The heaviest elements in our universe were just seen created in the heart of a kilonova after two neutron stars collided.
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The three lightest elements in the periodic table, Hydrogen, Helium and Lithium, formed shortly after the Big Bang, while heavier elements up to Iron were forged billions of years later in the hearts of stars.
But the origin of the naturally occurring elements heavier than iron has remained less certain, until now.
In October of 2019, when researchers analyzing data from a neutron star collision announced they were certain about how roughly half of those heavier elements form.
Scientists witnessed something called the rapid neutron capture process, or r-process, which was first proposed approximately 60 years ago. And for the first time, European Southern Observatory’s X-shooter spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) observed strontium, a heavy metal, in space in the aftermath of two neutron stars colliding.
The detection confirms that the heavier elements in the Universe can form during neutron star mergers.
So basically two neutron stars crashing into each other create approximately 1/4 of the Universe’s elements.
Find out more about how scientists detected strontium in space, and what this finding means when it comes to the ongoing puzzle of chemical element formation.
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Identification of strontium in the merger of two
“Half of all the elements in the universe heavier than iron were created by rapid neutron capture. The theory for this astrophysical ‘r-process’ was worked out six decades ago and requires an enormous neutron flux to make the bulk of these elements.1 Where this happens is still debated.2 A key piece of missing evidence is the identification of freshly-synthesised r-process elements in an astrophysical site.”
First Identification of a Heavy Element Born from Neutron Star Collision
“Following the GW170817 merger, ESO’s fleet of telescopes began monitoring the emerging kilonova explosion over a wide range of wavelengths. X-shooter in particular took a series of spectra from the ultraviolet to the near infrared. Initial analysis of these spectra suggested the presence of heavy elements in the kilonova, but astronomers could not pinpoint individual elements until now. ”
“The very central region of the star – the core – collapses, crushing together every proton and electron into a neutron. If the core of the collapsing star is between about 1 and 3 solar masses, these newly-created neutrons can stop the collapse, leaving behind a neutron star. (Stars with higher masses will continue to collapse into stellar-mass black holes.)”
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