New class of star discovered to be rich in key ingredient for life
Phosphorus is a key ingredient for life as we know it, but it’s strangely uncommon in the cosmos. Now astronomers have discovered a new type of star that’s very rich in phosphorus, which could imply that alien life is more common than we thought.
Phosphorus is one of six chemical elements that is essential for life on Earth – the others being carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. In biology, phosphorus is an important structural element in DNA and RNA, helps shuttle energy through cells, and regulates other key processes.
The problem is, phosphorus is relatively rare compared to the other life-critical elements. It’s long been thought that phosphorus originates mostly in novae and supernovae, which suggests that life might be much rarer in the universe than we’d hope. So, if it’s so hard to come by, how did Earth get so lucky? One idea suggests that our solar system just happened to form near one such supernova.
But now, a new study suggests it could be more common than we thought. Astronomers from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and the University of La Coruña have discovered a new class of star that’s rich in phosphorus.
The team examined data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, analyzing the infrared light signatures of a range of stars. In doing so, they found 15 phosphorus-rich stars, constituting a class of objects that’s never been identified before.
Weirder still, these stars also have high levels of other elements like magnesium, silicon, oxygen, aluminum and cerium. According to the team, this particular chemistry can’t be explained by our current understanding of how stars evolve and synthesize elements in their cores.
"These results show that not only are we dealing with a new type of objects, but that their discovery opens the way for the exploration of new physical mechanisms and nuclear reactions which occur in stellar interiors,” says Thomas Masseron, lead researcher on the study.
And of course, by plugging that phosphorus gap it could indicate that Earth isn’t such a cosmic fluke after all and extraterrestrial life might be more common than we thought.
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.