Two studies using data from the Herschel Space Observatory, named after 18th century astronomer William Herschel, have independently discovered a molecule consisting of a single oxygen atom and a single hydrogen atom with a positive charge (OH+) in planetary nebulae.
Supernova, red giant, white dwarf, and planetary nebula explained
The fate of a star as it nears the end of its life cycle depends on its mass. The most massive stars explode in cataclysmic supernovae during which the heaviest elements known are formed. Small to mid range stars, like our sun, swell into red giants before their final transformation into a white dwarf. It is during this metamorphosis that the red giant sheds its outer layers of dust and gas, called planetary nebulae, which consists primarily of the lighter elements such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon.
Until recently, it was widely believed that the vast amounts of ultraviolet radiation emitted by the white dwarf would inhibit synthesis of new molecules. These two studies suggest, however, that when carbon monoxide molecules are being destroyed by a white dwarf’s UV radiation, oxygen atoms are freed which can then combine with hydrogen to form OH+.
Although it remains to be seen if water can actually form from these molecules, especially in the UV rich zone surrounding a white dwarf, it is exhilarating to think that the stars themselves can create one of the essential building blocks of life.