A space observatory has identified the chemical fingerprints of potentially life-enabling organic molecules in the Orion nebula, a nearby stellar nursery in our Milky Way galaxy.

The Herschel Space Observatory said Thursday that its telescopes  heterodyne instrument for the far infrared -- one of Herschel's three innovative instruments -- demonstrates the gold mine of information that Herschel will provide on how organic molecules form in space.

By sifting through the pattern of spikes in the new data, called a spectrum, astronomers have identified a few common molecules that are precursors to life-enabling molecules, including water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, methanol, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur oxide and sulfur dioxide.

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by a consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA.

The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Herschel is led by the European Space Agency with important participation from NASA.