Physics:List of interstellar and circumstellar molecules

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Short description: Molecules detected in space
Infrared spectrum of HH 46/47 (image in inset), with vibrational bands of several molecules labelled in colour

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 through astronomical spectroscopy. Their spectral features arise because molecules either absorb or emit a photon of light when they transition between two molecular energy levels. The energy (and thus the wavelength) of the photon matches the energy difference between the levels involved. Molecular electronic transitions occur when one of the molecule's electrons moves between molecular orbitals, producing a spectral line in the ultraviolet, optical or near-infrared parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Alternatively, a vibrational transition transfers quanta of energy to (or from) vibrations of molecular bonds, producing signatures in the mid- or far-infrared. Gas-phase molecules also have quantised rotational levels, leading to transitions at microwave or radio wavelengths.[1]

Sometimes a transition can involve more than one of these types of energy level e.g. ro-vibrational spectroscopy changes both the rotational and vibrational energy level. Occasionally all three occur together, as in the Phillips band of C2 (diatomic carbon), in which an electronic transition produces a line in the near-infrared, which is then split into several vibronic bands by a simultaneous change in vibrational level, which in turn are split again into rotational branches.[2]

The spectrum of a particular molecule is governed by the selection rules of quantum chemistry and by its molecular symmetry. Some molecules have simple spectra which are easy to identify, whilst others (even some small molecules) have extremely complex spectra with flux spread among many different lines, making them far harder to detect.[3] Interactions between the atomic nuclei and the electrons sometimes cause further hyperfine structure of the spectral lines. If the molecule exists in multiple isotopologues (versions containing different atomic isotopes), the spectrum is further complicated by isotope shifts.

Detection of a new interstellar or circumstellar molecule requires identifying a suitable astronomical object where it is likely to be present, then observing it with a telescope equipped with a spectrograph working at the required wavelength, spectral resolution and sensitivity. The first molecule detected in the interstellar medium was the methylidyne radical (CH) in 1937, through its strong electronic transition at 4300 angstroms (in the optical).[4] Advances in astronomical instrumentation have led to increasing numbers of new detections. From the 1950s onwards, radio astronomy began to dominate new detections, with sub-mm astronomy also becoming important from the 1990s.[3]

The inventory of detected molecules is highly biased towards certain types which are easier to detect: e.g. radio astronomy is most sensitive to small linear molecules with a high molecular dipole.[3] The most common molecule in the Universe, H2 (molecular hydrogen) is completely invisible to radio telescopes because it has no dipole;[3] its electronic transitions are too energetic for optical telescopes, so detection of H2 required ultraviolet observations with a sounding rocket.[5] Vibrational lines are often not specific to an individual molecule, allowing only the general class to be identified. For example, the vibrational lines of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were identified in 1984,[6] showing the class of molecules is very common in space,[7] but it took until 2021 to identify any specific PAHs through their rotational lines.[8][9]

One of the richest sources for detecting interstellar molecules is Sagittarius B2 (Sgr B2), a giant molecular cloud near the centre of the Milky Way. About half of the molecules listed below were first found in Sgr B2, and many of the others have been subsequently detected there.[10] A rich source of circumstellar molecules is CW Leonis (also known as IRC +10216), a nearby carbon star, where about 50 molecules have been identified.[11] There is no clear boundary between interstellar and circumstellar media, so both are included in the tables below.

The discipline of astrochemistry includes understanding how these molecules form and explaining their abundances. The extremely low density of the interstellar medium is not conducive to the formation of molecules, making conventional gas-phase reactions between neutral species (atoms or molecules) inefficient. Many regions also have very low temperatures (typically 10 kelvin inside a molecular cloud), further reducing the reaction rates, or high ultraviolet radiation fields, which destroy molecules through photochemistry.[12] Explaining the observed abundances of interstellar molecules requires calculating the balance between formation and destruction rates using gas-phase ion chemistry (often driven by cosmic rays), surface chemistry on cosmic dust, radiative transfer including interstellar extinction, and sophisticated reaction networks.[13] The use of molecular lines to determine the physical properties of astronomical objects is known as molecular astrophysics.


The following tables list molecules that have been detected in the interstellar medium or circumstellar matter, grouped by the number of component atoms. Neutral molecules and their molecular ions are listed in separate columns; if there is no entry in the molecule column, only the ionized form has been detected. Designations (names of molecules) are those used in the scientific literature describing the detection; if none was given that field is left empty. Mass is listed in atomic mass units. Deuterated molecules, which contain at least one deuterium (2H) atom, have slightly different masses and are listed in a separate table. The total number of unique species, including distinct ionization states, is indicated in each section header.

