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Star explosion called "ONe novae" may be where life originated in the universe

We all know that life is a complex symphony, but have you ever wondered about the origin of the key elements that make it possible? One such element, phosphorus, is essential for the creation of DNA, the blueprint of life itself.

Astronomers have long sought to understand how this crucial element came to be. Now, a new theory proposes that a type of stellar explosion, known as “ONe novae,” could be the primary source of phosphorus in the universe.

Big bang theory

At the universe’s inception, the Big Bang generated primarily hydrogen, the simplest and lightest element. Within the fiery cores of stars, intense pressure and heat fuse hydrogen atoms, forming heavier elements like helium. This process continues, progressively creating elements such as carbon and oxygen.

These stellar furnaces eventually exhaust their fuel, leading to cataclysmic explosions – novae and supernovae. These events disperse the newly forged elements into the cosmos, enriching the interstellar medium with the building blocks for planets, asteroids, and ultimately, life itself.

Our understanding of fundamental processes in astrophysics continues to grow. However, the exact mechanisms that create the diverse elements in the universe are still under investigation. This remains a key research area in astrophysics.

ONe novae: A recipe for phosphorus and life?

ONe novae are a specific category of stellar explosions that occur in white dwarf stars with a high composition of oxygen, neon, and magnesium.

These white dwarfs accrete matter from a companion star, and when the accumulated material reaches a critical mass, it triggers a runaway thermonuclear reaction.

This explosive event ejects a significant amount of stellar material, including newly synthesized elements, into the surrounding interstellar space.

Astronomers Kenji Bekki and Takuji Tsujimoto have put forth a hypothesis suggesting that these ONe novae could be the primary mechanism responsible for the production and distribution of phosphorus, a key element for life as we know it, throughout the universe.

“A ONe nova occurs when matter builds up on the surface of an oxygen-neon-magnesium rich white dwarf star and is heated to the point to ignite explosive run-away nuclear fusion,” explains Tsujimoto.

Life, phosphorus production peaks, and ONe novae

Bekki and Tsujimoto’s model suggests that the frequency of ONe novae reached its highest point approximately 8 billion years ago.

This peak in ONe novae activity would have led to a significant enrichment of phosphorus in the interstellar medium.

Given that our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago, this timeline implies that phosphorus, a crucial element for life, would have been abundant and accessible during the early stages of Earth’s formation.

This availability of phosphorus may have played a pivotal role in the emergence and evolution of life on our planet.

Iron connection with a chlorine clue

The model introduces a novel aspect by suggesting a correlation between the frequency of ONe novae and the iron abundance within the progenitor stars.

Furthermore, the model predicts that ONe novae not only generate phosphorus but also lead to an increased production of chlorine.

Currently, available observational data regarding chlorine abundance in the context of ONe novae is limited. However, this prediction presents an opportunity for empirical verification of the model.

Future astronomical observations can specifically focus on measuring chlorine levels in regions where ONe novae are known to occur.

If the observed chlorine enhancement aligns with the model’s predictions, it would provide strong evidence supporting the role of ONe novae as significant contributors to the production of both phosphorus and chlorine in the universe.

“The model predicts that ONe novae will produce a chlorine enhancement similar to the phosphorus enhancement,” says Bekki. “There is not yet enough observational data for chlorine to confirm this and it provides a testable hypothesis to check the validity of the ONe novae model.”

Looking to the stars for answers

Conducting astronomical observations of stars located in the outer regions of the Milky Way galaxy will be essential in verifying the validity of the proposed relationship between iron content and the frequency of ONe novae, as well as the predicted enhancement of chlorine.

These observations will provide valuable data to assess whether ONe novae are the principal mechanism responsible for generating phosphorus, a fundamental element for life.

The findings of these studies will have profound implications for our understanding of the origins of life’s essential building blocks. If the observations align with the model’s predictions, it would solidify the role of ONe novae as the primary source of phosphorus.

However, if the data deviates from the model, it would necessitate a reevaluation of our current understanding of the processes involved in the production and distribution of elements in the universe.

The spice of life

Phosphorus, often referred to as the “spice of life,” is not only essential for DNA but also plays a vital role in energy transfer, cell signaling, and bone formation. Understanding its origin is crucial for unraveling the mysteries of life’s emergence and evolution in the universe.

The new theory proposed by Bekki and Tsujimoto offers a tantalizing glimpse into the cosmic processes that have shaped our existence.

As we continue to explore the vastness of space, we may uncover even more secrets about the elements that make life possible, and perhaps even discover the existence of life beyond our own planet.

The study is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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