Space scientists in the United Kingdom this week said they were "stunned" to have found water and carbon co-existing outside the solar system, meaning that the conditions under which life could start may occur more easily than expected.
The first images and spectra from Europe's Infrared Space Observatory were revealed this week following its launch in November last year. ISO explores the invisible, cold parts of the universe by detecting infrared radiation, or heat. As it travels the observatory is cooled in a giant thermos flask. Infrared radiation has only been tracked once before, 12 years ago, by a satellite.
UK scientists were heavily involved in one of the four instruments on ISO. This instrument scans at the longer wavelength end of the infrared spectrum. ISO was collecting data from a dying star and surprised the scientists by detecting both carbon monoxide and water.
"It's absolutely stunning," said Helen Walker, head of ISO user support for the UK and a space scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. "We knew we would find spectral lines for CO but to find water vapour as well is just totally unexpected. I think this is the first time that water has been found in a carbon-rich source outside the solar system." Orthodox theory predicts that if carbon is present it will combine with any oxygen that is also there, thus preventing the formation of water.
Eric Dunford, head of space science at the laboratory, said that scientists had done a cross-check with one of the other detectors on ISO and confirmed that they had found water.
Dr Walker said that the finding means that at the time that a dying star is collapsing, and so forming a new star and a new solar system, all the building blocks of life are already there.
Previously it was thought that, once the new star had formed, carbon and water would only come together if huge clouds of each both drifted in and collided around the star.
Dr Hayward said: "We felt we knew about dying stars. This means that we don't even really understand their chemistry, let alone understand the evolution of stars or galaxies."