Work by Jane Greaves and Phil Cigan from Cardiff University, UK suggests there may be a cosmic paucity of a chemical element essential to life. Greaves has been searching for phosphorus in the universe, because of its link to life on Earth. If this element is lacking in other parts of the cosmos, then it could be difficult for extra-terrestrial life to exist.
She explains "Phosphorus is one of just six chemical elements on which Earth organisms depend, and it is crucial to the compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which cells use to store and transfer energy. Astronomers have just started to pay attention to the cosmic origins of phosphorus, and found quite a few surprises. In particular, phosphorus is created in supernovae - the explosions of massive stars - but the amounts seen so far don't match our computer models. I wondered what the implications were for life on other planets if unpredictable amounts of phosphorus are spat out into space, and later used in the construction of new planets."
The team used LIRIS on the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) to observe infrared light from phosphorus and iron in the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant around 6,500 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus.