We May Finally Know How the Universe's Heavy Elements Formed

Space.com | 10/23/2019 | Charles Q. Choi
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For the first time, scientists have detected a newly born heavy element in space, forged in the aftermath of a collision between a pair of dead stars known as neutron stars.

The findings shed light on how the universe's heaviest elements are created, providing a missing piece of the puzzle of chemical element formation, researchers said in a new study describing the findings.

Results - Stars - Neutrons - Study - Author

The results also confirmed that "neutron stars have neutrons in them," study lead author Darach Watson, an astrophysicist at the University of Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute, told Space.com. "That sounds really dumb, but it's something we haven't known for sure. Now, everything we've found points to elements that formed only in the presence of lots of neutrons."

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Universe - Elements - Hydrogen - Helium - Lithium

The universe's three lightest elements — hydrogen, helium and lithium — were created in the earliest moments of the cosmos, just after the Big Bang. Most of the quantities of elements heavier than lithium, up to iron on the periodic table, were forged billions of years later, in the cores of stars.

But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the "r-process" for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.

Prior - Work - Source - Elements - Aftermath

Prior work suggested that a likely source of r-process elements could be the catastrophic aftermath of mergers between neutron stars, which are the superdense cores of stars left behind after cataclysmic, explosive star deaths known as supernovas. The name neutron star comes from how their gravitational pull is strong enough to crush protons and electrons together to form neutrons.

In 2017, astronomers witnessed, for the first...
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