Nearby Supernovas Showered Earth With Iron

We all know that we are “made of star-stuff,” with all of the elements necessary for the formation of planets and even life itself having originated inside generations of massive stars, which over billions of years have blasted their creations out into the galaxy at the explosive ends of their lives. Supernovas are some of the most powerful and energetic events in the known Universe, and when a dying star finally explodes you wouldn’t want to be anywhere nearby—fresh elements are nice and all but the energy and radiation from a supernova would roast any planets within tens if not hundreds of light-years in all directions. Luckily for us we’re not in an unsafe range of any supernovas in the foreseeable future, but there was a time geologically not very long ago that these stellar explosions are thought to have occurred in nearby space… and scientists have recently found the “smoking gun” evidence at the bottom of the ocean.

Two independent teams of “deep-sea astronomers”—one led by Dieter Breitschwerdt from the Berlin Institute of Technology and the other by Anton Wallner from the Australian National University—have investigated sediment samples taken from the floors of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. The sediments were found to contain relatively high levels of iron-60, an unstable isotope specifically created during supernovas.

The Local Bubble is a 300-light-year long region that was carved out of the interstellar medium by supernovas (Source: Science@NASA)
The Local Bubble is a 300-light-year long region that was carved out of the interstellar medium by supernovas (Source: [email protected])

Watch: How Quickly Does a Supernova Happen?

The teams found that the ages of the iron-60 concentrations (the determination of which was recently perfected by Wallner) centered around two time periods, 1.7 to 3.2 million years ago and 6.5 to 8.7 million years ago. Based on this and the fact that our Solar System currently resides within a peanut-shaped region virtually empty of interstellar gas known as the Local Bubble, the researchers are confident that this provides further evidence that supernovas exploded within a mere 330 light-years of Earth, sending their elemental fallout our way.

“This research essentially proves that certain events happened in the not-too-distant past,” said Adrian Melott, an astrophysicist and professor at the University of Kansas who was not directly involved with the research but published his take on the findings in a letter in Nature. (Source)

The researchers think that two supernova events in particular were responsible for nearly half of the iron-60 concentrations now observed. These are thought to have taken place among a a nearby group of stars known as the Scorpius–Centaurus Association, some 2.3 and 1.5 million years ago. At those same time frames Earth was entering a phase of repeated global glaciation, the end of the last of which led to the rise of modern human civilization.

While supernovas of those sizes and distances wouldn’t have been a direct danger to life here on Earth, could they have played a part in changing the climate?

Read more: Could a Faraway Supernova Threaten Earth?

“Our local research group is working on figuring out what the effects were likely to have been,” Melott said. “We really don’t know. The events weren’t close enough to cause a big mass extinction or severe effects, but not so far away that we can ignore them either. We’re trying to decide if we should expect to have seen any effects on the ground on the Earth.”

Regardless of the correlation, if any, between ice ages and supernovas, it’s important to learn how these events do affect Earth and realize that they may have played an important and perhaps overlooked role in the history of life on our planet.

“Over the past 500 million years there must have been supernovae very nearby with disastrous consequences,” said Melott. “There have been a lot of mass extinctions, but at this point we don’t have enough information to tease out the role of supernovae in them.”

You can find the teams’ papers in Nature here and here.

Sources: IOP PhysicsWorld and the University of Kansas


UPDATE 4/14/16: The presence of iron-60 from the same time periods as those mentioned above has also been found on the Moon by research teams in Germany and the U.S. Read more here.

Does Antarctica Have A Hidden Layer Of Meteorites Below Its Surface?

ANSMET 2012-2013 team collecting a meteorite sample (Image: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katherine Joy)
Two members of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites 2012-2013 team use tongs to collect a meteorite near the Transantarctic Mountains. Credit: Katherine Joy, University of Manchester / Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program

In the category of why-didn’t-I think-of-that ideas, Dr. Geoffrey Evatt and colleagues from the University of Manchester struck upon a brilliant hypothesis: that a layer of iron meteories might lurk just below the surface of the Antarctic ice. He’s the lead  author of a recent paper on the topic published in the open-access journal, Nature Communications.

A likely stony meteorite found during the ANSMET 2014-15 expedition in Antarctica. Credit: JSC Curation / NASA
A possible stony meteorite found during the ANSMET 2014-15 expedition in Antarctica. Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program

Remote Antarctica makes one of the best meteorite collecting regions on the planet. Space rocks have been accumulating there for millennia preserved in the continent’s cold, desert-like climate. While you might think it’s a long and expensive way to go to hunt for meteorites, it’s still a lot cheaper than a sample return mission to the asteroid belt. Meteorites fall and become embedded in ice sheets within the continent’s interior. As that ice flows outward toward the Antarctic coastlines, it pushes up against the Transantarctic Mountains, where powerful, dry winds ablate away the ice and expose their otherworldly cargo.

