Massive space explosion observed creating elements needed for life | Science & Technology

Scientists have observed the creation of rare chemical elements in the second-brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen — casting new light on how heavy elements are made.

Researchersexamined the exceptionally bright gamma-ray burst GRB 230307A, which was caused by a neutron star merger. The explosion was observed using an array of ground and space-based telescopes, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Publishing their findings today in Nature(25 Oct), the international research team which included experts from the University of Birmingham, reveal that they found the heavy chemical element tellurium, in the aftermath of the explosion.

Other elements such as iodine and thorium, which are needed to sustain life on earth, are also likely to be amongst the material ejected by the explosion, also known as a kilonova.

Dr Ben Gompertz, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of Birmingham, and co-author of the study explains: “Gamma-ray bursts come from powerful jets travelling at almost the speed of light — in this case driven by a collision between two neutron stars. These stars spent several billion years spiralling towards one another before colliding to produce the gamma-ray burst we observed in March this year. The merger site is the approximate length of the Milky Way (about 120,000 light-years) outside of their home galaxy, meaning they must have been launched out together.

“Colliding neutron stars provide the conditions needed to synthesise very heavy elements, and the radioactive glow of these new elements powered the kilonova we detected as the blast faded. Kilonovae are extremely rare and very difficult to observe and study, which is why this discovery is so exciting.”

GRB 230307A was one of the brightest gamma-ray bursts ever observed — over a million times brighter than the entire Milky Way Galaxy combined. This is the second time individual heavy elements have been…

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