A space rock discovered more than two decades ago may be the first physical evidence of a rare type of powerful stellar explosion called a Type Ia supernova, according to a new study.
In 1996, a researcher working in the Egyptian desert discovered a small pebble that scientists later determined was likely of extraterrestrial origin, as it included mysterious mineral compounds found nowhere else on Earth. Earth. In the new study, scientists from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa say they have discovered that this space rock – called the Hypatia Stone after the ancient Greek philosopher and astronomer – may be the first physical evidence of a type Ia supernovaone of the most energetic phenomena in the universe.
The team relied on years of research, including studies of 20132015 and 2018 which indicated that the stone did not come from the Earth, from a meteorite or cometor from anywhere in the solar system, respectively.
In their new analysis of the Hypatia stone, the scientists used a proton beam, a high-energy particle accelerator, which identified 15 elements in greater detail than ever before. Using these clues, the team began to reverse engineer where the stone might have come from, using the process of elimination.
For example, the amount of silicon in the Hypatia stone was extremely low – less than 1% of what one would expect for an object that formed in our solar system. Likewise, levels of chromium, manganese, iron, sulfur, copper, and vanadium were not typical of inner solar system materials.
“We found a consistent pattern of trace element abundance that is completely unlike anything in the solar system, primitive or evolved,” said study lead author Jan Kramers, a geochemist. at the University of Johannesburg. said in a press release. “Asteroid belt objects and meteors don’t fit that either. So then we looked outside the solar system.”
They kept changing their settings for different possible origins, including interstellar bands of dust in the Milky Waya red giant star and even a Type II supernova, which occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel, collapses, and then explodes. However, the composition of the Hypatia Stone ruled out each of these possibilities.
Scientists therefore investigated whether the origin could be a Type Ia supernova, an ultra-powerful explosion that occurs when a dense, dark stellar remnant called a white dwarf in a binary system explodes with such force that the white dwarf is reduced to atoms. Once these atoms congealed with dust from the White Dwarf Nebula, the resulting rocky material would, theoretically, have a very specific chemical signature, the scientists said.
It turns out that the chemical signature of the Hypatia Stone closely resembles the chemical signature that scientists have given for a Type Ia supernova. However, they did not match 100%.
“In six of the 15 elements, the proportions were between 10 and 100 times greater than the ranges predicted by theoretical models for Type Ia supernovae,” the scientists said in a statement. “These are the elements aluminum, phosphorus, chlorine, potassium, copper and zinc.”
The researchers hope to explain these abnormal levels after performing more analyses. In the meantime, they’re excited about potential evidence of a supernova and what it might say about the origin of the solar system.
“Perhaps equally important, it shows that an anomalous individual ‘patch’ of dust from outer space might actually be incorporated into the solar nebula from which our solar system was formed, without being completely mixed,” Kramers said. “This flies in the face of the conventional view that the dust from which our solar system was formed was thoroughly mixed.”
The team’s research is published in the August 2022 issue of the journal Icarus.
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