Astronomers recently announced that they had seen and heard a pair of neutron stars collide, giving scientists a glimpse of the violent process by which most heavy metals in the universe were created.
Neutron stars are the smallest in the universe, with a diameter comparable to the size of a city like Chicago or Atlanta. They are the leftover remnants of supernovae. But they are incredibly dense, with masses bigger than that of our sun. So, imagine the sun compressed into the size of a major city. That would be a density akin to Mt. Everest packed into a teaspoon.
Now, think of two of them violently crashing into each other. One scientist marveled that the collision released “…more energy than has been released by the sun during its entire life, and this was during just the tens of seconds as the neutron stars (spiraled) together.”
The collision, which occurred 130 million light-years from here in the southern constellation of Hydra, sent fireworks across the universe and created the first observed instance of a single source emitting ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves, as well as light, which was released in the form of a two-second gamma ray burst.
The collision also created massive amounts of heavy elements such as gold, silver, platinum, uranium, and lead, scattering them across the universe in a kilonova — similar to a supernova — after the initial fireball.
In the second after the neutron stars collided, the neutron-rich soup of particles started mixing and bunching together, forming elements like iron, and then heavier elements were created as the vast cloud continued to spread at a few tenths of the speed of light.
According to astronomers, a day after the collision the cloud of debris had spread out over something close to the size of our own solar system, carrying with it a load of material equivalent to 2,300 times the mass of Earth. Breaking it down into individual elements, around 10 of those Earths would be pure gold.
Now, just pause and think about that: gold in an amount equal to the mass of 10 Earths. Imagine how James Bond’s nemesis Goldfinger would lust after that enormous golden treasure trove. Since the Earth weighs 13 billion trillion tons, all that gold would weigh in at 130 billion trillion tons. And, with gold closing today at $1275 per ounce… well, you do the math: that’s one hell of a fortune hurtling out there in space ripe for the panning.
Of course, astrophysicists and the entire scientific community are raving about the discovery of this cataclysmic collision of two neutron stars and what it means for the future discoveries to come.
One of the leaders of the project, Caltech’s David H. Reitze, said: “This detection opens the window of a long-awaited ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy. It’s the first time that we’ve observed an astrophysical event in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves — our cosmic messengers. Gravitational-wave astronomy offers new opportunities to understand the properties of neutron stars in ways that just can’t be achieved with electromagnetic astronomy alone.”
But, I’m sure that aside from the scientists’ exhilaration over the wonders of gravitational wave astronomy, there are many entrepreneurial geologists and prospectors out there who are much more focused on the “get rich quick” opportunities of millions of trillions of dollars in gold dust out there. But, their hopes and dreams of striking it rich in outer space are tempered by some stark realities.
First, obviously, these two neutron stars collided 130 million light years from Earth, presenting a daunting challenge for intergalactic prospecting.
Next, any prospector looking to pan for gold in the Hydra constellation should keep in mind that our scientists just observed a stellar collision that occurred over 130 million years ago. It could well be that the 49er-style gold rush all those light years away is already over since aliens from other planets in other solar systems have scooped up all that gold dust and stored it away for themselves.
So, maybe we should shelve those hair-brained get rich quick schemes and focus on this magnificent breakthrough on the frontiers of modern astrophysics for its own intrinsic scientific value.