All too often, our flesh cocoons can feel like vessels of anxiety and existential dread. But take heart, because new research confirms what science popularizers like Carl Sagan have said all along: humans truly are made of “star stuff” — and we’ve got maps to prove it.
In the largest undertaking of its kind, a group of astronomers at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in New Mexico has used the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph to analyse the composition of 150,000 stars across the Milky Way. The team has catalogued the amount of “CHNOPS elements” — carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulphur — in each of the stars, and mapped out the prevalence of these “building blocks of life” across the galaxy.
Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital Inc.; SDSS collaboration
Researchers found the centre of the Milky Way to be the most abundant in CHNOPS elements. But perhaps the most validating aspect of the research is that these essential elements — found scattered across so many stars—also make up 97 percent of the mass of our bodies.
In other words, we truly are “children” of the stars.
In addition to helping us learn more about ourselves, this new map could direct us to life beyond Earth, past or present.
“It’s a great human interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way,” Jennifer Johnson of Ohio State University said in a press release. “This allows us to place constraints on when and where in our galaxy life had the required elements to evolve, a sort ‘temporal Galactic habitable zone.’”