Dwarf star 200 light-years away contains life's building blocks

February 9, 2017 by Stuart Wolpert
This artist's concept shows a massive, comet-like object falling toward a white dwarf. New Hubble Space Telescope findings are evidence for a belt of comet-like bodies orbiting the white dwarf, similar to our solar system's Kuiper Belt. The findings also suggest the presence of one or more unseen surviving planets around the white dwarf, which may have perturbed the belt to hurl icy objects into the burned-out star. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)

Many scientists believe the Earth was dry when it first formed, and that the building blocks for life on our planet—carbon, nitrogen and water—appeared only later as a result of collisions with other objects in our solar system that had those elements.

Today, a UCLA-led team of scientists reports that it has discovered the existence of a white dwarf star whose atmosphere is rich in carbon and nitrogen, as well as in oxygen and hydrogen, the components of water. The white dwarf is approximately 200 light-years from Earth and is located in the constellation Boötes.

Benjamin Zuckerman, a co-author of the research and a UCLA professor of astronomy, said the study presents evidence that the planetary system associated with the white dwarf contains materials that are the basic building blocks for life. And although the study focused on this particular star—known as WD 1425+540—the fact that its planetary system shares characteristics with our solar system strongly suggests that other planetary systems would also.

"The findings indicate that some of life's important preconditions are common in the universe," Zuckerman said.

The scientists report that a minor planet in the planetary system was orbiting around the white dwarf, and its trajectory was somehow altered, perhaps by the gravitational pull of a planet in the same system. That change caused the minor planet to travel very close to the white dwarf, where the star's strong gravitational field ripped the minor planet apart into gas and dust. Those remnants went into orbit around the white dwarf—much like the rings around Saturn, Zuckerman said—before eventually spiraling onto the star itself, bringing with them the building blocks for life.

The researchers think these events occurred relatively recently, perhaps in the past 100,000 years or so, said Edward Young, another co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry. They estimate that approximately 30 percent of the minor planet's mass was water and other ices, and approximately 70 percent was rocky material.

The research suggests that the minor planet is the first of what are likely many such analogs to objects in our solar system's Kuiper belt. The Kuiper belt is an enormous cluster of small bodies like comets and minor planets located in the outer reaches of our solar system, beyond Neptune. Astronomers have long wondered whether other planetary systems have bodies with properties similar to those in the Kuiper belt, and the new study appears to confirm for the first time that one such body exists.

White dwarf stars are dense, burned-out remnants of normal stars. Their strong gravitational pull causes elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen to sink out of their atmospheres and into their interiors, where they cannot be detected by telescopes.

The research, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, describes how WD 1425+540 came to obtain carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. This is the first time a white dwarf with nitrogen has been discovered, and one of only a few known examples of white dwarfs that have been impacted by a rocky body that was rich in water ice.

"If there is water in Kuiper belt-like objects around other stars, as there now appears to be, then when rocky planets form they need not contain life's ingredients," said Siyi Xu, the study's lead author, a postdoctoral scholar at the European Southern Observatory in Germany who earned her doctorate at UCLA.

"Now we're seeing in a planetary system outside our solar system that there are minor planets where water, nitrogen and carbon are present in abundance, as in our solar system's Kuiper belt," Xu said. "If Earth obtained its water, nitrogen and carbon from the impact of such objects, then rocky planets in other planetary systems could also obtain their water, nitrogen and carbon this way."

A rocky planet that forms relatively close to its star would likely be dry, Young said.

"We would like to know whether in other planetary systems Kuiper belts exist with large quantities of water that could be added to otherwise dry planets," he said. "Our research suggests this is likely."

According to Zuckerman, the study doesn't settle the question of whether life in the universe is common.

"First you need an Earth-like world in its size, mass and at the proper distance from a star like our Sun," he said, adding that astronomers still haven't found a planet that matches those criteria.

