NASA’s JWST and other telescopes have made a groundbreaking discovery: a luminous gamma-ray burst resulting from the collision of neutron stars. This event marks the first time astronomers have directly observed heavy elements like tellurium in space, offering new insights into the formation of heavy elements in the cosmos.
Astronomers have observed tellurium directly in the collision of two neutron stars, using various observatories.
A spectacular display of high-energy light has led astronomers to a duo of neutron stars, acting as a heavy-metal factory, located 900 million light-years from our planet.
A recent publication in Nature by an international group of astronomers, including MIT scientists, describes the observation of an extraordinarily bright gamma-ray burst (GRB), among the most intense explosions in the cosmos. This GRB, second in brightness only to one other, was traced back to two merging neutron stars. These stars, remnants of massive stars, are believed to be the forging sites for many of the universe’s heavy metals.
Discovering Heavy Elements in Outer Space
The researchers discovered that the stars, as they orbited and eventually merged, emitted a massive amount of energy as a GRB. For the first time, signs of heavy metals were detected in the aftermath, specifically identifying tellurium, a rare and mildly toxic element on Earth, yet abundant in the universe.
An artistic depiction shows two merging neutron stars emitting high-speed particle jets and creating a debris cloud. Credit: A. Simonnet (Sonoma State University) and Goddard Space Flight Center
The merger is estimated to have produced an amount of tellurium equivalent to 300 Earths. The presence of tellurium implies the creation of other similar elements, like iodine, vital for life on Earth.
Global Collaborative Efforts in Astronomy
The discovery resulted from a global effort using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the TESS satellite (an MIT-led mission), and Chile’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), among others.
Benjamin Schneider, a postdoc at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and a co-author of the study, highlights this discovery as a significant advancement in understanding where heavy elements in the universe are formed. It demonstrates the importance of combining observations across different wavelengths for new insights into these powerful cosmic events.
The research was a collective effort involving numerous institutions worldwide, spearheaded by Andrew Levan of Radboud University in the Netherlands and the University of Warwick in the UK.
Observing an Unprecedented Cosmic Event
The initial detection of the burst was made on March 7, 2023, by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, identifying it as an exceptionally bright gamma-ray burst, labeled GRB 230307A.
Michael Fausnaugh, a former MIT research scientist and now assistant professor at Texas Tech University, commented on the unusual brightness of the burst. In gamma-ray astronomy, where typically individual photons are counted, the burst was so intense that individual photons could not be distinguished.
The JWST/NIRCam image shows the GRB 230307A field, revealing the associated kilonova and its host galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Andrew Levan (IMAPP, Warw)
This burst, lasting 200 seconds, was much longer than the typical short-lived GRBs from neutron star mergers, usually lasting under two seconds. The unusual length and brightness attracted global attention, with many telescopes pointed towards the burst. The gamma-ray flare’s brightness aided in its detection by satellites throughout the solar system, allowing astronomers to pinpoint its location in the Mensa constellation.
At MIT, Schneider and Fausnaugh joined the comprehensive search. Following Fermi’s detection, Fausnaugh checked TESS satellite data, which was aimed at the same sky section. He observed the entire burst sequence in the TESS data.
Meanwhile, Schneider analyzed the burst using the VLT in Chile. The VLT’s observations, along with TESS data, suggested a kilonova event, typically seen in neutron star collisions. These analyses, combined with global observations, indicated that the GRB likely resulted from the merger of two neutron stars.
Tracing the Origin of the Neutron Star Merger
To determine the merger’s origin, astronomers utilized JWST’s deep-field view. Their observations suggested that the neutron stars, originally part of a massive star binary system, were expelled from their host galaxy, eventually merging after several hundred million years.
In the merger’s energetic emissions, JWST also detected tellurium, supporting the theory that heavy elements in the universe are created in extreme environments like neutron star mergers.
Schneider emphasizes that this is just the beginning for JWST, which will play a crucial role in future detections of neutron star mergers and in understanding these extreme cosmic events.
For additional information on this research, refer to the following sources:
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Neutron Star Collision
What was the recent discovery made by astronomers using NASA’s JWST and other telescopes?
Astronomers have detected a bright gamma-ray burst from a neutron star collision, leading to the first direct observation of heavy metals like tellurium in space. This event occurred 900 million light-years away and sheds light on the origins of heavy elements in the universe.
How did astronomers directly detect tellurium in space?
Using multiple observatories, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), TESS satellite, and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, astronomers were able to observe the merging of two neutron stars. This event resulted in a gamma-ray burst and the direct detection of tellurium in the aftermath.
What is the significance of the gamma-ray burst observed in this study?
The gamma-ray burst (GRB), observed as a result of two merging neutron stars, is notable for being the second-brightest GRB ever detected. This burst provided a unique opportunity to study the processes involved in the formation of heavy elements in the universe.
What does the detection of tellurium in the aftermath of a neutron star merger indicate?
The detection of tellurium, a heavy and rare element on Earth, indicates that neutron star mergers are key sites for the creation of heavy elements in the universe. The merger was estimated to produce an amount of tellurium equivalent to 300 Earths, suggesting the presence of other heavy elements as well.
Who were the key contributors to this astronomical discovery?
This discovery was a collaborative effort involving an international team of astronomers. Key contributors included scientists at MIT, and the study was led by Andrew Levan of Radboud University and the University of Warwick. Benjamin Schneider, a postdoc at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, was a co-author of the study.
More about Neutron Star Collision
- NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope
- TESS Satellite
- Very Large Telescope (VLT)
- Nature Journal
- MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research
- Radboud University
- University of Warwick
- Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope
- Texas Tech University