Most of the molecules detected so far are organic. The only detected inorganic molecule with five or more atoms is SiH4.[14] Molecules larger than that all have at least one carbon atom, with no N−N or O−O bonds.[14]

Carbon monoxide is frequently used to trace the distribution of mass in molecular clouds.[15]

Diatomic (43)

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
AlCl Aluminium monochloride[16][17] 62.5
AlF Aluminium monofluoride[16][18] 46
AlO Aluminium monoxide[19] 43
Argonium[20][21] 37[note 1] ArH+
C2 Diatomic carbon[22][23] 24
Fluoromethylidynium 31 CF+[24]
CH Methylidyne radical[25][26] 13 CH+[27]
CN Cyano radical[16][26][28][29] 26 CN+,[30] CN[31]
CO Carbon monoxide[16][32][33] 28 CO+[34]
CP Carbon monophosphide[29] 43
CS Carbon monosulfide[16] 44
FeO Iron(II) oxide[35] 82
Helium hydride ion[36][37] 5 HeH+
H2 Molecular hydrogen[5] 2
HCl Hydrogen chloride[38] 36.5 HCl+[39]
HF Hydrogen fluoride[40] 20
HO Hydroxyl radical[16] 17 OH+[41]
KCl Potassium chloride[16][17] 75.5
NH Imidogen radical[42][43] 15
N2 Molecular nitrogen[44][45] 28
NO Nitric oxide[46] 30 NO+[30]
NS Nitrogen sulfide[16] 46
NaCl Sodium chloride[16][17] 58.5
Magnesium monohydride cation 25.3 MgH+[30]
O2 Molecular oxygen[47] 32
PN Phosphorus mononitride[48][49] 45
PO Phosphorus monoxide[50] 47
SH Sulfur monohydride[51] 33 SH+[52]
SO Sulfur monoxide[16] 48 SO+[27]
SiC Carborundum[16][53] 40
SiN [54] 42
SiO Silicon monoxide[16] 44
SiS Silicon monosulfide[16] 60
TiO Titanium(II) oxide[55] 63.9
The H+3 cation is one of the most abundant ions in the universe. It was first detected in 1993.[56][57]

Triatomic (44)

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
AlNC Aluminium isocyanide[16] 53
AlOH Aluminium hydroxide[58] 44
C3 Tricarbon[59][60] 36
C2H Ethynyl radical[16][28] 25
CCN Cyanomethylidyne[61] 38
C2O Dicarbon monoxide[62] 40
C2S Thioxoethenylidene[63] 56
C2P [64] 55
CO2 Carbon dioxide[65] 44
CaNC Calcium isocyanide[66] 92
FeCN Iron cyanide[67] 82
Protonated molecular hydrogen 3 H+3[56][57]
H2C Methylene radical[68] 14
Chloronium 37.5 H2Cl+[69]
H2O Water[70] 18 H2O+[71]
HO2 Hydroperoxyl[72] 33
H2S Hydrogen sulfide[16] 34
HCN Hydrogen cyanide[16][28][73] 27
HNC Hydrogen isocyanide[74][75] 27
HCO Formyl radical[76] 29 HCO+[27][76][77]
HCP Phosphaethyne[78] 44
HCS Thioformyl[79] 45 HCS+[27][77]
Diazenylium[77][27][80] 29 HN+2
HNO Nitroxyl[81] 31
Isoformyl 29 HOC+[28]
HSC Isothioformyl[79] 45
KCN Potassium cyanide[16] 65
MgCN Magnesium cyanide[16] 50
MgNC Magnesium isocyanide[16] 50
NH2 Amino radical[82] 16
N2O Nitrous oxide[83] 44
NaCN Sodium cyanide[16] 49
NaOH Sodium hydroxide[84] 40
OCS Carbonyl sulfide[85] 60
O3 Ozone[86] 48
SO2 Sulfur dioxide[16][87] 64
c-SiC2 c-Silicon dicarbide[16][53] 52
SiCSi Disilicon carbide[88] 68
SiCN Silicon carbonitride[89] 54
SiNC [90] 54
TiO2 Titanium dioxide[55] 79.9
Formaldehyde is an organic molecule that is widely distributed in the interstellar medium.[91]

