400-Year-Old Radioactive Molecule Found In Space


Scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently discovered the first ever radioactive molecule in space. A star that was first seen in the 1600s is the source of the molecule. Back in 2013, astronomers began to study a molecular gas that was created during the ancient explosion. Researchers believe that this nova was caused by the collision of two other stars. That collision created an extremely hot reaction, known to astronomers as a “red nova.”  When those stars cooled down, they created the molecular gas.

The molecule scientists discovered in this gas is known as 26AlF, an aluminum isotope. The occurrence marks two significant events. First, it marks the first time that something that directly produces 26AlF has been detected. Second, and more obviously, it’s the first time that a radioactive molecule has ever been detected in space.

The discovery presents a unique opportunity for scientists to discover how the explosive merger of the two stars occurred 400 years ago. Furthermore, researchers were able to determine that one of the merging stars had a mass of between 0.8 and 2.5 solar masses. That means that one of the stars in question could have been up to 832,365 times the size of Earth!

While the discovery of 26AlF in Space has helped answer some questions, it’s also produced just as many questions. Mainly, scientists have determined that the collision of the two stars alone can’t be responsible for the total amount of isotope discovered, indicating that it had to have originated from somewhere else in the galaxy. Now scientists want to know where exactly that galactic starting point is.

While there are still plenty of questions to be answered, those in the business of astronomy can’t deny the significance of the discovery. It’s brought a 400-year-old Nova back to the forefront of research and revealed that it’s a source of 26AlF. Scientists have been able to use the data collected as a result of this discovery to fine tune the equipment they use for detecting aluminum isotopes, which will no doubt improve future researcher as we continue to learn more about our galaxy.