Generally, researchers look for elements like carbon and oxygen as the cursor of the existence of life, however, a recent study has revealed that the element Phosphorus might be essential to life as well. John Greaves, an astronomer at the Cardiff University in Wales told to a popular science website that Phosphorus is one of the six crucial elements on which biology depends apart from hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen. Phosphorus is used to create ATP or adenosine triphosphate which is the molecule that the cells use to transfer energy which makes it crucial in biology.
Phosphorus has an atomic number 15 and it is relatively rare in the universe among the five other elements. It forms only 0.0007% of all matter in the universe. It is formed in stars’ natural evolution in trace amounts of which, the majority of this element is held in captivity by the supernovae. Astronomer Phil Cigan along with Greaves took the new study to the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science to be held in Liverpool where the compared the amount of phosphorus element in the stellar dust of two supernova remnants which as Crab Nebula located in the constellation Taurus and Cassiopeia A (Cas A) located in the constellation Cassiopeia.
The study concluded that the amount of phosphorus found on the Crab Nebula is far less than the amount found on Cas A which created a discrepancy due to the fact that these two stellar clouds were created with the same type of supernova which logically means, it must have the same amount of phosphorus. This was revealed by the computers models used to simulate the quantity which has led to several theories which could explain the distribution of phosphorus among the stars which could signify how and why the quantity is so different.
According to Greaves, the Crab Nebula and Cas A were created out of core-collapse supernovae where the center of the star implodes and rebounds at a very fast rate which expels new elements made due to shear forces. He pointed out that this might have triggered the formation of phosphorus more in Cas A citing more reactions compared to the Crab Nebula.
It is believed that if there are unknown processes occurring at the stellar explosions that lead to the production of the element phosphorus compared to another region, then it can conclude that the region rich with phosphorus can be isolated from other areas of the galaxy where life could form. The team collected the data acquired by another international team of astronomers back in 2013 who studied the Cas A for its phosphorus content and then, the team studied the Crab Nebula using William Herschel telescope to study the infrared spectrum and estimate the phosphorus content.
There is a possibility that the vast difference in the phosphorus content is due to the fact that the Crab Nebula was formed after a supernova that took place thousand years ago which Chinese astronomers documented it. On the other hand, the Cas A was formed and the light emitted from the remnant reached Earth just 300 years ago. This could expect why the quantity of phosphorus in the Crab Nebula is lower than Cas A. There is a possibility that due to the event that took place 1,000 years ago, the phosphorus in the cosmic gas formed into rocks containing phosphorus which might have reduced the quantity of phosphorus detected by the researchers.
This event resulted in the formation of rocky planets of which, Earth is a great example which contains phosphorus. As per the researchers, the launch of James Webb Space Telescope would help them discover the various mysteries of the universe. It’s 6.5 m mirror can capture infrared light from distant objects such as black holes, supernovas, stars, nebulas, etc. JWST would eventually help the researchers in determining the phosphorus produced in supernova remnants and much more.