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Scientists are on the hunt for the neutron star merger that provided our solar system with such large quantities of heavy elements.
Two neutron stars smashing into each other is quite the rare occurrence; scientists estimate our galaxy might see one such merger every 100,000 years. However, it’s one of the essential processes in the creation of the universe as we know it, since these violent events provide one of the few forges capable of creating the periodic table’s heavier elements.
A team of astrophysicists is hot on the trail of one such prehistoric stellar crash, presenting some of their results to the American Astronomical Society in January.
“It was close,” Szabolcs Marka, a physicist at Columbia University and the project’s lead scientist, told Space.com. “If you look up at the sky and you see a neutron-star merger 1,000 light-years away, it would outshine the entire night sky.” To figure out the where and when required both microscopes and telescopes. The scientists first looked at the materials here on Earth that would have had to be created in such an explosion in order to tell how long ago they came into existence, and then had to rewind the galaxy back to that point to figure out where the neutron star merger occurred.
“Each isotope is a stopwatch starting at the explosion,” Marka said. The radioactive versions of the different elements formed in the explosion decay at predictable rates, meaning if you know what elements they decay into and you know how much of each element you have, you can figure out how long ago they were all created.
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