Nitrogen-containing cyclic organic molecules (N-heterocycles) play important roles in terrestrial biology, for example as the nucleobases in genetic material. It has previously been shown that nucleobases are unlikely to form and survive in interstellar and circumstellar environments. Also, they were found to be unstable against ultraviolet (UV) radiation. However, nucleobases were detected in carbonaceous meteorites, suggesting their formation and survival is possible outside the Earth. In this study, the nucleobase precursor pyrimidine and the related N-heterocycles pyridine and s-triazine were tested for UV stability. All three N-heterocycles were found to photolyse rapidly and their stability decreased with an increasing number of nitrogen atoms in the ring. The laboratory results were extrapolated to astronomically relevant environments. In the diffuse interstellar medium (ISM) these N-heterocycles in the gas phase would be destroyed in 10-100 years, while in the Solar System at 1 AU distance from the Sun their lifetime would not extend beyond several hours. The only environment where small N-heterocycles could survive, is in dense clouds. Pyridine and pyrimidine, but not s-triazine, could survive the average lifetime of such a cloud. The regions of circumstellar envelopes where dust attenuates the UV flux, may provide a source for the detection of N-heterocycles. We conclude that these results have important consequences for the detectability of N-heterocycles in astronomical environments.
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