The Absense of Phosphorus Places Doubt About Life on Other Planets

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

A distinct lack of the chemical element phosphorus in other parts of the Universe could make it very difficult for extra-terrestrial life to exist there.

This is according to experts at Cardiff University, who have found very little evidence of the element — which is essential to life on Earth — around the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant around 6500 light years away in the direction of the constellation of Taurus.

As one of six elements on which Earth’s organisms depend, the findings cast doubt on whether life similar to our own would be able to exist on other planets. Dr Jane Greaves, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said:

The team used the UK’s William Herschel Telescope, situated on La Palma in the Canary Islands, to observe infrared light from phosphorus and iron in the Crab Nebula.

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 colors. (Credit: J. Greave)

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 colors. (Credit: J. Greaves)

Other researchers had already studied the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A for evidence of phosphorus, so the Cardiff University team was able to compare two different stellar explosions based on how they each ejected phosphorus into the atmosphere. Dr Phil Cigan, who was part of the study, said:

The preliminary results suggest that material blown out into space could vary dramatically in chemical composition, Greaves continued saying:

Graves and Cigan have presented their preliminary results at the European Week of Astronomy and Space in Liverpool, and have applied for more telescope hours 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.

Provided by: University of Chicago Medicine [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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