Dying star generates the stuff of life

Vastet
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Dying star generates the stuff of life

18:00 27 June 2007
NewScientist.com news service
Ivan Semeniuk

One of the largest and most luminous stars in our galaxy is a surprisingly prolific building site for complex molecules important to life on Earth, new measurements reveal.

The discovery furthers an ongoing shift in astronomer's perceptions of where such molecules can form, and where to set the starting line for the chain of events that leads from raw atoms to true biology.

"Where we thought molecules could never form, we're finding them. Where we thought molecules could never survive, they're surviving," says Lucy Ziurys, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson, US.

Using the 10-metre radio dish atop Mount Graham in Arizona, Ziurys and her team searched the extended envelope of gas around VY Canis Majoris, a red hypergiant star estimated to be 25 times the Sun's mass and nearly half a million times the Sun's brightness.

There they found the telltale radio emissions of various compounds, including hydrogen cyanide (HCN), silicon monoxide (SiO), sodium chloride (NaCl) and a molecule, PN, in which a phosphorus atom and a nitrogen atom are bound together.

Even simple phosphorus-bearing molecules such as PN are of interest to astrobiologists because phosphorus is relatively rare in the universe – yet it is necessary for constructing both DNA and RNA molecules, as well as ATP, the key molecule in cellular metabolism.

Dust shields
For years astronomers have known that dense molecular clouds, which are pervasive in the plane of our Milky Way galaxy, are the repositories of a wide variety of chemicals that can later find their way into newborn solar systems. What has been less clear is exactly how those molecules form in the first place.

In the last few years, astronomers have turned their attention to ageing stars, which typically expel vast quantities of gas as they expand and turn into red giants. Until recently, it was expected that any molecules that condensed from the cooling, expelled gas would later be destroyed by the intense ultraviolet radiation emitted by the star.

Work by Ziurys and others demonstrates that this is not the case. The ejected material contains clumps of dust particles that apparently shield the molecules and can shepherd them safely into interstellar space.

Varied chemistry
The latest findings add a new twist to the story. Because VY Canis Majoris is an oxygen-rich star, it was not expected to harbour so many interesting molecules. Oxygen atoms easily outnumber carbon atoms around such stars and would be expected to take up the available carbon by forming carbon monoxide (CO).

The discovery of molecules such as HCN and a carbon sulphur compound (CS) around VY Canis Majoris suggests that chemical composition can vary greatly within a circumstellar envelope. It also implies that the chemistry that leads to life may be more widespread in the universe and more robust than previous studies have suggested.

"It shows that there is much more to be learnt about the use of old stars as laboratories for studying interstellar chemistry," comments Sun Kwok of the University of Hong Kong.

VY Canis Majoris is well known as an evolved star that expels large amounts of matter. But only within the past year have astronomers had the technology to detect the exceedingly faint radio emissions produced by molecules around the star.

'New era'
The new technology comes in the form of an improved version of a device called the Superconductor-Isolator-Superconductor (SIS) Mixer, which can discern the energy emitted when molecules spontaneously shift from one rotational state to another.

The detector used by Ziurys and her team was developed for the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), a high-altitude radio interferometer, consisting of 50 dishes – each 12 metres wide – currently under construction in Chile.

According to Ziurys, the fact that a single detector is already yielding such significant data bodes well for the future study of interstellar matter and its relationship to life in the universe.

"This is just the beginning of a new era in interstellar chemistry," she told New Scientist.

Astrobiology - Learn more in our out-of-this-world special report.

Journal reference: Nature (vol 447, p 1094)

http://space.newscientist.com/article/dn12140-dying-star-generates-the-stuff-of-life.html

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Very, cool. We knew a lot

Very, cool.

We knew a lot of this already, but not to this extent.

Like Carl says, "We are made of star stuff". 


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Is this proof that life can

Is this proof that life can actually be very common in the universe? I hope so.

But how are the complex molecules for life to begin created? Moleculed, like proteins and enzymes? They are far, far too complex to have been created by 100% chance. There has to be some sort of mechanism in  atoms (magnetism?) for life to begin.

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Quote: But how are the

Quote:
But how are the complex molecules for life to begin created? Moleculed, like proteins and enzymes? They are far, far too complex to have been created by 100% chance. There has to be some sort of mechanism in atoms (magnetism?) for life to begin.

There was an article in the June Scientific American postulating that life started not with complicated replicator molecules but with simple metabolism chemicals that were separated in compartments first. I haven't finished reading the article yet, but it's pretty interesting thus far.


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I reprinted that article

I reprinted that article HERE

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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hutch
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Oh man I missed that

Oh man I missed that thread!  There's too much to learn here, I'm givin her all I can keptin she canna take much more! Laughing


Vastet
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I know what you mean. The

I know what you mean. The amount of knowledge available here either directly or linked to is astronomical.

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hutch
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Quote: astronomical lol I

Quote:
astronomical

lol I love puns, I'm probably the only person to actually laugh instead of groan...although now I've throughly taken this thread OT. So umm, yea cool article Smile