A neutron star collision 4.6 billion years ago might have led to the formation of some of the most valuable matter on Earth.
Astrophysicist Imre Bartos of the University of Florida and Szabolcs Márka from Columbia University revealed that the cosmic event, which took place back when the solar system was merely a gas cloud, was the source of elements heavier than iron, including plutonium.
Tracking A Neutron Star Collision Billions Of Years Ago
Two years ago, for the first time, scientists observed the high-energy collision of two dense objects that are slightly more massive than the Sun. The merger happened 130 million light-years away from Earth, in the constellation of Hydra.
The event confirmed the long-held theory that kilonovas produce heavy elements in the universe, including gold and silver.
"We discovered this binary star merger two years ago, and it was close to the Milky Way — much closer than we anticipated," said Bartos to Gizmodo. "We asked whether something even closer... could have a significant impact in what the solar system looks like today."
A paper published in the journal Nature on Thursday, May 2, details their investigation. Bartos and Márka measured the composition of meteorites from previously collected data and compared them to numerical simulations of the Milky Way. They discovered that a single neutron star collision that took place about 1,000 light-years away from the early solar system is responsible for the formation of the heavier elements on Earth.
The event only accounts for a third of the total amount of plutonium in the solar system, but Bartos added that there have been several neutron star collisions in the history of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Understanding The Solar System And The Universe
Bartos stated that the findings provide insight into one of the most significant events in the history of the solar system and Earth. It also opens new avenues of research for the fields of chemistry, biology, and geology.
The study also has important implications about the future of the human race.
"Our results address a fundamental quest of humanity: Where did we come from and where are we going?" Márka commented.
The researchers hope to continue their study by measuring more elements with unknown abundances, creating better simulations, and observing more neutron star collisions.