Phosphorus is one of the essential elements for life on Earth, it plays a critical role in DNA, RNA, ATP, and other biological molecules. Yet, its origins in the universe have puzzled scientists for years. Now, a new theory suggests that the abundant presence of phosphorus on Earth might be tied to a specific type of stellar explosion that occurred around 8,000 million years ago: Oxygen-Neon (ONe) novae.

To understand the significance of this theory, it’s important to look at the broader context of how elements are formed. Following the Big Bang, the universe was composed almost entirely of hydrogen, with trace amounts of helium and lithium. Over time, the other elements, including phosphorus, formed through nuclear reactions within stars or during their explosive deaths, such as novas or supernovas.

While this basic understanding of element formation is well-established, the exact processes and sources for each element’s abundance are still the subject of ongoing research. Each type of star and its subsequent explosive event can create a unique distribution of elements. Determining which types of stars contribute to specific elements helps astronomers piece together the chemical evolution of the universe.

In their study, researchers Kenji Bekki from the University of Western Australia and Takuji Tsujimoto from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan propose that a specific type of nova, the ONe nova, is the primary source of phosphorus in the universe. A nova occurs when a white dwarf star, rich in oxygen, neon, and magnesium, accumulates enough matter on its surface to trigger a nuclear explosion. This explosion ejects a significant amount of newly formed elements into space, including phosphorus.

The researchers’ model predicts that these ONe novae release a substantial amount of phosphorus, and that the rate of these explosions peaked about 8,000 million years ago. This timing is significant because it indicates that the abundance of phosphorus in the universe would have been relatively high when the solar system began to form, about 4,600 million years ago.

The proposed connection between ONe novae and phosphorus has significant implications, because it suggests that these stellar explosions contributed to creating the conditions necessary for life on Earth. Phosphorus, which is a key component of biological molecules, might owe its abundance to the dramatic events of stellar evolution billions of years ago.


National Astronomical Observatory of Japan | Kenji Bekki and Takuji Tsujimoto, Phosphorus Enrichment by ONe Novae in the Galaxy. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 967 L1. DOI 10.3847/2041–8213/ad3fb6

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