Designer Isotopes: Rare-Isotope Research Brings Supernova Processes Down to Earth

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A new line of rare-isotope facilities, due to open in the next eight years in locations around Europe and North America, will collide atoms at high speeds to make them radioactive. The goal is to jumpstart processes that do not now take place anywhere on Earth, but that are commonplace in the cores of exploding stars.

The stellar collisions create isotopes, which are variations of the original atoms plus or minus a few neutrons. The new facilities will enable astronomers and astrophysicists to work directly with elements they could never get hold of until now.

The rare-isotope facilities "would extend nuclear research from the domain of stable or near-stable nuclei familiar in everyday life to nearly the full range of nuclei that exist in nature's most exotic stellar environments," according to the National Research Council.

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These facilities might also provide more clues to what took place in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang that most scientists believe marked the emergence of the known universe.

The studies would have many earthly implications, according to Bradley Sherrill, associate director of research at the Michigan State University rare-isotope facility National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory.

"If we want to understand where gold comes from, we've got to understand these processes that go on in stars. We know it originated in stars, we just don't know how. These experiments with isotopes could help answer those questions," says Sherrill.

Sherrill says that researchers of many scientific disciplines not related to space would stand to benefit. National-security experts, for example, could apply the added knowledge about atomic reactions to undertake "nuclear forensics": If a terrorist detonates a nuclear weapon, agency researchers could identify which country supplied it. …