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This is a list of molecules that have been detected in the interstellar medium, 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] The first such molecule to be detected in the interstellar medium was the methylidyne radical (CH) in 1937.[2]

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.[3] The dust plays a critical role of shielding the molecules from the ionizing effect of ultraviolet radiation emitted by stars.[4]

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.[5]


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.

Carbon monoxide is frequently used to trace the distribution of mass in molecular clouds.[6]


Molecule Designation Ions
AlCl Aluminium monochloride[7][8]
AlF Aluminium monofluoride[7][9]
AlO Aluminium monoxide[10]
C2 Carbon dimer[11][12]
Fluoromethylidynium CF+[13]
CH Methylidyne radical[14] CH+[15]
CN Cyanogen radical[7][14][16][17]
CO Carbon monoxide[7] CO+[18]
CP Carbon monophosphide[17]
CS Carbon monosulfide[7]
FeO Iron(II) oxide[19]
H2 Molecular hydrogen[20]
HCl Hydrogen chloride[21]
HF Hydrogen fluoride[22]
HN Nitrogen monohydride[23]
HO Hydroxyl radical[7]
KCl Potassium chloride[7][8]
N2 Molecular nitrogen[24]
NO Nitric oxide[25]
NS Nitrogen sulfide[7]
NaCl Sodium chloride[7][8]
O2 Molecular oxygen[26]
PN Phosphorus nitride[27]
PO Phosphorus monoxide[28]
SH Sulfur hydride[29] SH+[30]
SO Sulfur monoxide[7] SO+[15]
SiC Carborundum[7][31]
SiN Silicon mononitride[7]
SiO Silicon monoxide[7]
SiS Silicon monosulfide[7]
The H3+ cation is one of the most abundant ions in the universe. It was first detected in 1993.[3][32]


Molecule Designation Ions
AlNC Aluminum isocyanide[7]
AlOH Aluminum hydroxide[33]
C3 Tricarbon[12]
C2H Ethynyl radical[7][16]
C2O Dicarbon monoxide[34]
C2S Thioxoethenylidene[35]
C2P [36]
CO2 Carbon dioxide[37]
Protonated molecular hydrogen H3+[3][32]
H2C Methylene[11]
H2O Water[38]
H2S Hydrogen sulfide[7]
HCN Hydrogen cyanide[7][16][39]
HCO Formyl radical[40] HCO+[15][41][40]
HCP Phosphaethyne[42]
Thioformyl HCS+[15][41]
HNC Hydrogen isocyanide[43]
Diazenylium HN2+[41]
HNO Nitroxyl[44]
Isoformyl HOC+[16]
KCN Potassium cyanide[7]
MgCN Magnesium cyanide[7]
MgNC Magnesium isocyanide[7]
NH2 Amino radical[45]
N2O Nitrous oxide[47]
NaCN Sodium cyanide[7]
OCS Carbonyl sulfide[48]
SO2 Sulfur dioxide[7][49]
c-SiC2 c-Silicon dicarbide[7][31]
SiCN Silicon carbonitride[50]
SiNC Silicon naphthalocyanine[51]
Formaldehyde is an organic molecule that is widely distributed in the interstellar medium.[52]

Four atoms

Molecule Designation Ions
l-C3H Propynylidyne[7][53] 
c-C3H Cyclopropynylidyne[54]
C3N Cyanoethynyl[55] C3N[56]
C3O Tricarbon monoxide[53]
C3S Tricarbonsulfide[7][35]
Hydronium H3O+[57]
C2H2 Acetylene[58]
H2CN Methylene amidogen[59] H2CN+[15]
H2CO Formaldehyde[60]
H2CS Thioformaldehyde[61]
HCCN [62] 
Protonated hydrogen cyanide HCNH+[41]
Protonated carbon dioxide HOCO+[63]
HCNO Fulminic acid[64]
HNCO Isocyanic acid[49]
HNCS Isothiocyanic acid[65]
NH3 Ammonia[7][66]
HSCN Thiocyanic acid[67]
SiC3 Silicon tricarbide[7] 
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has also been detected on comets and in the atmosphere of several planets in the Solar System.[68]

