One of the many mysteries of the universe is where the elements come from. At last, one part of that mystery is solved. A team of astronomers have discovered the origins of all the heaviest elements in the universe, including gold, lead, platinum and more.
It should come as no surprise that explosions are involved — really, really heavy explosions caused by two ultra-dense neutron stars colliding. We already knew that such collisions created super high-energy jets of gamma radiation as well as black holes (see video above). Now we know that they also seeded the universe with all the heavy elements we know and love here on Earth.
Writes Joseph Stromberg at The Smithsonian:
Today, [Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics scientist Edo] Berger and colleagues announced at a press conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that their analysis reveals that neutron star collisions are responsible for the formation of virtually all the heavy elements in the universe—a list that includes gold, mercury, lead, platinum and more.
“This question of where elements like gold come from has been around for a long time,” Berger says. Though many scientists had long argued that supernova explosions were the source, he says his team—which includes Wen-fai Fong and Ryan Chornock of the Harvard astronomy department—have evidence that supernovas aren’t necessary. These neutron star collisions produce all elements heavier than iron, he says, “and they do it efficiently enough that they can account for all the gold that's been produced in the universe.”
An interesting question is how this will impact future space-based mining operations. Will the very best deposits be in the wreckage of neutron star collisions, teetering dangerously at the edge of black holes' gravitational fields or in the deadly pathway of particle jets?
As the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach noted, some far-future mining mogul is going to make a lot of money on this:
A single neutron-star collision makes multiple Earth-moons worth of gold. Worth "10 octillion dollars," Harvard astronomer says.— Joel Achenbach (@JoelAchenbach) July 17, 2013