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Research reveals the crucial role of recycling in the evolution of life in our universe

September 17, 2019

New research by astrophysicists at the University of Kent reveals vital clues about the role recycling plays in the formation of life in our universe.

By investigating the different stages in the life journey of stars and gaining new knowledge about their evolutionary cycle, scientists at the Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science have discovered more about a crucial stage in the emergence of life in our Universe. Their research reveals for the first time how matter discarded as stars die is recycled to form new stars and planets.

Scientists have long known that the materials that make up human life were not present during the beginnings of the universe. Elements such as carbon and oxygen form deep inside stars and are released when the stars explode. What has not been clear is what happens to these materials in the vast majority of stars which do not explode and how they are then extracted to contribute to the development of new planets and biospheres.

In their paper 'Numerical simulations of wind-driven protoplanetary nebulae - I. near-infrared emission', which was published by the Royal Astronomical Society on 12 September, Professor Michael Smith and PhD student Igor Novikov have discovered this vital missing link. By carrying out 2-D modelling on their Forge supercomputer, which mapped the pattern of light emitted from stars under different environmental conditions, the research team were able to understand how the material ejected is transferred and mixed with interstellar gas to form new astronomical objects.

For the first time, the physicists simulated the detailed formation of Protoplanetary nebula. These are astronomical objects that develop during a star's late evolution. They modelled the formation of the shell of materials that is released as the star ages. These shells form planetary nebulae, or ring-shaped clouds of gas and dust, which are visible in the night sky.

The study revealed how the gas and energy expelled by stars are returned to the universe, and in what forms. It found that the elements produced by dying stars are transferred through a process of fragmentation and recycled into new stars and planets.

Professor Smith said: 'Initially, we were perplexed by the results of our simulations. We needed to understand what happens to the expelled shells from dying red giants. We proposed that the shells must be temporary, as if they stayed intact life could not exist in our universe and our planets would be unoccupied.

'The shells are not uniform. Most are likely to be cold and molecular. They disintegrate into protruding fingers and so lose their integrity. In contrast, warm atomic shells remain intact. This provides vital clues about how carbon and other materials are transferred and reused within our universe. Our civilisation happens to exist when the generation of recycled material is at its highest. That is probably no coincidence.'
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Notes to Editors

The University of Kent is a leading UK university producing world-class research, rated internationally excellent and leading the way in many fields of study. Our 20,000 students are based at campuses and centres in Canterbury, Medway, Athens, Brussels, Paris, Rome and Tonbridge.

With 97% of our research judged to be of international quality in the most recent Research Assessment Framework (REF2014), our students study with some of the most influential thinkers in the world. Universities UK recently named research from the University as one of the UK's 100 Best Breakthroughs of the last century for its significant impact on people's everyday lives.

We are renowned for our inspirational teaching. Awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government's Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), we were presented with the Outstanding Support for Students award at the 2018 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards for the second year running.

Our graduates are equipped for a successful future allowing them to compete effectively in the global job market. More than 95% of graduates find a job or study opportunity within six months.

Known as the 'UK's European university', our international outlook is a major focus and we believe in our students developing a global perspective. Many of our courses provide opportunities to study or work abroad; we have partnerships with more than 400 universities worldwide and are the only UK university to have postgraduate centres in Athens, Brussels, Paris and Rome.

The University is a truly international community with over 40% of our academics coming from outside the UK and our students representing over 150 nationalities.

We are a major economic force in south east England, supporting innovation and enterprise. We are worth £0.9 billion to the economy of the south east and support more than 9,400 jobs in the region.

In March 2018, the Government and Health Education England (HEE) announced that the joint bid by the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University for funded places to establish a medical school has been successful. The first intake of undergraduates to the Kent and Medway Medical School will be in September 2020.

We are proud to be part of Canterbury, Medway and the county of Kent and, through collaboration with partners, work to ensure our global ambitions have a positive impact on the region's academic, cultural, social and economic landscape.

University of Kent

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