A new study has found that we could be completely alone in the universe, and dashed the hopes of sci-fi fans everywhere. Scientists have been comparing research on two supernova ‘remnants’, Cassiopeia A (Cas A) and the famous Crab Nebula using William Herschel Telescope on La Palma, in the Canary Islands. The aim was to search for signatures of phosphorus and iron from the Crab Nebula, which was formed in the aftermath of a supernova explosion 6,500 light years away in the constellation of Taurus. A previous study on phosphorus in Cas A, 11,000 light years away, was used as benchmark data and an interesting discovery was made. It turns out there was much less phosphorus from the Crab Nebula than Cas A.
Dr Phil Cigan, a Cardiff astronomer, said: "The two explosions seem to differ from each other, perhaps because Cas A results from the explosion of a rare super-massive star." Phosphorus is vital for energy storage and transfer in cells, and plays a hugely important role in the chemistry behind our DNA. Scientists already knew that phosphorus was created in supernovae, the process of stars exploding at the end of their lives, but the new research suggests that your standard run of the mill supernova might not cut it. In order for the conditions to be just right, and for life to flourish, any planet would have to be be very near to a specific type of supernova - a rare super-massive star. The findings were presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science, in Liverpool, and the scientists behind the study have confirmed their plans to continue their search to see if other supernova remnants also lack phosphorus.
Astronomer Dr Jane Greaves, from the University of Cardiff, said: "The route to carrying phosphorus into new-born planets looks rather precarious. We already think that only a few phosphorus-bearing minerals that came to the Earth, probably in meteorites, were reactive enough to get involved in making proto-biomolecules. If phosphorus is sourced from supernovae, and then travels across space in meteoritic rocks, I’m wondering if a young planet could find itself lacking in reactive phosphorus because of where it was born? That is, it started off near the wrong kind of supernova? In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry, on another world otherwise similar to our own."