The romantic notion of "stardust" has inspired authors, poets and song-writers for decades, leading to a dictionary definition that describes it as "a magical or charismatic quality or feeling."
Despite its enchanting reputation, this seemingly mystical substance is not merely confined to the imagination but is a genuine scientific term for the tiny cosmic dust grains floating through our solar system.
When Moby claimed in his 2002 song that "We Are All Made Of Stars," however, he may not have been too far from the truth, as scientific evaluations of this space dust over the past few years have yielded the surprising evidence that every atom in our bodies was once part of a star, maybe even several stars.
So, if our complex human forms somehow evolved from stardust, then could it also form the basis of other life forms throughout the universe?
New research collated by researchers at Lawrence Livermore Lab in California has indicated that stardust may interact with solar winds to create the building blocks necessary for life to form. Using an electron microscope, the scientists examined dust obtained from the outer atmosphere of the Earth, and found that the miniscule particles contained pockets of water.
John Bradley, director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics and leader of the study, explained: "The two key ingredients for life on Earth are water and organic material. These particles arrived at the top of the atmosphere with both of the key ingredients for life."
The research paper, which was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 21, suggests that this fact opens up endless possibilities: wherever the environmental factors are favorable, and stardust is present in conjunction with solar winds, then there is the potential for life to spontaneously occur throughout the whole of the universe.
"The implications are potentially huge," said Hope Ishii, from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and one of the researchers involved in the study. "It is a particularly thrilling possibility that this influx of dust on the surfaces of solar system bodies has acted as a continuous rainfall of little reaction vessels containing both the water and organics needed for the eventual origin of life."
Scientists have been able to determine how the water forms by replicating the process in laboratory experiments. The stardust is composed mostly of silicates containing oxygen, and solar winds consist of a stream of highly reactive hydrogen ions originating from the sun's volatile atmosphere. When the winds and stardust meet, the hydrogen and oxygen react and create water. Cosmic dust also invariably contains organic carbon, known to be the key component for all known naturally occurring life forms on this planet, and this element, combined with water and an energy source, is thought to be the recipe for all life to develop and evolve.
The scientists do not believe that stardust is responsible for the production of the large volumes of water seen in our oceans; this is thought to have been the result of deluges from wet asteroids or comets colliding with our planet at some point in its early history. It is further afield that the implications of this latest discovery are thought to be most relevant, as the water-producing reaction could occur anywhere in the universe with a star, or even a supernova, says Ishii.
So, science takes another tentative step towards acknowledging the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, and it seems that the question is no longer " if" it exists, or even "how," but "where" it exists, and "what" form does it take? Though a recent poll, conducted in April 2013 by Public Policy Polling, indicated that 29 per cent of Americans already believe in the existence of extra-terrestrials, and a Reuters News poll conducted by Ipsos in the same month revealed that 24 percent of Americans believe aliens are actually walking amongst us, scientists have historically been far more reserved in their views on the subject. Whether the type of life evolving elsewhere in the universe would be recognisable to us is another matter, but the facts now seem to suggest that alien life is definitely out there somewhere.
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