That's so metal

Look: Colliding zombie stars reveal the cosmic origins of a legendary metal

Out with a bang.

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Photography by Mangiwau/Moment/Getty Images

Where does gold come from?

Mines, yes — but there’s an even more primitive origin point for the cherished metal.

Along with other metals, gold forms during powerful explosions in space.

Collisions involving neutron stars and black holes can also fuse heavy metals like uranium and platinum.

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Neutron stars are the remains of supernovas.

Supernovas happen when a star reaches the end of its life cycle and collapses, going out with a literal bang.

When the star’s collapse is not large enough to form into a black hole, a cold core remains — that’s the newly-formed neutron star.

They’re incredibly dense: a feature that gives neutron stars powerful potential to produce metals in a collision.

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But which type of collision makes the most metal?

A) two neutron stars


B) a neutron star + a black hole?

Researchers writing in Astrophysical Journal Letters on October 25 modeled collisions that happened over the past 2.5 billion years to estimate which type of collision has the potential to make the most metals.

Factors like rotational speed, mass, and resistance to disruption influence how likely objects are to collide.
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The researchers estimate that binary neutron stars — pairs that orbit each other — are likely to create between 2 to 100 times more metal than a neutron star and black hole upon merging.

Because the black holes we’ve observed don’t usually have small masses and high spin rates, it’s harder for a collision to happen, much less create a metal-rich explosion.

But to date, we haven’t observed that many neutron stars colliding with any other objects in the universe — period.

Future observations could put these predictions to the test.

Pinpointing how metals are created in the universe could help us explain why we find certain concentrations of elements in our own Solar System today.

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