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Snow in the Antarctic is Made up of Stardust, Scientists Have Claimed

A rare isotope created in massive stellar explosions has been found for the first time in Antarctic snow, in what could prove to be “groundbreaking discovery” for researchers.

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Updated:August 22, 2019, 6:27 PM IST
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Snow in the Antarctic is Made up of Stardust, Scientists Have Claimed
A rare isotope created in massive stellar explosions has been found for the first time in Antarctic snow, in what could prove to be “groundbreaking discovery” for researchers.
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A rare isotope created in massive stellar explosions has been found for the first time in Antarctic snow, in what could prove to be “groundbreaking discovery” for researchers “working on the environment of the solar system.” A team of scientists led by Dominik Koll of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) ruled out the possibility of iron-60 isotope making it to the earth from terrestrial sources after concluding that it must be interstellar in origin.

For their study, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, Koll and his colleagues collected around 500 kilograms of fresh snow from Antarctica and melted it to analyze the residue. They found five iron-60 atoms in the samples using the accelerator laboratory in Garching near Munich, according to Science Daily.

"Our analyses allowed us to rule out cosmic radiation, nuclear weapons tests or reactor accidents as sources of the iron-60," Koll said. "As there are no natural sources for this radioactive isotope on Earth, we knew that the iron-60 must have come from a supernova."

The isotope “did not seem to come from particularly distant stellar explosions, as the iron-60 dust would have dissipated too much throughout the universe if this had been the case.”

Also, based on the half-life of iron-60, atoms originating from the formation of Earth would have completely decayed by now.

Koll therefore assumes that the iron-60 in the Antarctic snow originates from the interstellar neighborhood, for example from an accumulation of gas clouds in which our solar system is currently located.

The first evidence of the occurrence of iron-60 on Earth was discovered in deep-sea deposits by a TUM research team 20 years ago.

Dr. Gunther Korschinek, who was part of that team and had hypothesized that traces of stellar explosions could also be found in untouched Antarctic snow, said “our solar system entered one of these clouds approximately 40,000 years ago," "and will exit it in a few thousand years.

“If the gas cloud hypothesis is correct, then material from ice cores older than 40,000 years would not contain interstellar iron-60," Koll added. "This would enable us to verify the transition of the solar system into the gas cloud -- that would be a groundbreaking discovery for researchers working on the environment of the solar system.

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