The researchers observed WD 1425+540 with the Keck Telescope in 2008 and 2014, and with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. They analyzed the chemical composition of its atmosphere using an instrument called a spectrometer, which breaks light into wavelengths. Spectrometers can be tuned to the wavelengths at which scientists know a given element emits and absorbs light; scientists can then determine the element's presence by whether it emits or absorbs light of certain characteristic wavelengths. In the new study, the researchers saw the elements in the white dwarf's atmosphere because they absorbed some of the background light from the white dwarf.

Explore further: Cosmic 'Death Star' is destroying a planet

More information: The Chemical Composition of an Extrasolar Kuiper-Belt-Object, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 836:L7 (6pp), 2017 February 10. DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/836/1/L7

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someone11235813
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2017
"The findings indicate that some of life's important preconditions are common in the universe," Zuckerman said.


Not so sure about that, I presume that is referring to the basic elemental building blocks, as opposed to the more complex so called building blocks. Nevertheless I would argue that neither matters before the true precondition of life, and certainly complex or intelligent life. The most fundamental precondition would most certainly be a suitable planet, and so far of the 700 odd other planets discovered in recent years none of them appear to be candidates for life as far as we can tell. What we do know is that a good proportion of them could easily be ruled out. Therefore we continue to have a sample of exactly one, and that is not enough to claim that life is probably common in the Universe. Until we actually discover life elsewhere it's not implausible that Earth is the one and only planet in the Galaxy with life and certainly intelligent life.
FredJose
1.3 / 5 (9) Feb 10, 2017
Many scientists believe the Earth was dry when it first formed,

Yes, according to the nebular belief system, i.e. the religion based on naturalism whereby the universe, stars, planets and life form naturally, all by itself, without any outside intelligence and force. All in total defiance of basic, well established principles of physics and chemistry.
the white dwarf contains materials that are the basic building blocks for life

It might contain the building blocks for life but someone still has to build life as we know it. Life does not erupt spontaneously from non-living material because the information that is required to bring order and start the process is not there. There is no way that abstract information can form from naturalistic processes. Somehow, today's disciples of naturalism need to get this into their heads. Information can only come from and be meaningful to already living entities. Codes and decoding is abstract.
cortezz
5 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2017
The most fundamental precondition would most certainly be a suitable planet, and so far of the 700 odd other planets discovered in recent years none of them appear to be candidates for life as far as we can tell. What we do know is that a good proportion of them could easily be ruled out. Therefore we continue to have a sample of exactly one, and that is not enough to claim that life is probably common in the Universe. Until we actually discover life elsewhere it's not implausible that Earth is the one and only planet in the Galaxy with life and certainly intelligent life.

Do you have a reference for your arguments? I have many sources that say there are multiple possible habitable planets. For example wikipedia: https://en.wikipe...oplanets
cortezz
4.4 / 5 (7) Feb 10, 2017
All in total defiance of basic, well established principles of physics and chemistry.

So god follows the principle of physics and chemistry. How about that he/she cannot be measured while he is suppose to be everywhere?

Life does not erupt spontaneously from non-living material because the information that is required to bring order and start the process is not there. There is no way that abstract information can form from naturalistic processes. Somehow, today's disciples of naturalism need to get this into their heads. Information can only come from and be meaningful to already living entities.

So you are saying that god is living being? What gave information to what to create god because life does not erupt spontaneously?
blazmotronic
1 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2017
Where did earths water come from? What about the recently
discovered ocean 400 or so miles inside the earth that has
up to 3 times the surface water?
Answer

Gen 1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Gen 1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
Gen 1:7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

someone11235813
not rated yet Feb 10, 2017

Do you have a reference for your arguments? I have many sources that say there are multiple possible habitable planets. For example wikipedia: https://en.wikipe...oplanets


Well what I stated are not really arguments they are more observations. However from the wikipedia source you quoted..."KOI-1686.01 was also considered even the single-most potentially habitable exoplanet after its detection in 2011, until it was proved a false positive by NASA in 2015"

What are currently called 'potentially' habitable planets are just our current best guesses, there's no plausible evidence where one can say, "yep, that's definitely a planet that could sustain life", if only because we do not really have the technology to examine objects as small as planets at those distances to be able to have any real idea. None of the planets can be seen directly, and the overwhelming brightness of their star makes it currently impossible.

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