Star Dust Debris May Reveal Origins of Life-Supporting Planets

First Posted: Dec 12, 2014 10:04 AM EST

When it comes to hunting for life on distant planets, narrowing down which planets may be most hospitable to life is crucial. Now, scientists have discovered how recreating isotopes that occur when a star explodes could potentially help researchers pinpoint where life-support elements may be found in space.

In this latest study, the researchers observed the isotopes of certain elemental chemicals form as a star exploded. The isotopes of the elements, samarium and gadolinium, are sensitive tracers of the way that stars explode in general. This, in turn, helps researchers understand the origins of heavy elements that are needed to support life.

"The important and exciting nuclear physics we're learning from these experiments will teach us a lot about the universe we see today," said Zena Patel, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Understanding system formation is an important part of tracking down potential worlds that can host life. By analyzing elements, the researchers can learn about the evolution of these systems.

"Our work involved recreating some of the isotopes that are formed when a star explodes," said Phil Walker, co-author of the new study. "This was done by accelerating uranium to 70 percent of the speed of light and colliding it into a metal target. By analyzing the fragments left behind using a gamma-ray microscope, we discovered that this reaction resulted in the creation of exotic isotopes whose structure had never been studied before. This helps map the pathway for the creation of elements that are essential to support life."

The study itself reveals how star dust, which is essentially the remnants of exploded stars, plays a role in the formation of life-supporting planets. This could pave the way for further work in understanding the conditions needed for life.

The findings are published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

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