Gamma-ray burst unveils secrets of life’s building blocks in the universe

An exceptionally bright gamma-ray burst, GRB 230307A, and its associated kilonova. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Andrew Levan (IMAPP, Warw).

In a breathtaking discovery, scientists have witnessed the birth of rare chemical elements in one of the brightest gamma-ray bursts ever recorded.

This event sheds new light on how some of the essential elements for life are crafted.

Known as GRB 230307A, this extraordinary gamma-ray burst was caused by the collision of two neutron stars.

The explosion was so massive it could be observed with a variety of telescopes, including some of NASA’s best like the James Webb Space Telescope.

The aftermath of this colossal explosion revealed the presence of a heavy chemical element, tellurium.

Moreover, elements vital for life on Earth, such as iodine and thorium, are believed to have been ejected during this blast, referred to as a kilonova.

Dr. Ben Gompertz from the University of Birmingham gives a vivid description, “Imagine two neutron stars spiraling towards each other for billions of years. When they finally collide, they produce the gamma-ray burst we saw earlier this year.”

This collision site was so far away, it was outside of their home galaxy, about the same distance as our Milky Way! “These colliding stars create the perfect conditions for making very heavy elements. As these new elements form, they light up the kilonova, which we were lucky enough to spot.”

This discovery is monumental because it’s only the second time scientists have detected individual heavy elements following a neutron star collision. Such insights help us understand the creation of essential life elements better.

To give perspective, the brightness of GRB 230307A was staggering—it shone over a million times brighter than our Milky Way galaxy in its entirety.

Andrew Levan, the lead researcher, highlighted the significance of the James Webb Telescope in this discovery. He remarked, “After 150 years since the periodic table was first introduced, we’re now beginning to grasp where every element came from, all thanks to this telescope.”

Interestingly, GRB 230307A is classified as a long-duration gamma-ray burst, lasting for 200 seconds. This is atypical, as most bursts from neutron star mergers are short, lasting under two seconds. The longer bursts usually result from the explosive end of a giant star.

The team’s next step? Dive deeper into understanding neutron star mergers and the incredible explosions they fuel.

Dr. Samantha Oates, another key contributor to the study, emphasized the revolutionary capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope, stating that just a few years back, such groundbreaking discoveries were unthinkable.

Summing up the excitement, Dr. Gompertz said, “We’re now on the brink of a new understanding of our universe.

We’re eager to find more of these long-lasting mergers to comprehend their driving forces and to see if even heavier elements come to life. The door to the universe’s secrets has just opened a little wider for us.”

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Source: University of Birmingham.