“‘We are made of star stuff.’ – Carl Sagan. The quote isn’t some fantastic claim made by a science fiction writer. A lot of the “stuff” found on earth is created in stars. Two astronomical phenomena that are thought to be responsible for the creation of elements such as iron and heavier elements are core-collapse and thermonuclear supernovae. In the former type, a massive star collapses after it has burned its nuclear fuel through fusion and can no longer withstand the gravitational forces. Eventually, it ejects material into space after the density has increased so much that a powerful shockwave destroys the star. The latter kind is thought to involve a white dwarf star that slowly accretes matter from a nearby companion star, which can ignite and explode due the increased pressure, density and temperature in the star.
Many questions remain about how exactly these gigantic explosions take place, but they have one thing in common – a particular type of nuclear reaction called electron-capture plays an important part in both.
An experiment recently conducted by an international team of researchers led by the charge-exchange group at NSCL is helping to answer some of the questions about electron capture. The experiment uses a new technique to extract information about nuclear reactions involving the unstable isotopes that are critical for performing accurate simulations of the supernovae. The technique involves impinging a beam of unstable isotopes of the kind that are thought to exist in pre-supernova stars on a target of liquid hydrogen and measuring recoiling neutrons.”
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