Souped-up supernovas may produce much of the universe’s heavy elements

Analysis of a rare, ancient star suggests a new birthplace for elements like uranium and silver

illustration of a hypernova

Explosions of massive, magnetized stars (similar to the one illustrated) may be the source of much of the universe’s heavy elements.

Anna Serena Esposito

Violent explosions of massive, magnetized stars may forge most of the universe’s heavy elements, such as silver and uranium.

These r-process elements, which include half of all elements heavier than iron, are also produced when neutron stars merge (SN: 10/16/17). But collisions of those dead stars alone can’t form all of the r-process elements seen in the universe. Now, scientists have pinpointed a type of energetic supernova called a magnetorotational hypernova as another potential birthplace of these elements.

The results, described July 7 in Nature, stem from the discovery of an elderly red giant star — possibly 13 billion years old — in the Milky Way’s halo (SN: 1/9/20). By analyzing the star’s elemental makeup, which is like a star’s genetic instruction book, astronomers peered back into the star’s family history. Forty-four different elements seen in the star suggest that it was formed from material left over “by a special explosion of one massive star soon after the Big Bang,” says astronomer David Yong of the Australian National University in Canberra.

The ancient star’s elements aren’t from the remnants of a neutron star merger, Yong and his colleagues say. Its abundances of certain heavy elements such as thorium and uranium were higher than would be expected from a neutron star merger. Additionally, the star also contains lighter elements such as zinc and nitrogen, which can’t be produced by those mergers. And since the star is extremely deficient in iron — an element that builds up over many stellar births and deaths — the scientists think that the red giant is a second-generation star whose heavy elements all came from one predecessor supernova-type event.

Simulations suggest that the event was a magnetorotational hypernova, created in the death of a rapidly spinning, highly magnetized star at least 25 times the mass of the sun. When these stars explode at the end of their lives as a souped-up type of supernova, they may have the energetic, neutron-rich environments needed to forge heavy elements.

Magnetorotational hypernovas might be similar to collapsars — massive, spinning stars that collapse into black holes instead of exploding. Collapsars have previously been proposed as birthplaces of r-process elements, too (SN: 5/8/19).

The researchers think that magnetorotational hypernovas are rare, composing only 1 in 1,000 supernovas. Even so, such explosions would be 10 times as common as neutron star mergers today, and would produce similar amounts of heavy elements per event. Along with their less energetic counterparts, called magnetorotational supernovas, these hypernovas could be responsible for creating 90 percent of all r-process elements, coauthor Chiaki Kobayashi, an astrophysicist at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England, had previously calculated. In the early universe, when massive, rapidly rotating stars were more common, such explosions could have been even more influential.

The observations are impressive, says Stan Woosley, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the new study. But “there is no proof that the [elemental] abundances in this metal-deficient star were made in a single event. It could have been one. It could have been 10.” One of those events might even have been a neutron star merger, he says.

The scientists hope to find more stars like the elderly red giant, which could reveal how frequent magnetorotational hypernovas are. For now, the newly analyzed star remains “incredibly rare and demonstrates the need for … large surveys to find such objects,” Yong says.

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