Triple Alpha Process: Supernova Surprise Spawns Elemental Mystery

Astronomers observe the triple alpha process in a supernova

By observing the most destructive and one of the most important reactions in the Universe, the astronomers made an amazing discovery. It turns out that the reaction is capable of forming a huge and unexpected impulse inside supernovae. The research is being carried out by the specialists from the University of Michigan. Their discovery refutes the theory that explains the huge number of some forms of isotopes of ruthenium and molybdenum on the Earth.

An astrophysicist Luke Roberts finds the new observations surprising. He and his colleagues used computer code to create an environment inside the supernova. The results were carefully checked, but they turned out to be correct. It turned out that carbon atoms can be created inside supernovae 10 times faster than previously thought.

Carbon is produced by a reaction called the triple alpha process. In many ways, it is considered to be incredibly important because it is the reaction that determines our existence. Almost all the atoms that make up not only the Earth, but also man, were created in space, in the stars. And there is no component more important to the formation of life on the Earth than carbon, which was formed in space as a result of the triple alpha process.

The beginning of the process is marked by alpha particles, atomic nuclei or helium nuclei. Each alpha particle contains two protons and two neutrons. In the triple alpha process, stars combine three helium nuclei to create one carbon atom. It has a surplus state of energy known as the Hoyle state. In that state, the atom can split into three alpha particles.

This process produces the most abundant form of carbon in the Universe. There are other isotopes produced by other nuclear processes, but they make up just over 1% of the Earth's carbon atoms. Simulations created by the scientists show that there are excess protons inside supernovae.

And a proton-rich supernova is capable of accelerating the triple alpha reaction. And the same process, as the scientists calculated, inhibits the ability of a supernova to create heavy elements.

It is important because the scientists previously believed that supernovae, which are rich in protons, create a surprising number of some isotopes of ruthenium and molybdenum on Earth, containing about a hundred protons and neutrons.