When two stars recently collided, astronomers landed on a new theory about where gold and other heavy elements originate
By Joseph Stromberg: On June 3, 3.9 billion light-years away, two incredibly dense neutron stars— bodies that are each about 1.5 times the mass of the sun but just the size of mere cities—collided. Scientists studying the event say it solves an enduring mystery about the formation of elements in our universe.“It's a very fast, catastrophic, extremely energetic type of explosion,” says Edo Berger, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The massive collision released a powerful jet of gamma-rays across the universe. The flash, which lasted for only two-tenths of a second, was picked up by NASA’s Swift satellite and sent astronomers scrambling to collect data.
Over the next few days, telescopes in Chile and the Hubble Space Telescope turned their attention to that region of space. Today, Berger and colleagues announced at a press conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that their analysis reveals that neutron star collisions are responsible for the formation of virtually all the heavy elements in the universe—a list that includes gold, mercury, lead, platinum and more.