Astronomers Observe Rare Heavy Elements Formed After Neutron Star Merger

An international team of astronomers, led by Clemson University astrophysicist Dieter Hartmann, has made an exciting discovery. They have obtained observational evidence for the creation of rare heavy elements following a cataclysmic explosion resulting from the merger of two neutron stars.


An international team of astronomers, led by Clemson University astrophysicist Dieter Hartmann, has made an exciting discovery. They have obtained observational evidence for the creation of rare heavy elements following a cataclysmic explosion resulting from the merger of two neutron stars.

The astronomers observed a massive explosion known as gamma-ray burst GRB230307A, which is the second brightest burst in 50 years and 1,000 times brighter than a typical gamma-ray burst. This event was first detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope on March 7, 2023.

Utilizing a combination of space- and ground-based telescopes, including the NASA James Webb Space Telescope, scientists were able to locate the source of the gamma-ray burst in the sky and monitor its changing brightness. Through their observations, they confirmed that the burst was the outcome of two merging neutron stars in a galaxy located 1 billion light-years away, resulting in the formation of a kilonova. The researchers also identified tellurium, one of the rarest elements on Earth.

This groundbreaking discovery brings astronomers closer to unraveling the mystery behind the creation of elements heavier than iron. Dieter Hartmann, the lead astrophysicist on the team, expressed his excitement about the findings, emphasizing the significance of understanding how heavy elements are formed in the universe.

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are extreme bursts of gamma-ray light, the most energetic type of light, with varying durations. Long duration GRBs are caused by supernovas, the explosive death of massive stars, while short duration GRBs result from the merger of neutron stars or a neutron star with a black hole.

Despite lasting for 200 seconds, GRB230307A displayed a color change from blue to red in its afterglow, indicating a kilonova event. This shift in color is a distinct signature of neutron star mergers.

Dieter Hartmann highlighted the importance of the James Webb Space Telescope's detection of tellurium spectral lines as experimental evidence supporting theoretical models of kilonova-produced elements. These spectral lines provide insights into the chemical composition of the kilonova aftermath.

In the grand scheme of the universe, stars play a crucial role in the production of elements beyond hydrogen and helium. Stars act as cosmic cauldrons, where fusion processes generate heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. However, the origins of elements like gold and uranium remain a mystery.

Hartmann explained that heavy elements have unique origins, with two dominant processes known as rapid and slow. The team's observations support the theory that neutron star mergers, like the one leading to GRB230307A, contribute to the creation of heavy elements through the rapid process.

While the identification of tellurium in the kilonova aftermath is significant, Hartmann acknowledged that further research is needed to fully confirm the findings. The team's work sheds light on the intricate processes governing element formation in the universe, showcasing the awe-inspiring complexity of cosmic phenomena.

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