Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Celestial origins of gold postulated

April 6, 2001

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— There's gold in them thar colliding neutron stars.

A team of scientists said Thursday that the origins of most of the gold, platinum and other heavy elements on Earth can be traced to the massive explosions of colliding neutron stars, hundreds of millions of years before the birth of the Solar System.


"This is an incredible result," exclaimed senior team member Stephan Rosswog after the scientists' data were released. "It's exciting to think that the gold in wedding rings was formed far away by colliding stars."

It has long been accepted that common elements, such as oxygen and carbon, are created when dying stars explode into supernovae, but researchers have been puzzled by data that suggests these stellar explosions do not produce enough heavy elements to account for their abundance on Earth.

The scientists from the University of Leicester, in England, and the University of Basel, in Switzerland believe rare pairs of neutron stars hold the answer. The report was presented Thursday to the National Astronomy Meeting at Cambridge, England.

Neutron stars are the super-dense cores of large stars that survive supernovae. They contain about as much matter as our sun, but are only about the size of a large city. Sometimes two are found orbiting each other leftovers of a binary star system. Four such pairs are known to exist in our galaxy.

The team used a supercomputer at the U.K. Astrophysical Fluids Facility in Leicester, 100 miles north of London, to model what might happen if the intense gravity created by these pairs slowly forced them to spiral closer and collide.

The proportion of matter created in these infrequent cataclysms over the 10-billion-year life of the universe closely matches the spectrum of elements found in our 5-billion-year-old Solar System, the team said, providing strong evidence that the theory is solid.

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