Radioisotopes and the History of Nucleosynthesis in the Galaxy

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Science  10 Oct 1969:
Vol. 166, Issue 3902, pp. 212-215
DOI: 10.1126/science.166.3902.212


Nearly all of the heavier elements seem to have been assembled by successive neutron captures occurring in two distinct processes: the s (slow) process refers to neutron capture at a rate which is slow compared to the intervening beta-decay; the r (rapid) process refers to neutron capture at a rate which is rapid compared to the beta process. It is becoming increasingly apparent that simple models for galactic r-process nucleosynthesis are inadequate. Modern astronomical observations, which indicate that the bulk of r-process synthesis may have occurred early in the life of the galaxy, cannot be ignored. Recent data on the fissiogenic xenon in whitlockite from the St. Severin meteorite also place stringent conditions on permissible models for element synthesis. It appears that neither sudden nor continuous models for element formation are consistent with isotopic data now available. I propose a more complex model for the synthesis of solar system material in which the r-process is allowed to occur in three distinct modes: a "prompt" synthesis early in the history of the galaxy, a "continuous" synthesis whereby r-process products are continuously added to the galactic mix, and a "last-minute" synthesis which enriches the solar nebula with r-process material shortly before the formation of the solar system. Calculations based on the present abundances of uranium-235, uranium-238, and thorium-232 and the measured abundances of iodine-129 and plutonium-244 present when meteorites began to retain xenon indicate that the galactic age is between 8.0 and 8.8 billion years, with the initial "prompt" synthesis accounting for 81 to 89 percent of the total r-process material ever produced, the "last-minute" synthesis contributing between 11 and 13 percent, and 0 to 8 percent occurring in the continuous mode. The time interval between the isolation of the solar nebula from galactic r-process and the onset of xenon retention in meteorites lies between 176 and 179 million years.

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