Rotating Question Curious About Astronomy? Ask an Astronomer

How are elements heavier than iron formed?

My question is this: If iron fusion seems to be the last step in stellar life, then where did we get all the heavier elements on earth? My understanding is that all of the elements on earth heavier than helium were produced in stellar furnaces. - Star ash.

All of the post-iron elements are formed in supernova explosions themselves. So much energy is released during a supernova explosion that the freed energy and copious free neutrons streaming from the collapsing core drive massive fusion reactions, long past the formation of iron. Sure, this absorbs a lot of energy, but there's plenty available once the explosion has begun.

I guess statistically speaking the heavier elements are much rarer than oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, etc, but does this mean that maybe life is truly really rare (except in our neck of the Milky Way)?

That's right. Supernova nucleosynthesis isn't as efficient as the long years of synthesis in stellar cores.

Have elements heavier than Iron ever been detected outside our Solar System (Like in the emission lines of a nebula, for example - or does the physics model predect them?)

Absolutely. They're everywhere.

February 1999, Dave Kornreich (more by Dave Kornreich) (Like this Answer)

Still Curious?

Get More 'Curious?' with Our New PODCAST:

Related questions:

More questions about Supernovae: Previous | Next

How to ask a question:

If you have a follow-up question concerning the above subject, submit it here. If you have a question about another area of astronomy, find the topic you're interested in from the archive on our site menu, or go here for help.

Table 'curious.Referrers' doesn't existTable 'curious.Referrers' doesn't exist

This page has been accessed 71320 times since May 1, 2002.
Last modified: October 8, 2002 7:57:22 PM

Legal questions? See our copyright, disclaimer and privacy policy.
Ask an Astronomer is hosted by the Astronomy Department at Cornell University and is produced with PHP and MySQL.

Warning: Your browser is misbehaving! This page might look ugly. (Details)