New solar system could breed life

Building blocks of life have been observed in a newly-forming solar system by the Hubble space telescope. Complex organic molecules were identified in a disk of red dust surrounding a star that is believed to be in the final stages of producing its own planets.

Image of HR 4796AAstronomers are excited because it suggests that Earth life need not be not unique and that it could be common for life to develop on other worlds.

The star, labelled HR 4796A, is eight million years old and lies 220 light-years away in the constellation of Centaurus.

Its dusty disk was examined with a heat-seeking instrument attached to Hubble called the Near-Infrared Multi-Object Spectrometer.

The results follow the discovery, last year, of another ingredient essential to life as we know it – water – in another solar system.

A US team used the orbiting telescope to discover that a deep red glow from the dust was caused by large organic carbon molecules called tholins. Such molecules no longer form on Earth but are believed to have existed here billions of years ago and to have led eventually to the creation of living organisms.

The US study – the first discovery of tholins outside the solar system – was made by scientists from the Carnegie Institution and University of Arizona.

Team member John Debes said: “Until recently it’s been hard to know what makes up the dust in a disk from scattered light, so to find tholins this way represents a great leap in our understanding.

“HR 4796A is twice as massive, nearly twice as hot as the sun, and 20 times more luminous. Studying this system provides new clues to understanding the different conditions under which planets form and, perhaps, life can evolve.”

Picture: In this Hubble image, the central star’s light is masked to reveal the glow of its dusty disk. (John Debes).

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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