Talk about your heavy metal.
NASA researchers say the merger of two heavenly objects caused an explosion that created hundreds of times the earth’s mass in gold and platinum. It happened when two neutron stars collided in a galaxy 130 million light years away.
It was an exciting discovery for astrophysicist Julie McEnery.
“It was the best morning ever,” she says.
Of all stars, neutron stars are the smallest and densest.
“If you imagine something as massive as the sun, and squeeze it down so that it fits inside 10 miles in diameter, a spoonful of a neutron star would weigh as much as Mount Everest,” McEnery says.
The explosion, also known as a gammy ray burst, sent gravitational waves through space that were recently detected by highly sensitive sensors on this planet. The discovery of gravitational waves is also quite recent. The three scientists who discovered them won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
McEnery says the gamma ray burst not only reinforced the existence of gravitational waves, it gave NASA a better understanding of how gold, platinum, and other materials formed on Earth.
“With the observations we made, we were able to see the optical and infrared data that showed us the formation of heavy elements,” McEnery says. “They’re produced in nuclear reactions, and that heats up the surrounding material that produces the radiation that we see. So we could actually see the imprint of these materials being formed. We now know all of the heavy elements that we know of are almost certainly produced in explosions like this. This is the first time we actually caught this in the act.”
So where is all that precious metal now, 130 million years later?
“The gold and platinum now will have dispersed somewhat in the galaxy,” McEnery says. “It’s going to continue to expand outwards in the neighborhood of the galaxy in which it was formed.”
And who knows? They may have started to form their own earth-like world.
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