC2CN Methylcyanoacetylene[161] 65
H2COHCHO Glycolaldehyde[162] 60
HCOOCH3 Methyl formate[98][135][162] 60
CH3COOH Acetic acid[160] 60
H2C6 Hexapentaenylidene[34][151] 74
CH2CHCHO Propenal[128] 56
CH2CCHCN Cyanoallene[128][161] 65
CH3CHNH Ethanimine[163] 43
C7H Heptatrienyl radical[164] 85
NH2CH2CN Aminoacetonitrile[165] 56
(NH2)2CO Urea[166] 60

Nine atoms (10)[edit]

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
CH3C4H Methyldiacetylene[167] 64
CH3OCH3 Dimethyl Ether[168] 46
CH3CH2CN Propionitrile[34][98][147] 55
CH3CONH2 Acetamide[128][143] 59
CH3CH2OH Ethanol[169] 46
C8H Octatetraynyl radical[170] 97 C8H[171][172]
HC7N Cyanohexatriyne or Cyanotriacetylene[34][120][173][174] 99
CH3CHCH2 Propylene (propene)[175] 42
CH3CH2SH Ethyl mercaptan[176] 62
Diacetylene, HCCCCH
Methyldiacetylene, HCCCCCH3
Cyanotetraacetylene, HCCCCCCCCCN
A number of polyyne-derived chemicals are among the heaviest molecules found in the interstellar medium.

Ten or more atoms (15)[edit]

Atoms Molecule Designation Mass Ions
10 (CH3)2CO Acetone[98][177] 58
10 (CH2OH)2 Ethylene glycol[178][179] 62
10 CH3CH2CHO Propanal[128] 58
10 CH3C5N Methyl-cyano-diacetylene[128] 89
10 CH3CHCH2O Propylene oxide[180] 58
11 HC8CN Cyanotetra-acetylene[34][173] 123
11 C2H5OCHO Ethyl formate[181] 74
11 CH3COOCH3 Methyl acetate[182] 74
11 CH3C6H Methyltriacetylene[128][167] 88
12 C6H6 Benzene[151] 78
12 C3H7CN n-Propyl cyanide[181] 69
12 (CH3)2CHCN iso-Propyl cyanide[183][184] 69
13 HC10CN Cyanodecapentayne[173] 147
13 HC11N Cyanopentaacetylene[173] 159
60 C60 Buckminsterfullerene
(C60 fullerene)
720 C+
70 C70 C70 fullerene[185] 840

Deuterated molecules (20)[edit]

These molecules all contain one or more deuterium atoms, a heavier isotope of hydrogen.

Atoms Molecule Designation
2 HD Hydrogen deuteride[188][189]
3 H2D+, HD+
Trihydrogen cation[188][189]
3 HDO, D2O Heavy water[190][191]
3 DCN Hydrogen cyanide[192]
3 DCO Formyl radical[192]
3 DNC Hydrogen isocyanide[192]
3 N2D+ [192] 
4 NH2D, NHD2, ND3 Ammonia[189][193][194]
4 HDCO, D2CO Formaldehyde[189][195]
4 DNCO Isocyanic acid[196]
5 NH3D+ Ammonium ion[197][198]
6 NH
7 CH2DCCH, CH3CCD Methylacetylene[199][200]

Unconfirmed (13)[edit]

Evidence for the existence of the following molecules has been reported in scientific literature, but the detections are either described as tentative by the authors, or have been challenged by other researchers. They await independent confirmation.

Atoms Molecule Designation
2 SiH Silylidine[86]
4 PH3 Phosphine[201]
4 MgCCH Magnesium monoacetylide[154]
4 NCCP Cyanophosphaethyne[154]
5 C5 Linear C5[41]
5 H2NCO+ [202]
4 SiH3CN Silyl cyanide[154]
10 H2NH2CCOOH Glycine[203][204]
12 CO(CH2OH)2 Dihydroxyacetone[205]
12 C2H5OCH3 Ethyl methyl ether[206]
18 C
Naphthalene cation[207]
24 C24 Graphene[208]
24 C14H10 Anthracene[10][209]
26 C16H10 Pyrene[10]

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