- For the first time, astronomers have detected a neutron-star collision.
- Gravitational waves heard by two detectors pinpointed the source to a galaxy 130 million light-years away.
- The collision produced a radioactive “kilonova” that forged hundreds of Earths’ worth of platinum, gold, silver, and other atoms.
- The discovery solves a longstanding mystery about the origins of heavy elements.
Platinum and gold are among the most precious substances on Earth, each fetching roughly $1,000 an ounce.
However, their allure may grow stronger — and weirder — thanks to a groundbreaking new finding about their violent, radioactive, and cosmic origins.
On Monday, scientists who won a Nobel Prize for their discovery of gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space, announced the first detection of the collision of two neutron stars.
The team alerted astronomers all over the world to the event right after it happened, helping them point telescopes directly at the scene of the crash and record unprecedented observations of the aftermath in visible light, radio waves, X-rays, and gamma rays.
The Swope Telescope was one of several that recorded a neutron star merger’s kilonova. UC Santa Cruz/Carnegie Observatories
These images revealed a radioactive soup giving birth to unfathomable amounts of platinum, gold, and silver — not to mention elements like the iodine found in our bodies, the uranium in nuclear weapons, and the bismuth in Pepto-Bismol — while shooting those materials deep into space.
The two neutron stars most likely merged to form a black hole, though the tiny bit of neutron star that escaped — and formed new elements — could get recycled into planets like Earth where aliens may eventually dig up the metals as we have.
“The calculations we did suggest most of the matter that came out of this event was in a swirling disk around a black hole. Half of that matter fell in, and half of it got ejected,” Brian Metzger, an astrophysicist at Columbia University who’s one of roughly 4,000 researchers involved in the discovery, told Business Insider. “The matter that ended up in your wedding band could have just as well fallen in.”
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