(ORDO NEWS) — “Standard Candle” (or Type Ia) supernova explosions are among the most energetic events in the universe, occurring when a dense white dwarf star engulfs another star. Scientists now believe they have found the first evidence of such a supernova on Earth.
This statement came after a careful study of the extraterrestrial Hypatia stone, which was found in Egypt in 1996. All indications, including the chemical composition and structure of the stone, indicate that the fragments contain particles of dust and a gas cloud that surrounded the supernova Ia.
Over billions of years, this mixture of dust and gas should have turned into a solid, the researchers say, and eventually formed the mother body from which Hypatia originated, around the time our solar system was just born.
“In a sense, we can say that we caught the explosion of supernova Ia at the very beginning, because the gas atoms from the explosion fell into the surrounding dust cloud, which eventually formed the mother body of Hypatia,” says geochemist Jan Kramers from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.
Using detailed, non-destructive chemical analysis methods, the team examined 17 different objects on the tiny sample of Hypatia. Then they had to put together information about where this stone was located and how it was formed.
These clues included unusually low levels of silicon, chromium and manganese, suggesting that the rock did not form in the inner solar system. The researchers also noted high levels of iron, sulfur, phosphorus, copper and vanadium, which again makes the object different from anything in our neighborhood in space.
If you look at the concentration of elements in Hypatia, it was markedly different from what we would expect to see in rocks from the inner solar system and in our arm of the Milky Way. Further analysis rules out the possibility that the rock formed from a red giant star.
The researchers were also able to show that Hypatia does not match what one would expect if it came from a Type II supernova – it has too much iron in relation to silicon and calcium – and this leaves the intriguing possibility that it is the remnant of type Ia supernova, the first one found on this planet.
“If this hypothesis is correct, then the Hypatian Stone would be the first physical evidence of a Type Ia supernova explosion on Earth,” says Kramers.
“Perhaps just as importantly, it shows that a single anomalous piece of dust from space can be incorporated into the solar nebula from which our solar system formed without being completely mixed up.”
From what we know about Type Ia supernovae, they must create very unusual patterns of element concentration in rocks like Hypatia. Through extensive stargazing and modeling, the team was unable to find a better match for this breed.
Of the 15 elements analyzed in the rock, they were somewhat consistent with what would be expected if the object came from the explosion of a dense white dwarf star.
However, the case is not yet closed. Another six elements do not fit the Type 1a supernova models: aluminum, phosphorus, chlorine, potassium, copper, and zinc. However, the researchers believe that this can be explained by something more distant in the supernova’s past.
“Because a white dwarf star forms from a dying red giant, Hypatia could have inherited those proportions of six elements from the red giant star,” says Kramers. “This phenomenon has been observed in white dwarf stars in other studies.”
We’ll need more research to definitively sort this out, but at this point it certainly looks like this enigmatic stone has come a very long way.
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