The Cosmic Planet Seeder

A giant, dying star named Mira has been littering the universe with key elements for the last 30,000 years, according to a new report from astronomers working on NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer project.

The star itself is actually very well known. It's been a favorite among star-gazers for centuries. Using the ultraviolet Galaxy detector, the astronomers saw that Mira, which streaks through the cosmos at 291,000 miles per hour, has been leaving important elements like carbon and oxygen in its wake. This trail of stardust is 13 light years long, and it's the first time scientists have seen anything like it. Christopher Martin of the California Institute of Technology, the lead author of a new paper in Nature that explains the find, says the tail looks remarkably similar to the wake you'd see behind a speedboat, or a jet's contrail. Yet it's not just for looks. Eventually, all that material Mira leaves behind could be recycled into new stars or planets. In fact, it's already dumped enough stuff to seed 3,000 planets the size of Earth.—Gregory Mone