by Brooks Hays
Magurele, Romania (UPI) Jun 2, 2016
Scientists may soon better understand the elemental origins of oxygen, thanks to the world's most intense source of gamma radiation -- soon to be brought online at the ELI Nuclear Physics research facility in Romania.
The new gamma ray device, developed by engineers at the University of Warsaw in Poland, will allow scientists to study the types of chemical reactions and particle behaviors unique to the insides of stars.
A prototype of the particle detector -- dubbed the mini-eTPC detector -- recently completed an initial round of testing. More tests are in the near future, with official experimentation expected to begin using the full-sized detector by 2018.
The hope for the novel detector is that it will help astrophysicists better understand how and why stars come to produce oxygen.
Oxygen is relatively rare in the universe, but it is essential to life. Only a special type of stellar combustion churns out the element -- stars that have already burned through all of their hydrogen and only have helium left.
"Oxygen can be described as the 'ash' from the thermonuclear 'combustion' of carbon. But what mechanism explains why carbon and oxygen are always formed in stars at more or less the same proportion of 6 to 10?" Warsaw astronomer Chiara Mazzocchi asked in a news release -- referring to the ratios of helium, carbon and oxygen found in stars.
"Stars evolve in stages. During the first stage, they convert hydrogen into helium, then helium into carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, with heavier elements formed in subsequent stages," Mazzocchi explained. "Oxygen is formed from carbon during the helium-burning phase."
"The thing is that, in theory, oxygen could be produced at a faster rate," Mazzocchi continued. "If the star were to run out of helium and shift to the next stage of its evolution, the proportions between carbon and oxygen would be different."
To solve such puzzles, researchers plan to blast the nuclei of various gas molecules with high-energy photons, mimicking the intense gamma radiation found in the engine rooms of stars.
"We are extremely pleased with the results of the tests conducted thus far," Mazzocchi said. "The demonstrator worked as we expected and successfully registered the tracks of charged particles. We are certain to use it in future research as a fully operational measuring device."
The results of the mini detector's initial testing were published recently in the journal Acta Physica Polonica B.
Space Technology News - Applications and Research
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