Four atoms (30)

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
CH3 Methyl radical[92] 15
l-C3H Propynylidyne[16][93] 37 l-C3H+[94]
c-C3H Cyclopropynylidyne[95] 37
C3N Cyanoethynyl[96] 50 C3N[97]
C3O Tricarbon monoxide[93] 52
C3S Tricarbon sulfide[16][63] 68
Hydronium 19 H3O+[98]
C2H2 Acetylene[99] 26
H2CN Methylene amidogen[100] 28 H2CN+[27]
H2NC Aminocarbyne[101] 28
H2CO Formaldehyde[91] 30
H2CS Thioformaldehyde[102] 46
HCCN [103] 39
HCCO Ketenyl[104] 41
Protonated hydrogen cyanide 28 HCNH+[77]
Protonated carbon dioxide 45 HOCO+[105]
HCNO Fulminic acid[106] 43
HOCN Cyanic acid[107] 43
CNCN Isocyanogen[108] 52
HOOH Hydrogen peroxide[109] 34
HNCO Isocyanic acid[87] 43
HNCN Cyanomidyl radical[110] 41
HNCS Isothiocyanic acid[111] 59
NH3 Ammonia[16][112] 17
HSCN Thiocyanic acid[113] 59
SiC3 Silicon tricarbide[16]  64
HMgNC Hydromagnesium isocyanide[114]  51.3
HNO2 Nitrous acid[115] 47
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has also been detected on comets and in the atmosphere of several planets in the Solar System.[116]

Five atoms (20)

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
Ammonium ion 18 NH+4[117][118]
CH4 Methane[119] 16
CH3O Methoxy radical[120] 31
c-C3H2 Cyclopropenylidene[28][121][122] 38
l-H2C3 Propadienylidene[122] 38
H2CCN Cyanomethyl[123] 40
H2C2O Ketene[87] 42
H2CNH Methylenimine[124] 29
HNCNH Carbodiimide[125] 42
Protonated formaldehyde 31 H2COH+[126]
C4H Butadiynyl[16] 49 C4H[127]
HC3N Cyanoacetylene[16][28][77][128][129] 51
HCC-NC Isocyanoacetylene[130] 51
HCOOH Formic acid[131][128] 46
NH2CN Cyanamide[132][133] 42
NH2OH Hydroxylamine[134] 37
Protonated cyanogen 53 NCCNH+[135]
HC(O)CN Cyanoformaldehyde[136] 55
C5 Linear C5[137] 60
SiC4 Silicon-carbide cluster[53] 92
SiH4 Silane[138] 32
In the ISM, formamide (above) can combine with methylene to form acetamide.[139]

Six atoms (16)

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
c-H2C3O Cyclopropenone[140] 54
E-HNCHCN E-Cyanomethanimine[141] 54
C2H4 Ethylene[142] 28
CH3CN Acetonitrile[87][143][144] 40
CH3NC Methyl isocyanide[143] 40
CH3OH Methanol[87][145] 32
CH3SH Methanethiol[146] 48
l-H2C4 Diacetylene[16][147] 50
Protonated cyanoacetylene 52 HC3NH+[77]
HCONH2 Formamide[139] 44
C5H Pentynylidyne[16][63] 61
C5N Cyanobutadiynyl radical[148] 74
HC2CHO Propynal[149] 54
HC4N [16]  63
CH2CNH Ketenimine[121] 40
C5S [150] 92
Acetaldehyde (above) and its isomers vinyl alcohol and ethylene oxide have all been detected in interstellar space.[151]

Seven atoms (13)

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
c-C2H4O Ethylene oxide[152] 44
CH3C2H Methylacetylene[28] 40
H3CNH2 Methylamine[153] 31
CH2CHCN Acrylonitrile[87][143] 53
H2CHCOH Vinyl alcohol[151] 44
C6H Hexatriynyl radical[16][63] 73 C6H[122][154]
HC4CN Cyanodiacetylene[87][129][143] 75
HC4NC Isocyanodiacetylene[155] 75
HC5O [156] 77
CH3CHO Acetaldehyde[16][152] 44
CH3NCO Methyl isocyanate[157] 57
HOCH2CN Glycolonitrile[158] 57
The radio signature of acetic acid, a compound found in vinegar, was confirmed in 1997.[159]

Eight atoms (14)

