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Orion Nebula destroys an oceans’ worth of water every month

An international team of scientists, operating under the name PDRs4All (Photodissociation Regions for All), has found the destruction and re-formation of a large quantity of water at the heart of the Orion Nebula, a massive star-forming region. 

The revelation expands the search for life beyond our solar system, hinting that water – and potentially the potential for life – may exist in far more diverse environments than we previously imagined.

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula, nicknamed M42, is a famous celestial object in the Milky Way. It’s located within the Orion constellation, easily recognizable by its three bright stars in a row. Unlike a single star, Orion is a vast birthplace for new stars. 

Orion is a giant cloud of gas and dust, where the ingredients for new stars come together. It’s a mix of different gas types, dense molecular clouds, and areas where dust reflects light, creating a colorful and interesting structure. Scientists use Orion to understand how stars and planets form. 

Planet-forming disk 

Within the Orion Nebula lies a disk called “d203-506.” This protoplanetary disk represents a vital stage in the life cycle of both stars and planetary systems. Studying the disk involves a special telescope known as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). 

JWST uses infrared light as it can pass through the thick dust clouds that surround young stars and planets. This allows the scientists to see inside the dusty disk and study how water molecules move and behave. 

A cycle of destruction and creation 

Scientists observed a surprising and ongoing process within the d203-506 disk: water constantly breaks down and reforms. This cycle is driven by the powerful light from nearby young stars, which both destroys and rebuilds water molecules.

Initially, the intense light (UV radiation) breaks water molecules (H2O) apart, creating individual hydrogen atoms (H) and hydroxyl radicals (OH). This is a chemical reaction known as photodissociation, where the chemical bonds in a molecule are broken by the energy from light.

The resulting hydrogen atoms and hydroxyl radicals can escape from the planet’s gravity, leading to the loss of water from the planet. This process, over time, contributes to the evaporation or loss of significant amounts of water. 

An ocean of water

“It is so impressive that in just a few pixels of observations, and focusing on a few of the lines, we can actually figure out that you have an entire ocean of water being evaporated every month,” said Peeters, co-lead investigator of PDRs4All and faculty member at Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.

“This discovery was based on a tiny fraction of our spectroscopic data. It is exciting that we have so much more data to mine and I can’t wait to see what else we can find.”

But this breakdown isn’t the end of the story. The newly formed hydroxyl radicals can then combine with existing hydrogen atoms to form new water molecules. This remarkable cycle of destruction and creation in the Orion Nebula happens continuously, fueled by the constant stream of light from the stars.

Study significance 

Before, scientists believed UV radiation from nearby big stars would destroy all water in young star systems, making it impossible for life to exist. However, the observations of d203-506 showed a surprising cycle: even with the strong light, water is constantly being destroyed and then recreated.

The discovery suggests that water and potentially life can exist in many more places than scientists thought before. The ability of water to rebuild itself after being destroyed means the ingredients for life could be found in a wider variety of environments.

This information is helpful for the search for planets that could support life outside of our solar system. Now that scientists know water can exist in places with strong light, they can look for signs of life in more places. The insight could even lead to finding many more potential planets that could support life.

The study is published in the journal Nature Astronomy

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, PDRs4All ERS Team; Salomé Fuenmayor image

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