In the television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, originally broadcast in 1980, Carl Sagan, the highly successful popularizer of astronomy, coined the phrase “we are made of star-stuff.” While not a new idea, nevertheless, it called attention to a remarkable fact related to our growing understanding of how the universe began and developed over time.
Dr. Sagan outlined this process, beginning with the Big Bang, where the lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, were produced. He then proceeded to describe the various generations of stars that were formed, aged, and eventually “went supernova,” finally coming down to the formation of our solar system made from the ashes of these earlier stars. The end result is that humans, who are made from “the dust of the Earth,” originally came from material that was “cooked” from lighter elements in the very heart of stars and their subsequent supernova.
With NASA’s 1999 launch of the Chandra X-ray Observatory into orbit around the Earth astronomers have been able to use this new tool to detect many different objects in a band of light beyond what’s visible to human eyes, and at a much higher resolution than previously available. A recent press release revealed a spectacular new image of the supernova remnant G292.0+1.8. A supernova remnant is the expanding debris field blasted out from the parent star as it explodes. G292.0+1.8, which contains large amounts of oxygen, is one of only three remnants in our Milky Way Galaxy. The image shows an intricate structure in its debris field that contains element such as oxygen, neon, and silicon that forged before and during the explosion.
Understanding the details of G292.0+1.8 is especially important because astronomers have considered it to be a “textbook” case of a supernova created by the death of a massive star. Supernova events such as this have been determined to occur in the neighborhood of our solar system prior to its collapse, seeding the cloud out of which the Earth formed with elements critical for life (see the 23 January 2007 edition of Today’s New Reason To Believe ).
With instruments like the Chandra telescope, astronomers are developing a deeper understanding of the processes that clarify in detail Sagan’s observation that we are made from material that originated in stars. At the same time, the evidence supports the fine-tuning necessary for the “star-stuff” to have just the right amounts of the various elements to allow life to exist and survive. Not only do we have spectacular images of the “stuff,” which “declare the glory of God,” but we also have better understanding of the processes for making that stuff that reflects the hand of an elegant designer.