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Unexpected findings on the production of elements

2015-01-27 – News from Physik-Department

Elements of cosmic origin on the floor of the Pacific Ocean provide new insights into supernova explosions. An international research team with participation of the Physics Department at Technische Universität München has analysed a deep-sea manganese crust on their content of particularly heavy elements thought to be from supernovae. It was found that the amount is much lower than expected. The researchers therefore assume that the heavy elements found may not be formed in standard supernovae. The investigation, also supported by the Excellence Cluster Universe, has now been published in “Nature Communications”.

Enlargement of the Crab Nebula (also known as “Messier 1”): It is the remnant of a supernova explosion at a distance of about 6,000 light-years, observed almost 1000 years ago, in the year 1054. It contains a neutron star near its center that spins 30 times per second around its axis. (Credit: ESO)

The lifetime of massive stars end with a supernova. The star explodes and briefly lights up as bright as a whole galaxy. In such an explosion the heavier chemical elements such as silver, tin and iodine are produced and distributed throughout the space between stars. Small amounts of debris from these distant explosions fall on Earth as it travels through the galaxy and are eventually deposited on the seabed. Only a few years ago, Physicists from Physik-Department succeeded in detecting the stable iron isotope 60Fe in deep-sea manganese crusts, which can be assumed with certainty to originate from supernovae. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Vienna, the TU München, the Australian National University, Canberra, and the Hebrew University, Israel, analysed samples from the seabed on interstellar plutonium and gained a new understanding of the origin of heavy elements.

The researchers investigated deep-sea sediments from the Pacific Ocean, including a 10-inch-thick Ferrum-Manganese-Crust from a depth of 5000 meters. This 25 million year old deposit contained, among trace elements from the ocean, elements of interstellar dust, as showed the following analysis at the accelerator facility Vera in Vienna. The physicists were in search for an isotope of plutonium, plutonium-244, which does not occur naturally on Earth, and, with a half-life of 81 million years, is an important marker for traces of stellar explosions in recent Earth history. Supernova explosions also produce lead, gold and mercury. However, these elements are stable and abundant on earth and therefore not suitable as supernova tracers.

“Surprisingly, we found much less plutonium than expected,” says Dr. Thomas Faestermann from the TU München, who, just like Dr. Gunther Korschinek, contributed to the new findings. Because of the frequency of supernovae, the scientists had expected much more plutonium-244 in the marine sample. On average, there are about one to two supernova explosions per hundred years in our galaxy. However, the samples contained only a much smaller fraction of plutonium than was expected due to the frequency of supernovae.

Rare cosmic explosions as a solution?

The researchers conclude that the plutonium may not be formed in standard supernovae at all. They suggest that it may require rarer and more explosive events such as the merging of two neutron stars to make them.

Petra Riedel, Dr. Johannes Wiedersich


Abundance of live 244Pu in deep-sea reservoirs on Earth points to rarity of actinide nucleosynthesis
A. Wallner, T. Faestermann, J. Feige, C. Feldstein, K. Knie, G. Korschinek, W. Kutschera, A. Ofan, M. Paul, F. Quinto, G. Rugel, P. Steier


Dr. Gunther Korschinek
Physik Department E15
Technische Universität München
James-Franck-Str. 1
85748 Garching
Tel: +49 89 289-14257
Dr. Thomas Faestermann
Physik Department E12
Technische Universität München
James-Franck-Str. 1
85748 Garching
Tel: +49 89 289-12438
Prof. Dr. Anton Wallner
Australian National University
Tel. +61 435 061917
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