Meteorite recovery sites in the Transantarctic Mountains. Credit: NASA
Meteorite recovery sites in the Transantarctic Mountains. Credit: NASA

Layer after layer, century after century, the ice gets stripped away, leaving rich “meteorite stranding zones” where hundreds of space rocks can be found within an area the size of a soccer field. Since most meteorites arrive on Earth coated in a black or brown fusion crust from their searing fall through the atmosphere, they contrast well against the white glare of snow and ice. Scientists liken it to a conveyor belt that’s been operating for the past couple million years.

Scientists form snowmobile posses and buzz around the ice fields picking them up like candy eggs on Easter morning. OK, it’s not that easy. There’s much planning and prep followed by days and nights of camping in bitter cold with high winds tearing at your tent. Expeditions take place from October through early January when the Sun never sets.

The U.S. under ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites, a Case Western Reserve University project funded by NASA), China, Japan and other nations run programs to hunt and collect the precious from the earliest days of the Solar System before they find their way to the ocean or are turned to dust by the very winds that revealed them in the first place. Since systematic collecting began in 1976, some 34,927 meteorites have been recovered from Antarctica as of December 2015.

A team of scientists document the find of a small meteorite found among rocks on the Antarctic ice during the ANSMET 2014-15 hunt. Credit: JSC Curation / NASA
A team of scientists document the find of a small meteorite found among rocks on the Antarctic ice during the ANSMET 2014-15 expedition. Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Vinciane Debaille

Meteorites come in three basic types: those made primarily of rock; stony-irons comprised of a mixture of iron and rock; and iron-rich. Since collection programs have been underway, Antarctic researchers have uncovered lots of stony meteorites, but meteorites either partly or wholly made of metal are scarce compared to what’s found in other collecting sites around the world, notably the deserts of Africa and Oman. What gives?

A fragment of the Sikhote-Alin iron meteorite that fell over eastern Russia (then the Soviet Union) on Feb. 12, 1947. Some of the dimpling are pockets on the meteorite's surface called regmeglypts. Credit: Bob King
This fragment of the massive Sikhote-Alin meteorite that fell over eastern Russia (then the Soviet Union) on Feb. 12, 1947 is a typical iron-nickel meteorite. Another specimen of this meteorite was used in the experiment to determine how quickly it burrowed into the ice when heated.  Credit: Bob King

Dr. Evatt and colleagues had a hunch and performed a simple experiment to arrive at their hypothesis. They froze two meteorites of similar size and shape — a specimen of the Russian Sikhote-Alin iron and NWA 869, an ordinary (stony) chondrite  — inside blocks of ice and heated them using a solar-simulator lamp. As expected, both meteorites melted their way down through the ice in time, but the iron meteorite sank further and  faster. I bet you can guess why. Iron or metal conducts heat more efficiently than rock. Grab a metal camera tripod leg or telescope tube on a bitter cold night and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Metal conducts the heat away from your hand far better and faster than say, a piece of wood or plastic.

Antarctic researchers carefully pack meteorites into collection boxes. Looks cold! Credit: JSC Curation / NASA
Antarctic researchers carefully pack meteorites found along the Transantarctic Range into collection boxes. Looks cold! Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Vinciane Debaille

The researchers performed many trials with the same results and created a mathematical model showing that Sun-driven burrowing during the six months of Antarctic summer accounted nicely for the lack of iron meteorites seen in the stranding zones. Co-author Dr. Katherine Joy estimates that the fugitive meteorites are trapped between about 20-40 inches (50-100 cm) beneath the ice.

Who wouldn’t be happy to find this treasure? Dr. Barbara Cohen is seen with a large meteorite from the Antarctic’s Miller Range. Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program

You can imagine how hard it would be to dig meteorites out of Antarctic ice. It’s work enough to mount an expedition to pick up just what’s on the surface.

With the gauntlet now thrown down, who will take up the challenge? The researchers suggests metal detectors and radar to help locate the hidden irons. Every rock delivered to Earth from outer space represents a tiny piece of a great puzzle astronomers, chemists and geologist have been assembling since 1794 when German physicist Ernst Chladni published a small book asserting that rocks from space really do fall from the sky.

