Is iron produced on earth
Enigmatic iron factory in space
With the ESA X-ray satellite XMM-Newton, launched on December 10, 1999, scientists discovered a celestial body whose radiation from the early phase of space contains a puzzling message: Is the universe possibly much older than 15 billion years or is there a previously undiscovered iron factory in space?
How does iron get into the world? According to the current theories of astrophysicists, it is incubated inside massive stars by nuclear burning. But these stars do not live forever either. At the end of their life, they have to die. They explode as supernovae and throw their ashes into space. There it mixes with other matter, from which new stars emerge or it is absorbed by black holes in the centers of the galaxies.
Life from star ash
Without the death of these stars, there would be no life on earth. Every heavy element of which our earth and ourselves are made was created in stars in billions of years ago. So each of us carries the ashes of burned out stars.
There is also iron in the ashes of the supernova explosions. The iron abundance is so important because it is a kind of cosmic clock. Since the Big Bang about 14 to 15 billion years ago, all chemical elements - with the exception of the lightest such as hydrogen and helium - have been produced in massive stars and hurled into space in gigantic supernovae explosions. In this way, the proportion of heavy elements in space increases from one generation of stars to the next.
The connection seemed clear: the older the universe, the more iron there should be.
With the time machine into the early phase of the universe
Dr. Norbert Schartel from the European Space Agency ESA as well as Prof. Günther Hasinger and Dr. Stefanie Komossa from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching has now made an astonishing discovery that questions this connection. Using spectral observations with the European X-ray satellite XMM-Newton, they found a young quasar that contains unusually large amounts of iron.
The quasar is called APM 08279 + 5255. It is one of the most luminous objects in all of space and emits a trillion times more energy than our sun. This is the only reason why the object can be observed despite its great distance.
Telescopes like the XMM-Newton are time machines at the same time. They reveal us insights into worlds long past. With ever more powerful telescopes, not only can we penetrate deeper and deeper into space, we also get closer and closer to the birth of our universe.
Our universe is around 14 to 15 billion years old. His birth - the Big Bang - was short and painful. Since then the universe has been expanding and within this space an infinite number of stars emerge and die every day.
In our considerations we have to keep two things consistently apart: distance and age. Let's start with our sun. The light of the sun takes 8.3 minutes to reach the earth. In other words: the sun is 8.3 light minutes away from us. The sun itself is five to six billion old. It originated when the universe was about nine billion years old.
Now we transfer these relationships to the Quasar APM 08279 + 5255 discovered with XMM-Newton. It is over 13 billion light years away from us. We do not know his exact age. We see it at a time when the universe was only around 1.5 billion years old. The quasar light that we receive today comes from the nursery of the cosmos. It gives us a glimpse into the early phase of space. We do not know whether the body still exists today. The information - the quasar light - takes over 13 billion light years to reach the earth. The quasar is called APM 08279 + 5255. It is one of the most luminous objects in all of space. It emits a quadrillion times more energy than our sun. This is the only reason why the object can be observed despite its great distance.
Telescopes like the XMM-Newton are time machines at the same time. They reveal insights into worlds long past. With ever more powerful telescopes, not only can we penetrate deeper and deeper into space, we also get closer and closer to the birth of our universe. This quasar APM 08279 + 5255 allows a look into the early phase of space. We see it at a time when the universe was only around 1.5 billion years old. The quasar light comes from the nursery of the cosmos. We do not know whether the body still exists today. Quasar light is on the move for over 13 billion years.
The sun, on the other hand, was formed around nine billion years after the Big Bang. It is around five to six billion years old, around four times older than the enigmatic quasar.
Is the universe older than 15 billion years?
According to current theories, the quasar from the early phase should contain little iron. However, the spectral analysis of APM 08279 + 5255 showed that it contains three times more iron than in our solar system, which is at least four times older. This unusually large amount of iron sparked a dispute among scientists: Either there is a previously unknown type of iron production, or the universe was much older than previously assumed when the quasar emitted its light. But maybe iron was created completely differently?
The new observations paint an extreme picture for the interior of APM 08279 + 5255: There must have been a veritable firework of supernovae in the center of the quasar to produce so much iron. Not only that: In order to maintain the high luminosity of APM 08279 + 5255 and the high outflow of matter from the quasar center, many solar masses of stardust have to be swallowed and some of them blown out again every year. But even a particularly high rate of supernovae is difficult to explain why so much iron was produced so early in the evolution of the universe.
The whole thing can only be explained, according to the hypothesis of the three scientists, if the universe is actually older than previously assumed. The “time difference” is also a further indication of the recently suspected existence of a “dark energy” by cosmologists. Its nature is still unclear, but it should further accelerate the expansion of the universe that exists today. It was not always like that. In the early phase of space, dark matter is said to have even delayed expansion. If one follows this view, then with the Quasar APM 08279 + 5255 we would receive information from a time when the universe was only a billion years old.
New discoveries and puzzles
The astronomers around the world who are sensitized to the subject are now reporting successes in their search for further mysterious sources. For example, astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg and colleagues from Princeton University have discovered two even more distant quasars with exceptionally high concentrations of carbon and nitrogen. Here the time for element enrichment after the Big Bang was even shorter than with APM 08279 + 5255.
Many basic questions are now open again. Is the universe really much older? Is there perhaps a connection with that dark matter? Astronomers suspect that our universe is held together by 90 to 99% of so far undiscovered matter. Perhaps XMM-Newton has come a step closer to this cosmic cement and with it the key to space and time?
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