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Massive stars are factories for ingredients to life

Date: 11 October 2020 Tags: Space


The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), NASA’s flying observatory, has provided a new glimpse of chemistry surrounding massive young stars.



  • It found massive quantities of water and organic molecules in these swirling, disk-shaped clouds, offering new insights into how some of the key ingredients of life get incorporated into planets during the earliest stages of formation.

  • A similar process likely happened during the formation of the Sun and the inner rocky planets of our solar system, including Earth. 

  • SOFIA’s infrared observations offer an unparalleled view of star chemistry. When visible light is spread into its component colours, a rainbow appears. When infrared light is broken into its components, it reveals a series of bright lines, called spectra.

  • Each element creates a unique line, so the lines act as chemical fingerprints. Scientists use them to identify which substances are in and around stars. 

  • SOFIA’s instruments can detect small details in the chemical fingerprints from the cores of massive young stars, similar to how high-resolution images reveal tiny features.

  • This information about massive stars, more than 40 times the mass of our Sun, can be a reference for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will study the formation of Sun-sized stars, among other types of targets.

  • 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

  • The observatory found the inner regions of discs are heated from the inside out, transforming the gas surrounding the core into an entirely different composition.

  • Within the same areas of the disc where planets would form there were a chemical soup of organic molecules, including water, ammonia, methane, and acetylene -- which is a building block of larger and more complex organic molecules.