Like the puzzle we leave unfinished on the tabletop, we have a picture, still incomplete, of a Solar System fashioned from the tiniest of dust motes in the crucible of gravity and time.


Can You Kill a Star With Iron?

Since the energy required to fuse iron is more than the energy that you get from doing it, could you use iron to kill a star like our sun?

A fan favorite was How Much Water Would it Take to Extinguish the Sun? Go ahead and watch it now if you like. Or… if you don’t have time to watch me set up the science, deliver a bunch of hilarious zingers and obscure sci-fi references, here’s the short version:

The Sun is not on fire, it’s a fusion reaction. Hydrogen mashes up to produce helium and energy. Lots and lots of energy. Water is mostly hydrogen, adding water would give more fuel and make it burn hotter. But some of you clever viewers proposed another way to kill the Sun. Kill it with iron!

Iron? That seems pretty specific. Why iron and not something else, like butter, donuts, or sitting on the couch playing video games – all the things working to kill me? Is iron poison to stars? An iron bar? Possibly iron bullets? Iron punches? Possibly from fashioning a suit and attacking it as some kind of Iron Man?

Time for some stellar physics. Stars are massive balls of plasma. Mostly hydrogen and helium, and leftover salad from the Big Bang. Mass holds them together in a sphere, creating temperatures and pressures at their cores, where atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium, releasing energy. This energy, in the form of photons pushes outward. As they escape the star, this counteracts the force of gravity trying to pull it inward.

Over the course of billions of years, the star uses up the reserves of hydrogen, building up helium. If it’s massive enough, it will switch to helium when the hydrogen is gone. Then it can switch to oxygen, and then silicon, and all the way up the periodic table of elements.

The most massive stars in the Universe, the ones with at least 8 times the mass of the Sun, have enough temperature and pressure that they can fuse elements all the way up to iron, the 26th element on the Periodic Table. At that point, the energy required to fuse iron is more than the energy that you get from fusing iron, no matter how massive a star you are.

Massive Young Stellar Object HD200775 within the reflection nebula NGC7023.
Massive Young Stellar Object HD200775 within the reflection nebula NGC7023.

In a fraction of a second, the core of the Sun shuts off. It’s no longer pushing outward with its light pressure, and so the outer layers collapse inward, creating a black hole and a supernova. It sure looks like the build up of iron in the core killed it.

Is it true then? Is iron the Achilles heel of stars? Not really. Iron is the byproduct of fusion within the most massive stars. Just like ash is the byproduct of combustion, or poop is the byproduct of human digestion.

It’s not poison, which stops or destroys processes within the human body. A better analogy might be fiber. Your body can’t get any nutritional value out of fiber, like grass. If all you had to eat was grass, you’d starve, but it’s not like the grass is poisoning you. As long as you got adequate nutrition, you could eat an immense amount of grass and not die. It’s about the food, not the grass.

The Sun already has plenty of iron; it’s 0.1% iron. That little nugget would work out to be 330 times the mass of the Earth. If you gave it much more iron, it would just give the Sun more mass, which would give it more gravity to raise the temperature and pressure at the core, which would help it do even more fusion.

This image shows iron debris in Tycho's supernova remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al.
This image shows iron debris in Tycho’s supernova remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al.

If you just poured iron into a star, it wouldn’t kill it. It would just make it more massive and then hotter and capable of supporting the fusion of heavier elements. As long as there’s still viable fuel at the core of the star, and adequate temperatures and pressures, it’ll continue fusing and releasing energy.

If you could swap out the hydrogen in the Sun with a core of iron, you would indeed kill it dead, or any star for that matter. It wouldn’t explode, though. Only if it was at least 8 times the mass of the Sun to begin with. Then would you have enough mass bearing down on the inert core to create a core collapse supernova.

In fact, since you’ve got the power to magically replace stellar cores, you would only need to replace the Sun’s core with carbon or oxygen to kill it. It actually doesn’t have enough mass to fuse even carbon. As soon as you replaced the Sun’s core, it would shut off fusion. It would immediately become a white dwarf, and begin slowly cooling down to the background temperature of the Universe.

Iron in bullet, bar, man or any other form isn’t poison to a star. It just happens to be an element that no star can use to generate energy from fusion. As long as there’s still viable fuel at the core of a star, and the pressure and temperature to bring them together, the star will continue to pump out energy.

What other exotic ways would you use to try and kill the Sun? Give us your suggestions in the comments below.