Sunday, September 2, 2007
A new ultraviolet mosaic from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows a speeding star that is leaving an enormous trail of "seeds" for new solar systems. The star, named Mira is shedding material that will be recycled into new stars, planets and possibly even life as it hurls through our galaxy.
Mira appears as a small white dot in the bulb-shaped structure at right, and is moving from left to right in this view. The shed material can be seen in light blue. The dots in the picture are stars and distant galaxies.
The Galaxy Evolution Explorer discovered Mira's strange comet-like tail during part of its routine survey of the entire sky at ultraviolet wavelengths. When astronomers first saw the picture, they were shocked because Mira has been studied for over 400 years yet nothing like this has ever been documented before.
Mira's comet-like tail stretches a startling 13 light-years across the sky. For comparison, the nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, is only about 4 light-years away. Mira's tail also tells a tale of its history – the material making it up has been slowly blown off over time, with the oldest material at the end of the tail having been released about 30,000 years ago.
Mira is a highly evolved, "red giant" star near the end of its life. Technically, it is called an asymptotic giant branch star. It is red in color and bloated; for example, if a red giant were to replace our sun, it would engulf everything out to the orbit of Mars. Our sun will mature into a red giant in about 5 billion years.
Like other red giants, Mira will lose a large fraction of its mass in the form of gas and dust. In fact, Mira ejects the equivalent of the Earth's mass every 10 years. It has released enough material over the past 30,000 years to seed at least 3,000 Earth-sized planets or 9 Jupiter-sized ones.
While most stars travel along together around the disk of our Milky Way, Mira is charging through it. Because Mira is not moving with the "pack," it is moving much faster relative to the ambient gas in our section of the Milky Way. It is zipping along at 130 kilometers per second, or 291,000 miles per hour, relative to this gas.
Mira's breakneck speed together with its outflow of material are responsible for its unique glowing tail. Images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer show a large build-up of gas, or bow shock, in front of the star, similar to water piling up in front of a speeding boat. Scientists now know that hot gas in this bow shock mixes with the cooler, hydrogen gas being shed from Mira, causing it to heat up as it swirls back into a turbulent wake. As the hydrogen gas loses energy, it fluoresces with ultraviolet light, which the Galaxy Evolution Explorer can detect.
Mira, also known as Mira A, is not alone in its travels through space. It has a distant companion star called Mira B that is thought to be the burnt-out, dead core of a star, called a white dwarf. Mira A and B circle around each other slowly, making one orbit about every 500 years. Astronomers believe that Mira B has no effect on Mira's tail.
Mira is also what's called a pulsating variable star. It dims and brightens by a factor of 1,500 every 332 days, and will become bright enough to see with the naked eye in mid-November 2007. Because it was the first variable star with a regular period ever discovered, other stars of this type are often referred to as "Miras."
Mira is located 350 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, otherwise known as the whale. Coincidentally, Mira and its "whale of a tail" can be found in the tail of the whale constellation.
Life on earth is organic. It is composed of organic molecules, which are simply the compounds of carbon, excluding carbonates and carbon dioxide.
Under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organised into helical structures. These structures can then interact with each other in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and life itself.
Plasma is essentially the fourth state of matter beyond solid, liquid and gas, in which electrons are torn from atoms leaving behind a miasma of charged particles.
Until now, physicists assumed that there could be little organisation in such a cloud of particles. However, Tsytovich and his colleagues demonstrated, using a computer model of molecular dynamics, that particles in a plasma can undergo self-organization as electronic charges become separated and the plasma becomes polarized. This effect results in microscopic strands of solid particles that twist into corkscrew shapes, or helical structures. These helical strands are themselves electronically charged and are attracted to each other.
Quite bizarrely, not only do these helical strands interact in a counterintuitive way in which like can attract like, but they also undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. They can, for instance, divide, or bifurcate, to form two copies of the original structure. These new structures can also interact to induce changes in their neighbours and they can even evolve into yet more structures as less stable ones break down, leaving behind only the fittest structures in the plasma.
So, could helical clusters formed from interstellar dust be somehow alive? "These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter," says Tsytovich, "they are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve."
He adds that the plasma conditions needed to form these helical structures are common in outer space. However, plasmas can also form under more down to earth conditions such as the point of a lightning strike. The researchers hint that perhaps an inorganic form of life emerged on the primordial earth, which then acted as the template for the more familiar organic molecules we know today.