Phosphorus is considered one of the constituent elements of life, at least for what has developed on Earth (the only one we know, after all).
How this element arrived on Earth is still a matter of debate.
It is precisely on this point that new research has been carried out thanks to which it has been possible to identify, for the first time, wherein space molecules containing traces of phosphorus are formed and how this can be transported to the planet like the Earth.
As Víctor Rivilla, one of the authors of the study published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, explains, we still do not know the basic processes that “activated” life on Earth 4 billion years ago. However, the new study provides a new piece that may be useful for a general explanation.
Using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), researchers have observed a region of intense stellar formation, called AFGL 5142, and have identified locations in this “cloud” where molecules containing phosphorus, including phosphorus monoxide, are formed.
The molecules that carry phosphorus are created when the most massive stars are born: gas flows from the stars open cavities in the interstellar clouds and it is precisely on the walls of these cavities that phosphorus-containing molecules are formed.
To understand how these molecules can be transported on the planet like the Earth, researchers have analyzed the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, already known as the object of study and why it was reached, in 2014, by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe.
This probe, using the Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA), collected data for a couple of years before landing.
Analyzing this data, the researchers found traces of phosphorus monoxide. This is the first time phosphorus molecules have been detected on a comet, indicating that phosphorus may have arrived on Earth through comet impacts.
Kathrin Altwegg, one of the authors of the study, explains: “Phosphorus is essential for life as we know it. Because comets most likely provided large amounts of organic compounds on Earth, the phosphorus monoxide found in comet 67P can strengthen the link between comets and life on Earth.