New Delhi: Astronomers, using ESA`s Herschel space observatory, have discovered that a molecule vital for creating water exists in the burning embers of dying Sun-like stars.
When low- to middleweight stars like our Sun approach the end of their lives, they eventually become dense, white dwarf stars. In doing so, they cast off their outer layers of dust and gas into space, creating a kaleidoscope of intricate patterns known as planetary nebulas.
Like the dramatic supernova explosions of weightier stars, the death cries of the stars responsible for planetary nebulas also enrich the local interstellar environment with elements from which the next generations of stars are born.
While supernovas are capable of forging the heaviest elements, planetary nebulas contain a large proportion of the lighter `elements of life` such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, made by nuclear fusion in the parent star.
A star like the Sun steadily burns hydrogen in its core for billions of years. But once the fuel begins to run out, the central star swells into a red giant, becoming unstable and shedding its outer layers to form a planetary nebula.
The remaining core of the star eventually becomes a hot white dwarf pouring out ultraviolet radiation into its surroundings.
This intense radiation may destroy molecules that had previously been ejected by the star and that are bound up in the clumps or rings of material seen in the periphery of planetary nebulas.
The harsh radiation was also assumed to restrict the formation of new molecules in those regions.
But in two separate studies using Herschel astronomers have discovered that a molecule vital to the formation of water seems to rather like this harsh environment, and perhaps even depends upon it to form. The molecule, known as OH+, is a positively charged combination of single oxygen and hydrogen atoms.
In one study, led by Dr Isabel Aleman of the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, 11 planetary nebulas were analysed and the molecule was found in just three.
What links the three is that they host the hottest stars, with temperatures exceeding 100,000 degree Celsius.