Scientists probe superheavy elements in exceptionally dense asteroids

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Exploring the vastness of space, scientists have stumbled upon a curious mystery: some asteroids have a density higher than any element found on our planet, Earth.

These enigmatic space rocks have prompted scientists to ponder whether they might hold unknown types of matter, possibly elements yet to be discovered.

Dr. Jan Rafelski and his research team from The University of Arizona have delved into this intriguing cosmic puzzle, trying to understand the astonishing density of these asteroids and what they might be made of.

In the scientific world, particularly in chemistry, the periodic table is like a map guiding scientists through the various elements, their properties, and how they interact.

The elements are organized by their atomic number (Z), which refers to the number of protons in their nucleus.

On our current periodic table, we have elements up to atomic number 118. However, what lies beyond that?

Scientists define “superheavy” elements as those with a particularly high atomic number, Z>104 to be exact.

While elements with atomic numbers ranging from 105 to 118 have been created in laboratories, they are generally unstable, exhibiting a fleeting existence and quickly undergoing radioactive decay.

Those beyond Z=118 are purely theoretical at this point, existing only in scientific predictions and not yet observed or synthesized in experiments.

Intriguingly, around the region of Z=164, there’s a hypothesized “island of nuclear stability” – a zone where these superheavy elements might just be stable enough to exist for longer durations.

The search for such heavy, stable elements has intriguing implications. Elements tend to get denser as their atomic number increases.

For instance, osmium, with Z=76, is the densest stable element we know of, with a density double that of lead.

However, the asteroid named 33 Polyhymnia, tucked between Mars and Jupiter, is estimated to have an astonishing density of about 75 g/cm^3, which is significantly higher than osmium. Could it be composed of elements that surpass Z=118?

Rafelski and his team attempted to decipher this mystery by employing the Thomas-Fermi model of atomic structure, exploring the properties of elements well beyond our existing periodic table, particularly focusing around Z=164.

They discovered that, theoretically, an element with Z=164 could possess a density between 36.0 and 68.4 g/cm^3, approaching the estimated density of asteroid Polyhymnia.

This research unfolds a tapestry of possibilities and further questions. Could the ultradense matter found in asteroids like Polyhymnia be composed of these hypothetical superheavy elements?

If so, they would provide invaluable insights into the atomic and cosmic worlds, potentially rewriting portions of scientific understanding regarding matter and the universe.

This realm of superheavy elements, unobserved and highly unstable, is colloquially lumped together as “unobtainium” in the scientific community.

Rafelski’s idea that certain superheavy elements might be stable enough to exist naturally within our solar system, and not just survive but also potentially be harvested, opens up fascinating avenues.

The possibility that some asteroids may contain materials unknown and unobtainable on Earth is not only a thrilling scientific prospect but also an enticing one for potential “space miners” eyeing the exploitation of precious metals in space.

Rafelski’s exploration into the world of superheavy elements and ultradense asteroids beckons towards an exciting future where the boundaries of our knowledge are pushed further, where elements yet to be discovered might be lurking in the cosmos, waiting to unveil their secrets.

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Source: Springer.