Astronomers, using NASA‘s James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT), have identified an extremely rare element. Tellurium was discovered by the JWST in the remnants of a kilonova about 1 billion light-years away from Earth. This finding could help researchers better understand the conditions under which chemical elements are created in the universe.
“Dmitri Mendeleev devised the periodic table of elements 150 years ago. Now we can start filling in those last empty spaces where everything was created” said the study’s lead author (ref.) Andrew Levan in a statement (ref.). Scientists suspect the element was born from two now-merged neutron stars (ref.).
Both were massive stars, gravitationally locked in their native galaxy. When one of them reached the end of its life, it exploded as a supernova. In this violent explosion, the star was flung out of its galaxy and landed 120,000 light-years away. Subsequently, the second star followed suit.
Despite being expelled from their galaxy, the duo of neutron stars continued to be gravitationally bound. This eventually led, after hundreds of millions of years, to their fusion into a single body. We literally witnessed this happen on March 7th of this year.
“This type of explosion is very rapid, and the material in the explosion also expands rapidly” stated the study’s co-author Om Sharan Salafia of the INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera in Italy. The violent cosmic merger, known as kilonova GRB 230307A, generated a gamma-ray burst observed by scientists on March 7th.
This is the second brightest gamma-ray burst ever recorded since the search for these phenomena began 50 years ago. The burst was first noticed by NASA’s Fermi space observatory. The phenomenon lasted a record 200 seconds. Similar bursts from previous stellar mergers spread in just two seconds.
Fermi, JWST, and the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory observed the bright flash and worked to identify its source, according to the statement. JWST ‘s observations helped identify tellurium in the cloud of material surrounding the kilonova, marking another milestone in its historic mission.
“JWST provides a phenomenal boost and could find even heavier elements” said the study’s co-author Ben Gomper. “The observatory has certainly opened up a new exploratory path. Its tremendous capabilities will definitely transform our understanding of the universe“.