Beta Pictoris, a star system located 63 light years from Earth, is one of the most violent ever seen by astronomers. But, explosive collisions could drive the very mechanisms of life. Humans, as a race, may be witnessing the first emergence of life in this nearby star system.

Revolving around the star Beta Pictoris lies a vast ocean of asteroids and comets, thought to have formed 20 million years ago. The collection of icy debris may have been formed from the collision of two worlds, each the size of Mars. Astronomers speculate the debris may also be a failed planet, which cannot coalesce together, due to the gravitational influence of an unseen, massive world. It circles its star at a distance of almost eight billion miles, three times as far as the distance between the Sun and Neptune.

Studies of the star system were conducted using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope (ALMA), managed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

"Observations... show that 0.3% of a Moon mass of carbon monoxide orbits in its debris belt. The gas distribution is [extremely uneven], with 30% found in a single clump 85 AU [astronomical units] from the star," the authors wrote in the accompanying study. The researchers don't know how the concentration formed.

Collisions between asteroids and comets are common within the system. Astronomers estimate comets are being destroyed every five minutes within the melee. Encasing the speeding bodies is a cloud of poisonous carbon monoxide gas. The mass of gas is estimated to be equal to one-sixth of all the oceans on Earth.

Astronomers have also detected at least one planet within the system, Beta Pictoris B. This world is several times the size of Jupiter, and orbits 750 million miles away from its home star.

Comets may have brought much of the water to our home world. The carbon-rich "dirty snowballs" could also have seeded our world with the first precursors to life. This could mean the best sign of life in the system is a cloud of gas, poisonous to humans. The presence of carbon monoxide shows evidence of frequent cometary collisions, which could bring water and organic material to worlds within the system.

Beta Pictoris is visible in the southern hemisphere, in the Constellation Pictor. The star itself is nearly twice as massive as our own Sun, and almost nine times as bright. It is very young - between eight and 20 million years old. Because of its mass, however, this sun will not live as long as our own star.

Details of the study of Beta Pictoris were published in the journal Science.

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