Unidentified infrared emission bands at wavelengths of 3–20 micrometres are widely observed in a range of environments in our Galaxy and in others1 . Some features have been identified as the stretching and bending modes of aromatic compounds2,3 , and are commonly attributed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules4,5 . The central argument supporting this attribution is that single-photon excitation of the molecule can account for the unidentified infrared emission features observed in ‘cirrus’ clouds in the diffuse interstellar medium6 . Of the more than 160 mol- ecules identified in the circumstellar and interstellar environ- ments, however, not one is a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecule. The detections of discrete and broad aliphatic spectral features suggest that the carrier of the unidentified infrared emis- sion features cannot be a pure aromatic compound. Here we report an analysis of archival spectroscopic observations and demonstrate that the data are most consistent with the carriers being amorph- ous organic solids with a mixed aromatic–aliphatic structure. This structure is similar to that of the organic materials found in meteorites, as would be expected if the Solar System had inherited these organic materials from interstellar sources.
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