Molecule Designation Mass
H3CC2CN Methylcyanoacetylene[160] 65
HC3H2CN Propargyl cyanide[161] 65
H2COHCHO Glycolaldehyde[162][163] 60
(CHOH)2 1,2-ethenediol[164] 60
HCOOCH3 Methyl formate[87][128][163] 60
CH3COOH Acetic acid[159] 60
H2C6 Hexapentaenylidene[16][147] 74
CH2CHCHO Propenal[121] 56
CH2CCHCN Cyanoallene[121][160] 65
CH3CHNH Ethanimine[165] 43
C2H3NH2 Vinylamine[166] 43
C7H Heptatrienyl radical[167] 85
NH2CH2CN Aminoacetonitrile[168] 56
(NH2)2CO Urea[169] 60

Nine atoms (10)

Molecule Designation Mass Ions
CH3C4H Methyldiacetylene[170] 64
CH3OCH3 Dimethyl ether[171] 46
CH3CH2CN Propionitrile[16][87][143] 55
CH3CONH2 Acetamide[121][139][133] 59
CH3CH2OH Ethanol[172] 46
C8H Octatetraynyl radical[173] 97 C8H[174][175]
HC7N Cyanohexatriyne or Cyanotriacetylene[16][112][176][177] 99
CH3CHCH2 Propylene (propene)[178] 42
CH3CH2SH Ethyl mercaptan[179] 62
CH3NHCHO N-methylformamide[133]
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 (21)

Atoms Molecule Designation Mass Ions
10 (CH3)2CO Acetone[87][180] 58
10 (CH2OH)2 Ethylene glycol[181][182] 62
10 CH3CH2CHO Propanal[121] 58
10 CH3OCH2OH Methoxymethanol[183] 62
10 CH3C5N Methylcyanodiacetylene[121] 89
10 CH3CHCH2O Propylene oxide[184] 58
11 NH2CH2CH2OH Ethanolamine[185] 61
11 HC8CN Cyanotetraacetylene[16][176] 123
11 C2H5OCHO Ethyl formate[186] 74
11 CH3COOCH3 Methyl acetate[187] 74
11 CH3C6H Methyltriacetylene[121][170] 88
12 C6H6 Benzene[147] 78
12 C3H7CN n-Propyl cyanide[186] 69
12 (CH3)2CHCN iso-Propyl cyanide[188][189] 69
13 C6H5CN Benzonitrile[190] 104
13 HC10CN Cyanopentaacetylene[176] 147
17 C9H8 Indene[9] 116
19 C10H7CN 1-cyanonaphthalene[8] 153
19 C10H7CN 2-cyanonaphthalene[8] 153
60 C60 Buckminsterfullerene
(C60 fullerene)
720 C+60[192][193][194]
70 C70 C70 fullerene[191] 840

Deuterated molecules (22)

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

Atoms Molecule Designation
2 HD Hydrogen deuteride[195][196]
3 H2D+, HD+2 Trihydrogen cation[195][196]
3 HDO, D2O Heavy water[197][198]
3 DCN Hydrogen cyanide[199]
3 DCO Formyl radical[199]
3 DNC Hydrogen isocyanide[199]
3 N2D+ [199] 
3 NHD, ND2 Amidogen[200] 
4 NH2D, NHD2, ND3 Ammonia[196][201][202]
4 HDCO, D2CO Formaldehyde[196][203]
4 DNCO Isocyanic acid[204]
5 NH3D+ Ammonium ion[205][206]
6 NH2CDO; NHDCHO Formamide[204]
7 CH2DCCH, CH3CCD Methylacetylene[207][208]

Unconfirmed (13)

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

Atoms Molecule Designation
2 SiH Silylidine[74]
4 PH3 Phosphine[209]
4 MgCCH Magnesium monoacetylide[150]
4 NCCP Cyanophosphaethyne[150]
5 H2NCO+ [210]
6 SiH3CN Silyl cyanide[150]
10 H2NCH2COOH Glycine[211][212]
10 C2H5NH2 Ethylamine[166]
12 CO(CH2OH)2 Dihydroxyacetone[213][214]
12 C2H5OCH3 Ethyl methyl ether[215]
18 C10H+8 Naphthalene cation[216]
24 C24 Graphene[217]
24 C14H10 Anthracene[218][219]
26 C16H10 Pyrene[218]

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  1. On Earth, the dominant isotope of argon is 40Ar, so ArH+ would have a mass of 41 amu. However, the interstellar detection was of the 36ArH+ isotopologue, which has a mass of 37 amu.

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