New Observations Hint that Life is Not Common in the Galaxy

New observations of two supernovae: The Crab Nebula and Cassieopia A show wildly differing amounts of a vital component for life to thrive: Phosphorus.

Published on 6th Apr, 2018

New Observations Hint that Life is Not Common in the Galaxy Hello Space Fans and welcome to another edition of Space Fan News. You know what’s weird? Life in the Universe. At least that’s current thinking on the subject. I’m starting to think that life in the universe is not an easy thing to make and this week, a team of astronomers looking for key elements of life have reported observations that support my hypothesis. Imagine this. Out in the distant reaches of the galaxy is a planet orbiting a star not too unlike our Sun, it’s about the same size, is enveloped by an atmosphere reasonably capable of supporting life as we know it. And on the surface are pools of goo, lots and lots of goo, all containing the building blocks of life but not itself alive. Here we have a lonely planet, with all of the potential for life to thrive, everything is there, but it’s not alive. How hard of a step is it to go from that state: a place where all the possibility of life exists, but not alive - to something that is alive? I’ve always suspected, but obviously can’t prove, that that step is enormously hard. Evolutionary biologists can tell us very well what happens to life once it exists, but they have nothing to say on the subject of how life starts. Is it a spark that’s more or less instantaneous? Or is it more like an ember that slowly builds over a long time? No one knows. If you have all the ingredients laid out and ready, is it inevitable that life will form? I’m not so sure. This idea of the commonality of life in the universe has been a really important one for me these last few years. If life is easy to start then it’ll be everywhere we look where the conditions are favorable. If we find it on Mars, then that tells me life is everywhere. Two instances of life forming independently in one solar system is a strong case for life being common and everywhere. Well what if not only creating life was hard, but getting all the ingredients together to make the primordial goo wasn’t all that easy? This week, a team of astronomers from Cardiff University in Wales went looking for a key element of life-giving primordial goo: phosphorous. And what they found lends support for the idea that life is hard to create. Phosphorus is one of the six elements on which biology depends. The others are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur. Without phosphorus, there would be no adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the molecule cells use to transfer energy. I mean come on, just try to get through a day without your adenosine triphosphate and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be dragging all day long. So these astronomers wanted to find out about how phosphorus is distributed around the galaxy by comparing the amounts of it found in supernovae remnants. Phosphorus is relatively rare in the universe as it is (which should tell us something as well about the commonality of life), and is created primarily in supernovae. But if what little there is is more or less the same everywhere then at least most planets have a fighting chance of getting some to feed their little critters with. By comparing observations of the Crab Nebula in the constellation Taurus, a supernova that occurred in 1054 AD with those of another remnant in Cassiopea A, obviously in the constellation Cassiopea, the Cardiff team found a significant discrepancy in the amount of phosphorus between the two. Cas A had way more phosphorus than M1, the Crab Nebula. Both remnants are Core Collapse Supernovae, where the middle of the star implodes and then rebounds very fast, expelling the new elements made. Right now, their best guess is that Cas A had more reactions that made phosphorus because the star was more massive or denser, but they aren’t sure, just guessing. So here’s the interesting part: if as yet unknown processes cause some stellar explosions to produce more phosphorus than others, then life could be isolated to phosphorus-rich areas of the galaxy. Now I already know what you’re thinking: how can you make these conclusions based on observations of just two supernovae? Well obviously you can’t, we need to look at way more stellar remnants to get more statistics, but what a coincidence it would be to find that if phosphorus is spread out evenly everywhere that the first two we look at are so wildly different in their amounts. Without letting this story run away reeking with confirmation bias, let me just say I know this is only two data points, I get that. But this finding makes sense to me, and of course I’m reserving judgement, but I’ starting to think life in the galaxy is not as common as we all hope it would be. Well that is it for this episode Space Fans, tell me what you think. Do you think life is common in the universe? Why? Also don’t forget to like and share these videos, you’re helping Deep Astronomy grow every time you do that. Thanks to all of our Patreon Patrons for supporting and thank you all for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up! Read More: