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More To Starlight Than Meets The Eye

Date:
January 16, 2006
Source:
Clemson University
Summary:
"Life depends on stars creating elements we so desperately need," says Clemson University astrophysicist Dieter Hartmann. "It's these elements that support life here on Earth and probably elsewhere." In studies, Hartmann and his collaborators outline that supernova explosions send out the element Aluminum-26 (26Al) which has drawn a picture of the galaxy researchers haven't had before. With this information, says Hartmann, scientists can better estimate how often supernovas explode and how many stars form a year.

The solar system is located at the outskirts of a majestic spiral galaxy, like the one shown in this simulated image. While it is difficult to obtain such an image from our inside location, many astronomical observations indicate that the picture shown here is a good representation. Star counts in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum with NASA’s recently launched Spitzer Space Telescope led to this image, which shows that the central region has a large bar (also seen in many distant spiral galaxies) and pronounced spiral arms. Much of the star formation traced by the gamma-rays from 26-aluminum originates in stellar explosions (supernovae) that quickly follow the formation of massive stars along these spiral arms. As the spiral pattern rotates through the gas in a galaxies disk, the most massive stars light up the galaxy and seed the gas with freshly synthesized elements that are so essential to the evolution of life.
Credit: Image courtesy of Clemson University

Where do elements, such as iron in our blood or calcium in our bones, come from? Astronomers say they come from thermonuclear reactions in hundreds of millions of stars that burn at high temperatures in our galaxy. Stars that are 10 or more times more massive than the sun eventually explode as supernovas, leaving traces of elements in the space between the stars of the Milky Way. When our solar system was created, astronomers say the trace elements were drawn from interstellar gases to form the Earth.

“Life depends on stars creating elements we so desperately need,” says Clemson University astrophysicist Dieter Hartmann. “It’s these elements that support life here on Earth and probably elsewhere.”

In studies, published today in Nature, Hartmann and his collaborators outline that supernova explosions also send out an element known as Aluminum-26 (26Al). It creates a glow that resembles the starlight from the uncounted number of stars deep inside the Milky Way, but it really is the emissions from Aluminum-26 produced and ejected by many dying, massive stars. As the aluminum rapidly decays in space, it produces energy in the form of gamma ray photons, which are a few thousand times as energetic as a medical x-ray here on Earth. Hartmann says the entire Milky Way galaxy glows in this type of light.

With this information, says Hartmann, scientists can better estimate how often supernovas explode (about two every century), how many stars form a year (about half a dozen), and how much Aluminum-26 is in the interstellar space (about three solar masses). The discovery proves, he says, that the enrichment process is continuing to seed the galaxy with needed elements.

“This observation of Aluminum-26 creates an instant snapshot of the galaxy for us,” says Hartmann. “It has drawn us an accurate picture that we haven’t had before, confirming how Aluminum-26 rotates with the galaxy as a whole. It also helps us answer the question of how many stars have formed in the Milky Way over the past few million years in our galactic life.”

Hartmann adds that advanced technology –– digital cameras, medical imaging and nuclear radiation detectors –– is often derived from research findings such as this.

The discovery is part of a multi-decade German, French and American collaboration that studied meteorites and measurements from European and United States satellite experiments. NASA funded the U.S. portion of the study.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Clemson University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Clemson University. "More To Starlight Than Meets The Eye." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 January 2006. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/01/060115155314.htm>.
Clemson University. (2006, January 16). More To Starlight Than Meets The Eye. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/01/060115155314.htm
Clemson University. "More To Starlight Than Meets The Eye." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/01/060115155314.htm (accessed July 31, 2014).

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