Researchers discover two stars with the ingredients necessary for life

Researchers discover how massive young stars create the kind of organic molecules that are necessary for life.

A team of researchers used an airborne observatory to examine the inner regions around two massive young stars. They found water, ammonia and methane.

These molecules are swirling around in a disk of material that surrounds the young stars.


The material is the same stuff that forms planets. The study presents some new insights into how the stuff of life becomes incorporated into planets.

SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is the telescope that did the work for this study. The team of researchers employed SOFIA to look into the inner regions around two young stars.

The swirling disk shaped clouds held some surprises.

Andrew Barr, lead author said, “We are seeing many more molecular signatures than were ever seen before at these wavelengths. It turns out that these stars are like chemical factories churning out molecules important for life as we know it and we just needed the right kind of observations to see them.”


The infrared power of SOFIA was key in this study.

When infrared light is split apart with a spectrograph it reveals bright lines. Each of the chemical elements creates a unique line, like a chemical fingerprint. The researchers were able to detect the complex molecules after examining the infrared light from the two young stars with a spectrograph.


The life of a star begins in a molecular cloud full of hydrogen molecules and helium atoms. Molecular clouds are cooler and higher density than the interstellar medium, so the inward pressure of gravity can exceed the outward pressure from the cloud.

At the centre of molecular clouds is an infrared dark cloud, a cold dense region, which astronomers think is the precursor to a massive star.

The inward pressure in the cloud takes over, and the infrared dark cloud becomes unstable, and collapses forming a central protostar.

The protostar is surrounded by a rotating disk of dust, like a swirling cocoon. Fusion begins, and in falling material forms a rotating heated disk. The material is heated by the young star and this is called the hot core phase.

Klaus Pontoppidan, project scientist for the Webb telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute said, “This study is very exciting as it demonstrates the power of infrared observatories to sense the presence of simple organic compounds that were important for the origin of life on Earth, and possibly other planets. One of the most important goals of both Webb and SOFIA is to understand the origins of stars and planets, and ultimately ourselves.”


The stars in this study are 40 times larger the sun. The results can still serve as a reference when the next, most powerful infrared telescope gets to work — The James Webb Space Telescope. SOFIA and the James Webb are both infrared telescopes but they are different from each other.

SOFIA can identify chemical fingerprints around bright stars, and the Webb has the power to do the same around much smaller, dimmer sun-like stars. The results from SOFIA can be used to help understand weaker signals from the James Webb.


This study shows that important building blocks are created when massive stars heat their surrounding disk material. It also advances another idea which is that the building blocks of life don’t require massive shocks and turbulence for their formation as was previously thought. Protection Status

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