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Detection of carbonates in dust shells around evolved stars


Carbonates on large Solar System bodies like Earth and Mars1,2 (the latter represented by the meteorite ALH84001) form through the weathering of silicates in a watery (CO3)2- solution. The presence of carbonates in interplanetary dust particles and asteroids (again, represented by meteorites) is not completely understood, but has been attributed to aqueous alteration on a large parent body, which was subsequently shattered into smaller pieces. Despite efforts3,4,5, the presence of carbonates outside the Solar System has hitherto not been established6,7. Here we report the discovery of the carbonates calcite and dolomite in the dust shells of evolved stars, where the conditions are too primitive for the formation of large parent bodies with liquid water. These carbonates, therefore, are not formed by aqueous alteration, but perhaps through processes on the surfaces of dust or ice grains or gas phase condensation. The presence of carbonates which did not form by aqueous alteration suggests that some of the carbonates found in Solar System bodies no longer provide direct evidence that liquid water was present on large parent bodies early in the history of the Solar System8.

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Figure 1: Comparison between the spectra of NGC6302 and NGC6537.
Figure 3: Model fit to the observed spectrum of planetary nebula NGC6302.
Figure 2: Mass absorption coefficients of different carbonates.


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This work is based on observations with ISO, an ESA project with instruments funded by ESA member states (especially the PI countries: France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK) and with the participation of ISAS and NASA. We thank F. J. M. Rietmeijer, D. Fabian, J. Bouwman, C. Dominik, A. G. G. M. Tielens, J. Bradley, W. Schutte, J. Keane, P. Morris, L. P. Keller, H. Y. McSween Jr and R. N. Clayton for support and discussions. We acknowledge support from an NWO ‘Pionier’ grant.

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Correspondence to F. Kemper.

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Kemper, F., Jäger, C., Waters, L. et al. Detection of carbonates in dust shells around evolved stars. Nature 415, 295–297 (2002).

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