Phosphorus, designated by the symbol P in the periodic table, is the 11th most common element on Earth. It is fundamental for all living things, being essential for the formation of DNA, cell membranes and for the formation of bones and teeth in humans.
However, according to a new study by astronomers at Cardiff University, there seems to be much less of this valuable element in the rest of the universe, contrary to what scientists believe.
Basically, phosphorus can be found in DNA and in compounds that are responsible for storing energy. It can be compared to the ingredients you find in your favorite food or drink, without these ingredients your favorite food would not be as good. Life without phosphorus, a crucial ingredient, would simply not be possible.
Jane Greaves, astronomer at Cardiff University, decided to search for phosphorus across the universe. She and her team spent a lot of time on a telescope in the Canary Islands to study the remains of two supernovae. Supernovae are the remains of stars that exploded at the end of their lives, living behind all kinds of elements. From this abundance of material new planets are formed.
According to preliminary findings that Greaves and her colleague presented at a conference in the United Kingdom, the two observed supernovae reveal different levels of phosphorus. Based on these observations, they determined that the crucial ingredient for life is not distributed evenly across the cosmos.
Greaves and her team also studied and explored the clouds of dust and gas that form around young stars. Dust usually aggregates into a planet.
During this project, the team used an observation technique that helps them to analyze the different light colors produced by supernova remnants. With this new data, scientists will be able to learn what elements are present in the remains.
However, even if there is only a limited amount of phosphorus in the universe, it does not mean that the chances of finding extraterrestrial life are reduced, according to Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard University in Massachusetts, who was not involved in the study.