American astrobiologist Carl Sagan has once famously argued we are all “made of space stuff” as the matter in our bodies has all come from space. He said: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”
It is, therefore, unsurprising space agencies like NASA are studying the cosmos to better understand how this “stuff” is propagated throughout space.
We are made of star stuff
Dr Carl Sagan
Observations made by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) have now made a significant breakthrough in answering this question.
This cutting-edge airborne observatory has spotted pulsating stars as they expand and contract, in a manner resembling how our hearts beat.
SOFIA observed bizarre stars in the Milky Way while they spewed carbon into deep space.
Scientists now understand carbon is created deep inside stars’ cores via helium fusion.
Over time, as stars age, this carbon wriggles its way to the surface.
But the carbon needs to be ejected out into space before it is allowed to become a key ingredient of life.
NASA’s latest observations have led to a new understanding of this process.
SOFIA has discovered evidence late-stage red giants with particularly powerful pulsations called Mira stars are key to the process.
This stellar category is responsible for powerful stellar winds considered capable for eject carbon-rich gas and dust out into interstellar space.
These are in contrast to other stars with much weaker pulsations called semi-regular stars, which are unable to effectively force the wind out.
These Mira Stars have therefore been identified as being responsible for distributing carbon throughout the Universe.
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Dr Kathleen Kraemer, a scientist at Boston College and lead author of the study, said: “We know that essential chemicals like carbon come from stars.
“But these strong pulsations help explain how carbon moves away from stars to where it can evolve into more complex structures, which in the case of Earth, ultimately became DNA — life.”
Similar studies have found pulsating stars in other galaxies, such as the Large Magellanic Cloud.
However, this latest SOFIA study by NASA has revolutionised our understanding of how carbon gets distributed in the Milky Way.
What is NASA’s SOFIA?
SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 2.7m reflecting telescope.
Flying into the stratosphere at 38,000 to 45,000ft puts SOFIA above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing astronomers to study the solar system and beyond in ways impossible with ground-based telescopes.
The observatory’s mobility also allows researchers to observe space anywhere in the world, and allows studies of transient events taking place over oceans where there are no telescopes.
For example, astronomers on SOFIA studied eclipse-like events of Pluto, Saturn’s moon Titan, and Kuiper Belt Object MU69, the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, to study the objects’ atmospheres and surroundings.
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