Five atoms

Molecule Designation Ions
C5 [12] 
CH4 Methane[58][69]
c-C3H2 Cyclopropenylidene[16][70][71]
l-H2C3 Propadienylidene[71]
H2CCN Cyanomethyl[72]
H2C2O Ketene[49]
H2CNH Methylenimine[73]
Protonated formaldehyde H2COH+[74]
C4H Butadiynyl[7] C4H[75]
HC3N Cyanoacetylene[7][16][41][71][76] 
HCC-NC Isocyanoacetylene[77]
HCOOH Formic acid[71]
NH2CN Cyanamide[78]
HC(O)CN Cyanoformaldehyde[79]
SiC4 Silicon-carbide cluster[31]
SiH4 Silane[80]
In the ISM, the acid formamide (above) can combine with methylene to form acetamide.[81]

Six atoms

Molecule Designation Ions
c-H2C3O Cyclopropenone[82]
C2H4 Ethylene[58]
CH3CN Acetonitrile[49][83]
CH3NC Methyl isocyanide[83]
CH3OH Methanol[49]
CH3SH Methanethiol[84]
l-H2C4 [7][85] 
Protonated cyanoacetylene HC3NH+[41]
HCONH2 Formamide[81]
C5H Pentynylidyne[7][35]
HC2CHO Propynal[86]
HC4N [7] 
CH2CNH Ketenimine[70]
Acetaldehyde (above) and its isomers vinyl alcohol and ethylene oxide have all been detected in interstellar space.[87]

Seven atoms

Molecule Designation Ions
c-C2H4O Ethylene oxide[88]
CH3C2H Methylacetylene[16]
H3CNH2 Methylamine[89]
CH2CHCN Acrylonitrile[49][83]
H2CHCOH Vinyl alcohol[87]
C6H Hexatriynyl[7][35] C6H[71][90]
HC4CN Cyanodiacetylene[49][76][83]
CH3CHO Acetaldehyde[7][88]
The radio signature of acetic acid, a compound found in vinegar, was confirmed in 1997.[91]

Eight atoms

Molecule Designation
H3CC2CN Methylcyanoacetylene[92]
H2COHCHO Glycolaldehyde[93]
HCOOCH3 Methyl formate[49][71][93]
CH3COOH Acetic acid[91]
H2C6 Hexapentaenylidene[7][85]
CH2CHCHO Propenal[70]
CH2CCHCN Cyanoallene[70][92]
C7H Heptatrienyl radical[94]
NH2CH2CN Amino acetonitrile[95]

Nine atoms

Molecule Designation Ions
CH3C4H Methyldiacetylene[96]
CH3OCH3 Dimethyl Ether[97]
CH3CH2CN Propionitrile[7][49][71][83]
CH3CONH2 Acetamide[81][70]
CH3CH2OH Trans-Ethyl Alcohol[98]
C8H Octatetraynyl[99] C8H[100][101]
HC7N Cyanohexatriyne or Cyanotriacetylene[7][66][102][103] 
CH3CHCH2 Propylene (propene)[104] 

Ten or more atoms

Atoms Molecule Designation Ions
10 (CH3)2CO Acetone[49][105]
10 CH3CH2CHO Propanal[70]
10 CH3C5N Methyl-cyano-diacetylene[70]
11 HC8CN Cyanotetra-acetylene[7][102]
11 C2H5OCHO Ethyl formate[106]
11 CH3C6H Methyltriacetylene[70][96]
11 H3COC2H5 trans-ethyl methyl ether[107][108]
12 C6H6 Benzene[85]
12 C3H7CN n-propyl cyanide[106]
13 HC10CN Cyanodecapentayne[102]

Deuterated molecules

These molecules all contain one or more deuterium atoms.

Molecule Designation
HD, H2D+ Deuterated molecular hydrogen[109][110]
HDO, D2O Heavy water[111][112]
DCN Hydrogen cyanide[113]
DCO Formyl radical[113]
DNC Hydrogen isocyanide[113]
N2D+ [113] 
NH2D, NHD2, ND3 Ammonia[110][114][115]
HDCO, D2CO Formaldehyde[110][116]
CH2DCCH, CH3CCD Methylacetylene[117][118]


Evidence for the existence of the following molecules has been reported in scientific literature, but they have not yet been confirmed.

Molecule Designation
HOCN Cyanic acid[119]
H2NH2CCOOH Glycine[120][121]
CO(CH2OH)2 1,3-dihydroxypropanone[122]
C10H8+ Naphthalene cation[123]

See also


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