Paucity of phosphorus hints at precarious path for extraterrestrial life

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Credit: J. Greaves

Work by Cardiff University astronomers suggests there may be a cosmic lack of a chemical element essential to life. Dr Jane Greaves and Dr Phil Cigan will present their results at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool.

Greaves has been searching for phosphorus in the universe, because of its link to life on Earth. If this element — with the chemical code P — is lacking in other parts of the cosmos, then it could be difficult for extra-terrestrial life to exist.

She explains: "Phosphorus is one of just six chemical elements on which Earth organisms depend, and it is crucial to the compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which cells use to store and transfer energy. Astronomers have just started to pay attention to the cosmic origins of phosphorus and found quite a few surprises. In particular, P is created in supernovae — the explosions of massive stars — but the amounts seen so far don't match our computer models. I wondered what the implications were for life on other planets if unpredictable amounts of P are spat out into space and later used in the construction of new planets."

The team used the UK's William Herschel Telescope, sited on La Palma in the Canary islands, to observe infrared light from phosphorus and iron in the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant around 6500 light years away in the direction of the constellation of Taurus.

Cigan, an expert on these stellar remnants, says: "This is only the second such study of phosphorus that has been made. The first looked at the Cassiopeia A (Cas A) supernova remnant, and so we are able to compare two different stellar explosions and see if they ejected different proportions of phosphorus and iron. The first element supports life, while the second is a major part of our planet's core".

The astronomers struggled with foggy nights at the telescope, back in November 2017, and are only just starting to get scientific results from a few hours of data.

Cigan cautions "These are our preliminary results, which we extracted only in the last couple of weeks! But at least for the parts of the Crab Nebula we were able to observe so far, there seems to be much less phosphorus than in Cas A. The two explosions seem to differ from each other, perhaps because Cas A results from the explosion of a rare super-massive star. We've just asked for more telescope time to go back and check, in case we've missed some phosphorus-rich regions in the Crab Nebula."

The preliminary results suggest that material blown out into space could vary dramatically in chemical composition. Greaves remarks: "The route to carrying phosphorus into new-born planets looks rather precarious. We already think that only a few phosphorus-bearing minerals that came to the Earth – probably in meteorites – were reactive enough to get involved in making proto-biomolecules.

'If phosphorus is sourced from supernovae, and then travels across space in meteoritic rocks, I'm wondering if a young planet could find itself lacking in reactive phosphorus because of where it was born? That is, it started off near the wrong kind of supernova? In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry, on another world otherwise similar to our own."

The researchers now plan to continue their search, to establish whether other supernova remnants also lack phosphorus, and whether this element, so important for complex life, is rarer than we thought.

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Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
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Ms Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
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Dr Morgan Hollis
Royal Astronomical Society
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Dr Helen Klus
Royal Astronomical Society
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Ms Marieke Baan
European Astronomical Society
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Science contacts

Dr Jane Greaves
University of Cardiff
Mob: +44 (0)7599 628268
[email protected]

Dr Phil Cigan
University of Cardiff
[email protected]

Images and captions

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/EWASS2018/Greaves/schreibersite.jpg

A 15cm wide fragment of the Seymchan iron-nickel meteorite found in Russia in 1967. The long filament of dark grey material in the centre is the phosphorus-rich mineral schreibersite. Credit: M. Pasek / University of South Florida.

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/EWASS2018/Greaves/EWASSposter-Crab-imageofnebula.png

A composite of infrared (shown as red), visible (green) and ultraviolet (violet) images of the Crab Nebula, with IR enhanced and visible/UV balanced to yield neutral star colours. Credit: J. Greaves

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/EWASS2018/Greaves/EWASSposter-Crab-annotatedspectrum.png

Spectrum of one position in the Crab Nebula from the William Herschel Telescope, La Palma. Credit: IAC

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/EWASS2018/Greaves/Cas_A_Spitzer_IR.jpg

A false colour image of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant, made with the Spitzer Space Telescope. The picture was taken by Spitzer's infrared array camera and is a composite of 3.6-micron light (blue); 4.5-micron light (green); and 8.0-micron light (red). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Rudnick (University of Minnesota)

Notes for editors

The European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS 2018) will take place at the Arena and Conference Centre (ACC) in Liverpool from 3 – 6 April 2018. Bringing together around 1500 astronomers and space scientists, the conference is the largest professional astronomy and space science event in the UK for a decade and will see leading researchers from around the world presenting their latest work.

EWASS 2018 is a joint meeting of the European Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. It incorporates the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM), and includes the annual meeting of the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) group. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).

Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) is one of the largest, most dynamic and forward-thinking universities in the UK, with a vibrant community of 25,000 students from over 100 countries world-wide, 2,500 staff and 250 degree courses. LJMU celebrated its 25th anniversary of becoming a university in 2017 and has launched a new five-year vision built around four key 'pillars' to deliver excellence in education; impactful research and scholarship; enhanced civic and global engagement; and an outstanding student experience.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

The RAS accepts papers for its journals based on the principle of peer review, in which fellow experts on the editorial boards accept the paper as worth considering. The Society issues press releases based on a similar principle, but the organisations and scientists concerned have overall responsibility for their content.

The European Astronomical Society (EAS) promotes and advances astronomy in Europe. As an independent body, the EAS is able to act on matters that need to be handled at a European level on behalf of the European astronomical community. In its endeavours the EAS collaborates with affiliated national astronomical societies and also with pan-European research organisations and networks. Founded in 1990, the EAS is a society of individual members. All astronomers may join the society, irrespective of their field of research, or their country of work or origin. In addition, corporations, publishers and non-profit organisations can become organizational members of the EAS. The EAS, together with one of its affiliated societies, organises the annual European Week of Astronomy & Space Science (formerly known as JENAM) to enhance its links with national communities, to broaden connections between individual members and to promote European networks.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory.

STFC is part of UK Research and Innovation

Media Contact

Dr. Robert Massey
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http://www.ras.org.uk/ras

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