NASA’s Webb Makes First Detection Of Heavy Element From Star Merger

Wednesday, October 25, 2023
by Jennifer Chu

A team of scientists has used multiple space and ground-based telescopes, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, to observe an exceptionally bright gamma-ray burst, GRB 230307A, and identify the neutron star merger that generated an explosion that created the burst. Webb also helped scientists detect the chemical element tellurium in the explosion’s aftermath.

Other elements near tellurium on the periodic table – like iodine, which is needed for much of life on Earth – are also likely to be present among the kilonova’s ejected material. A kilonova is an explosion produced by a neutron star merging with either a black hole or with another neutron star.

“Just over 150 years since Dmitri Mendeleev wrote down the periodic table of elements, we are now finally in the position to start filling in those last blanks of understanding where everything was made, thanks to Webb,” said Andrew Levan of Radboud University in the Netherlands and the University of Warwick in the UK, lead author of the study.

While neutron star mergers have long been theorized as being the ideal “pressure cookers” to create some of the rarer elements substantially heavier than iron, astronomers have previously encountered a few obstacles in obtaining solid evidence.

Kilonovae are extremely rare, making it difficult to observe these events. Short gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), traditionally thought to be those that last less than two seconds, can be byproducts of these infrequent merger episodes. (In contrast, long gamma-ray bursts may last several minutes and are usually associated with the explosive death of a massive star.)

Image: Two neutron stars begin to merge in this artist’s concept, blasting jets of high-speed particles and producing a cloud of debris.
Credit: A. Simonnet (Sonoma State University) and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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