Astronomers detected unusually high quantities of carbon, the basis of all terrestrial life, in an infant solar system around nearby star Beta Pictoris, 63 light-years away.
The new research was made possible by FUSE--NASA's Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer--and data from the Hubble Space Telescope's imaging spectrograph. Beta Pictoris is almost twice the mass of our Sun and between 8 and 20 million years old. Previous studies indicated that the gas around the star had a composition of elements very similar to that in our own solar system. The new measurements mark the "most complete inventory of gas in any debris disk," and may radically change the picture.
The surprisingly carbon-rich gas points in two possible directions. The asteroids and comets orbiting Beta Pictoris might contain large amounts of carbon-rich material like graphite and methane. Planets that formed out of such bodies would be very different from those in the solar system, and might have methane-rich atmospheres, like Titan, a moon of Saturn. Or the Beta Pictoris asteroids and comets might be just like the ones in our solar system when they were young. At that time, they might have contained much more organic material than asteroids and comets appear to today. If so, more of the building blocks of life were delivered to the early Earth than was previously thought.