Astronomers in Germany have found a massive, comet-like object packed with the essentials of life: Water, nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and sulfur.
The icy object has been ripped apart, scattering debris near a burned-out star. It’s also similar in composition to the famed Halley’s comet, but is about 100,000 times larger and contains more water.
Astronomers in Garching, Germany, used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to make the discovery. They say the debris from the object is polluting the white dwarf, or a star — such as the sun — that runs out of nuclear fuel. The white dwarf is located about 170 light years away from Earth.
It’s the first time scientists have discovered comet-like material in a white dwarf’s atmosphere. About a quarter to a half of white dwarves are polluted by the debirs of asteroid-like bodies.
The discovery also suggests there could be planets that have survived the star’s demise. Those planets, the astronomers said, may have drawn the icy object toward the white dwarf.
The cosmic find also tells researchers there may be a belt of comets orbiting the burned-out star similar to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, near Neptune. The comets from the Kuiper Belt, NASA said, may be responsible for providing water and other material that served as the basis for the creation of Earth billions of years ago.
The researcher who led the discovery team, Siyi Xu, said this is the first time nitrogen has been found in debris falling onto a white dwarf.
“Nitrogen is a very important element for life as we know it,” XU said. “This particular object is quite rich in nitrogen, more so than any object observed in our solar system.”