Life is a Breeze

Scientists say black holes may pepper the universe with the stuff of stars.

Illustration by Garry Marshall

Illustration by Garry Marshall

"We are all made of star stuff," said Carl Sagan, describing how dead stars birthed the building blocks of life. Astronomers have theorized that titanic star explosions create carbon, oxygen and other elements, then eject them into nearby interstellar space. Now researchers say a newly observed dispersal mechanism likened to a galactic sprinkler system may be strong enough to hurl the "star stuff" far beyond local galaxies, seeding the universe with the ingredients of life.

Astronomers at Penn State and MIT made the recent discovery using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton
X-ray telescope. They measured gas winds whipping 74,500 miles per second--40 percent the speed of light--from two distant quasars, or active galaxies, that
sit roughly 10 billion light-years away from Earth, and glow with the intensity of 10 trillion suns.

The researchers say the winds arise near each quasar's black hole center, where a voracious gravitational vacuum tears apart and devours stars. As the star debris swirls toward the hole, it emits intensely heated X- and ultraviolet radiation that in turn generates brute gusts of wind powerful enough to escape the tug of gravity (graphic, above).

Once beyond the black hole, the winds blast toward interstellar and intergalactic space, transporting star debris peppered with carbon, oxygen and iron, explains Penn State astrophysicist George Chartas, who led the research. "The winds we measured suggest that as much as a billion suns' worth of star matter may be blown away over the course of
a quasar's lifetime."

If the team's observations hold true, the winds could be kick-starting the creation of new stars while seeding large tracts of celestial real estate with the key ingredients necessary to create life-sustaining planets.