The interstellar medium is enriched primarily by matter ejected from old, evolved stars. The outflows from these stars create spherical envelopes, which foster gas-phase chemistry. The chemical complexity in circumstellar shells was originally thought to be dominated by the elemental carbon to oxygen ratio. Observations have suggested that envelopes with more carbon than oxygen have a significantly greater abundance of molecules than their oxygen-rich analogues. Here we report observations of molecules in the oxygen-rich shell of the red supergiant star VY Canis Majoris (VY CMa). A variety of unexpected chemical compounds have been identified, including NaCl, PN, HNC and HCO+. From the spectral line profiles, the molecules can be distinguished as arising from three distinct kinematic regions: a spherical outflow, a tightly collimated, blue-shifted expansion, and a directed, red-shifted flow. Certain species (SiO, PN and NaCl) exclusively trace the spherical flow, whereas HNC and sulphur-bearing molecules (amongst others) are selectively created in the two expansions, perhaps arising from shock waves. CO, HCN, CS and HCO+ exist in all three components. Despite the oxygen-rich environment, HCN seems to be as abundant as CO. These results suggest that oxygen-rich shells may be as chemically diverse as their carbon counterparts.
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