Search For Alien Life: Lack Of Phosphorus In Cosmos Could Signal Less Extraterrestrial Life, Astronomers Say

Norman Byrd

Phosphorus is one of six chemical elements necessary for life to exist on Earth, and scientists studying supernovae explosions have found a surprising lack of phosphorus in certain parts of the universe. The discovery suggests that alien life may not be very prevalent — or even nonexistent — in these areas.

The Royal Astronomical Society reported this week, via EurekaAlert, that astronomers at Cardiff University in Wales, while searching for the presence of phosphorus (because of its necessity for life on Earth) and iron (due to its prevalence in the Earth's core), found that phosphorus was comparatively short in supply in the Crab Nebula (the remnant of a supernova event) when compared with the presence of phosphorus in the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. The team observed the Crab Nebula, which is roughly 6,500 light years from Earth, in November, 2017, using the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands. They publicly aired their findings during the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science convention in Liverpool the first week of April.

"This is only the second such study of phosphorus that has been made. The first looked at the Cassiopeia A (Cas A) supernova remnant, and so we are able to compare two different stellar explosions and see if they ejected different proportions of phosphorus and iron. The first element supports life, while the second is a major part of our planet's core," Dr. Phil Cigan, who worked on the team co-headed by Dr. Jane Greaves, noted.

Greaves explained that phosphorus was "crucial" to Earth life because it helped make up the compound adenosine triphosphate, "which cells use to store and transfer energy." She added that "P [phosphorus] is created in supernova — the explosions of massive star — but the amounts seen so far don't match our computer models. I wondered what the implications were for life on other planets if unpredictable amounts of P are spat out into space and later used in the construction of new planets."

The results thus far suggest that supernova explosions could vary considerably in chemical composition, thus impacting the chances of alien life on extrasolar worlds. Greaves allowed that scientists believe that Earth produced proto-biomolecules through reactions with "phosphorus-bearing minerals" that arrived via meteorites. She now believes that finding alien life might be more difficult.

She added that data suggests that phosphorus getting to "new-born planets looks rather precarious."

And if alien life might have started in the vicinity of a supernovae?

"In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry, on another world otherwise similar to our own."

Although the search for alien life continues, there remain some in the scientific community that contend that life is not at all prevalent in the universe, that the possibility of finding extraterrestrials might not even exist. As for sharing the universe with other forms of alien life, a 2016 study, per the Inquisitr, on red dwarf stars and possibly finding alien life on such smaller, long-lived stars suggested that Earth might have been subject to a premature rise in life and that the universe might just teem with life-harboring planets in the far distant future.