The first tangible evidence of a supernova explosion: Egypt's Hypatia stone

A stone in Egypt hides the most ancient mystery you can hold in your hands.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The photo credit line may appear like thisRomano Serra

Researchers from the University of Johannesburg and others have revealed some new insights about the Hypatia stone found in Egypt, including its cosmic origins, according to a press release published by the institution on Monday.

Their hypothesis about Hypatia’s origin is that it is believed to have come from a massive red giant star that collapsed into a white dwarf star inside a gigantic dust cloud called a nebula. These two stars then created a binary system where the white dwarf star eventually ‘ate’ the other star, further exploding as a supernova type Ia inside the dust cloud.

Catching a supernova la explosion

“In a sense, we could say, we have ‘caught’ a supernova Ia explosion ‘in the act’ because the gas atoms from the explosion were caught in the surrounding dust cloud, which eventually formed Hypatia’s parent body,” Jan Kramers, author of the study, said in the statement.

This supernova became a huge bubble of dust-and-gas-atoms that would, after millions of years, have become solid sometime in the early stages of the formation of our solar system in the Oort cloud or in the Kuiper belt.

Hypatia’s parent rock then started heading for Earth with its entry into our planet's atmosphere shattering the parent rock and leading to the Hypatia stone found in the Egyptian desert.

“If this hypothesis is correct, the Hypatia stone would be the first tangible evidence on Earth of a supernova type Ia explosion. Perhaps equally important, it shows that an individual anomalous ‘parcel’ of dust from outer space could actually be incorporated in the solar nebula that our solar system was formed from, without being fully mixed in,” said Kramers.

“This goes against the conventional view that dust which our solar system was formed from, was thoroughly mixed.”

Looking for patterns

To study the extraterrestrial rock carefully, the researchers looked for patterns within its shape and composition.

“Rather than exploring all the incredible anomalies Hypatia presents, we wanted to explore if there is an underlying unity. We wanted to see if there is some kind of consistent chemical pattern in the stone,” said Kramers.

The researchers selected 17 targets to further explore and got some pretty interesting results. 

“We identified 15 different elements in Hypatia with much greater precision and accuracy, with the proton microprobe. This gave us the chemical ‘ingredients’ we needed, so Jan could start the next process of analyzing all the data,” stated Belyanin.

They further conducted proton beam analyses that revealed that the stone had surprisingly low levels of silicon, measuring, along with chromium and manganese, less than 1% of the rock. The stone was, however, very high in iron, sulfur, copper, and vanadium.

“We found a consistent pattern of trace element abundances that is completely different from anything in the solar system, primitive or evolved. Objects in the asteroid belt and meteors don’t match this either. So next we looked outside the solar system,” said Kramers.

From this, the researchers could conclude that Hypatia did not form on Earth, did not originate from any known type of comet or meteorite, not from an average inner solar system dust, and not from average interstellar dust either. The only hypothesis left to consider is that the stone was created during the early formation of our solar system. What a find indeed!

 

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