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Scientists Simulated Real Supernova Reactions in a Lab for the First Time

All in the pursuit of knowledge.

For a few brief moments, scientists observed the explosive power of a supernova in a lab. Researchers from the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom collaborated with scientists from Canada's TRIUMF National Laboratory to carry out the first direct measurement of a supernova reaction in a laboratory setting, a press statement reveals. The international team used an accelerated beam of radioactive nuclei for their experiment.

In a new study, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, the researchers detail the first time that scientists have been able to measure one of the processes by which the heaviest elements in the Universe are produced. 

The scientists used an accelerated beam of radioactive ions to observe processes outlined in scientific theories on supernova reactions. Their measurements have shed light on the proton capture process that scientists believe is responsible for the production of p-nuclei, isotopes that account for approximately one percent of heavy elements observed in our solar system — though we don't know how they originate. 

The scarcity of P-nuclei isotopes means they are difficult to observe, which has made it challenging for scientists to understand how the proton-rich and neutron-scarce isotopes are produced. As Science Alert points out, the theory with the most traction is the gamma process, which states that atoms capture flying protons during an explosive event such as a supernova.

New supernova study opens up 'a wealth of possibilities'

The new observations by the international group of researchers were conducted at the Isotope Separator and Accelerator II at the TRIUMF National Laboratory in Canada. The machine was used to produce a beam of charged, radioactive rubidium-83 atoms, while the process was recorded at the laboratory.

Scientists Simulated Real Supernova Reactions in a Lab for the First Time
The supernova setup at the TRIUMF National Laboratory. Source: University of Surrey

"The coupling of a high-resolution gamma-ray array with an advanced electrostatic separator to measure gamma process reactions represents a key milestone in the direct measurement of astrophysical processes," said Dr. Gavin Lotay of the University of Surrey. "Such measurements were largely thought to be out of reach of current experimental technologies and the latest study has now opened up a wealth of possibilities for the future."

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In 2019, researchers at the University of Guelph and Columbia University released a study detailing their theory that all of the world's heaviest elements, including gold and platinum, are forged in a rare form of supernova called a collapsar. Such studies shed light on the processes occurring in supernovae, which, in simple terms, can be viewed as elemental factories as they are responsible for forging every element that is heavier than oxygen — meaning they are responsible for our very existence.

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