Life’s building blocks found on a star 200 light years away

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Researchers have found life’s building blocks – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen – on a white dwarf star located 200 light years away indicating that some of life’s important preconditions are common in the universe.

Researchers led by a team from University of California – Los Angeles studied the white dwarf named WD 1425+540 and found that the star’s planetary system shares characteristics with our solar system strongly suggests that other planetary systems would also.

The star located in the constellation Boötes had a minor planet in its planetary system but its trajectory was somehow altered, perhaps by the gravitational pull of a planet in the same system. That change caused the minor planet to travel very close to the white dwarf, where the star’s strong gravitational field ripped the minor planet apart into gas and dust. Those remnants went into orbit around the white dwarf – much like the rings around Saturn – before eventually spiraling onto the star itself, bringing with them the building blocks for life.

The researchers think these events occurred relatively recently, perhaps in the past 100,000 years or so, said Edward Young, another co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry. They estimate that approximately 30 per cent of the minor planet’s mass was water and other ices, and approximately 70 per cent was rocky material.

The research suggests that the minor planet is the first of what are likely many such analogs to objects in our solar system’s Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is an enormous cluster of small bodies like comets and minor planets located in the outer reaches of our solar system, beyond Neptune. Astronomers have long wondered whether other planetary systems have bodies with properties similar to those in the Kuiper belt, and the new study appears to confirm for the first time that one such body exists.

White dwarf stars are dense, burned-out remnants of normal stars. Their strong gravitational pull causes elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to sink out of their atmospheres and into their interiors, where they cannot be detected by telescopes.

The research, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, describes how WD 1425+540 came to obtain carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. This is the first time a white dwarf with nitrogen has been discovered, and one of only a few known examples of white dwarfs that have been impacted by a rocky body that was rich in water ice.

The researchers observed WD 1425+540 with the Keck Telescope in 2008 and 2014, and with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. They analyzed the chemical composition of its atmosphere using an instrument called a spectrometer, which breaks light into wavelengths. Spectrometers can be tuned to the wavelengths at which scientists know a given element emits and absorbs light; scientists can then determine the element’s presence by whether it emits or absorbs light of certain characteristic wavelengths.

In the new study, the researchers saw the elements in the white dwarf’s atmosphere because they absorbed some of the background light from the white dwarf.

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