Share

Dead Stars Colliding Forged Gold on Earth

Alicia Chang
Published: July 18, 2013

LOS ANGELES -- A strange glow in space has provided fresh evidence that all the gold on Earth was forged from ancient collisions of dead stars, researchers reported Wednesday.

Astronomers have long known that fusion reactions in the cores of stars create lighter elements such as carbon and oxygen, but such reactions can't produce heavier elements like gold.

Instead, it was long thought that gold was created in a type of stellar explosion known as a supernova. But that doesn't fully explain the amount of the precious metal in the solar system.

(MORE: How to Survive a Heat Wave)

About a decade ago, a team from Europe using supercomputers suggested that gold, platinum and other heavy metals could be formed when two exotic stars - neutron stars - crash and merge. Neutron stars are essentially stellar relics - collapsed cores of massive stars.

Now telescopes have detected such an explosion, and the observation bolsters the notion that gold in our jewelry was made in such rare and violent collisions long before the birth of the solar system about 4 1/2 billion years ago.

People "walk around with a little tiny piece of the universe," said lead researcher Edo Berger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

NASA's Swift telescope last month observed a gamma-ray burst that resulted from the crash of dead stars. The burst, in a distant galaxy, was some 3.9 billion light-years away. Each light-year is about 6 trillion miles.

The burst lasted only a fraction of a second. Using ground telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope, Berger's team noticed an odd glow that lasted for days. Infrared light in the glow could be evidence that heavy elements like gold had spewed out of the cosmic crash, the researchers said.

The new work, which will appear in a future issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, suggests gold was produced in a similar fashion in the Milky Way. It doesn't delve into how Earth was sprinkled with riches, but previous studies have suggested that a meteor shower may have delivered gold and other precious metals to the planet.

(PHOTOS: What's Turning These Lakes Green?)

If the new study's interpretation is correct, "this would be truly very exciting news," said Stockholm University astrophysicist Stephan Rosswog, who led the earlier supercomputing effort but didn't have a role in the latest study.

More observations of gamma-ray bursts are needed, but it's looking more likely that mergers of neutron stars are "a major cauldron in which elements like gold are forged," Rosswog said.

Such flashes are thought to occur in the Milky Way about once every 100,000 years. Berger said it's unlikely another will happen in our galaxy in our lifetime. But satellites can often detect such eruptions in distant galaxies about once a month.

MORE: Incredible Images of Earth From Space

New York

New York

New York City, posted on April 23, 2013. Cmdr. Chris Hadfield tweets: Incredibly clear, before the trees have filled with leaves. (Chris Hadfield/NASA)

  • New York
  • Canada
  • Ireland, Wales and Mann
  • Australian Outback
  • Wales
  • Bermuda
  • Toronto
  • The Alps
  • St. Lawrence River
  • Cairo
  • Berlin
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul
  • Boston
  • Newfoundland
  • Joao Pessoa, Brazil
  • Florida
  • Australian Outback
  • Central Africa
  • Bolivia
  • Asuncion, Paraguay
  • Cape Verde Islands
  • Andes Mountains
  • Miami
  • Canada
  • Off Japan's Coast
  • Chicago, Ill.
  • Grand Rapids, Mich.
  • Dallas, Texas
  • Cocoa Beach, Fla.
  • Myrtle Beach, S.C.
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Bogota, Columbia
  • Maputo, Mozambique
  • Aruba and Curacao
  • Thunderstorms from above
  • Corfu, Greece
  • Kolkata, India
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Glacier tongues in the Himalayas.
  • Central Asia
  • Australia
  • Japan
  • Adriatic Sea, Italy
  • Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada
  • Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Featured Blogs

Earth Headed For its Hottest Year on Record After a Record-Warm September

By Dr. Jeff Masters
October 20, 2014

September 2014 was Earth's warmest September on record, the period January - September was tied with 1998 and 2010 as the warmest first three-quarters of any year on record, and the past 12 months--October 2013 through September 2014--was the warmest consecutive 12-month period among all months since records began in 1880, said NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) today. If 2014 maintains the same temperature departure from average for the remainder of the year as was observed during January - September, it will be the warmest calendar year on record.

What is the Wettest Month of the Year in the U.S.?

By Christopher C. Burt
October 10, 2014

Brian Brettshneider of Borealis Scientific has done some impressive research concerning what the wettest calendar month of the year might be by employing data from 8,535 official NCDC sites from across the U.S. utilizing the latest 30 years of record (1981-2010). His conclusion is that June is, overall, most frequently the wettest month in the U.S. with 2,053 of the 8,535 sites reporting such. April, at the other end of the spectrum, reports only 76 sites of the 8,535 as their wettest month. This is a guest blog by Brian and below are the results of his research (both text and maps are his).

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.