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Massive star explosion created elements essential for life

In an amazing discovery, scientists have observed the creation of rare chemical elements following a massive star explosion. 

The research, led by the University of Birmingham, sheds new light on the source of the heavy elements that are crucial for life

Gamma-ray burst

The monumental event, named GRB 230307A, is the second-brightest gamma-ray burst ever recorded. 

The observation of this event was made possible through a combination of ground and space-based telescopes, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

The cause behind the brilliant gamma-ray burst was identified as a neutron star merger. In the wake of the explosion, scientists detected the presence of the heavy chemical element tellurium. 

In addition, elements like iodine and thorium, indispensable for sustaining life on Earth, are believed to be part of the material ejected during this explosion, also known as a kilonova.

Explosion of colliding stars creates elements

Study co-author Dr. Ben Gompertz is an assistant professor of Astronomy at the University of Birmingham.

“Gamma-ray bursts come from powerful jets traveling at almost the speed of light – in this case driven by a collision between two neutron stars. These stars spent several billion years spiraling towards one another before colliding to produce the gamma-ray burst we observed in March this year,” explained Dr. Gompertz.

“The merger site is the approximate length of the Milky Way (about 120,000 light-years) outside of their home galaxy, meaning they must have been launched out together.”

“Colliding neutron stars provide the conditions needed to synthesise very heavy elements, and the radioactive glow of these new elements powered the kilonova we detected as the blast faded. Kilonovae are extremely rare and very difficult to observe and study, which is why this discovery is so exciting.”

Significance of the discovery

This event is monumental, with GRB 230307A shining over a million times brighter than the entire Milky Way Galaxy combined. This marks only the second instance where individual heavy elements have been identified through spectroscopic observations post a neutron star merger. 

The discovery offers profound insights into the formation of these essential life-building blocks. Study lead author Andrew Levan is a professor of Astrophysics at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

“Just over 150 years since Dmitri Mendeleev wrote down the periodic table of elements, we are now finally in the position to start filling in those last blanks of understanding where everything was made, thanks to the James Webb Telescope,” said Professor Levan.

Interestingly, GRB 230307A persisted for 200 seconds, classifying it as a long-duration gamma-ray burst. Typically, neutron star mergers result in short gamma-ray bursts lasting under two seconds, while the longer bursts like GRB 230307A generally originate from the explosive demise of a colossal star.

Implications of element-producing explosions

The researchers are eager to delve deeper into understanding neutron star mergers and the mechanisms that fuel these massive element-producing explosions.

“Just a few short years ago discoveries like this one would not have been possible, but thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope we can observe these mergers in exquisite detail,” said study co-author Dr. Samantha Oates.

“Until recently, we didn’t think mergers could power gamma-ray bursts for more than two seconds,” said Dr. Gompertz. “Our next job is to find more of these long-lived mergers and develop a better understanding of what drives them – and whether even heavier elements are being created. This discovery has opened the door to a transformative understanding of our universe and how it works.”

The research is published in the journal Nature.

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