Nuclear Fragments Could Help Uncover Origins of Life-supporting Planets

By Keith Cowing
University of Surrey
December 12, 2014
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Nuclear Fragments Could Help Uncover Origins of Life-supporting Planets

New research published today in the journal Physical Review Letters describes how recreating isotopes that occur when a star explodes, can help physicists understand where life-supporting elements may be found in space.

For the first time, a research team led by the University of Surrey, Japan’s RIKEN Nishina Centre and the University of Beihang, was able to observe the isotopes of certain elemental chemicals formed as a star explodes. The isotopes of these elements (samarium and gadolinium) are sensitive tracers of the way that stars explode, and therefore help in understanding the origins of the heavy elements that are needed to support life in the universe.

University of Surrey PhD student Zena Patel, who took the lead in analysing the data, said, “The important and exciting nuclear physics we’re learning from these experiments will teach us a lot about the universe we see today.”

Professor Phil Walker, co-author from the University of Surrey said: “Our work involved recreating some of the isotopes that are formed when a star explodes. This was done by accelerating uranium to 70 per cent of the speed of light and colliding it into a metal target. By analysing the fragments left behind using a gamma-ray microscope, we discovered that this reaction resulted in the creation of exotic isotopes whose structure had never been studied before. This helps map the pathway for the creation of elements that are essential to support life.

“Our study essentially demonstrates how star dust – the remnants of exploded stars – plays a role in the formation of life-supporting planets. It is just one discovery in a long process, but it will pave the way for further work in understanding the conditions needed for life in the universe.”

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