The Abundance of Heavy Elements in Interstellar Gas

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Science  08 Jul 1994:
Vol. 265, Issue 5169, pp. 209-213
DOI: 10.1126/science.265.5169.209


The Goddard high-resolution spectrograph aboard the Hubble Space Telescope has been used to produce interstellar abundance measures of gallium, germanium, arsenic, krypton, tin, thallium, and lead, the heaviest elements detected in interstellar gas. These heavy elements arise from stellar nuclear processes (slow- and rapid-process neutron capture) that are different from those that produce zinc and the lighter elements previously observed. These data allow investigators to study how the heavy elements chemically interact with interstellar dust and to compare interstellar heavy element abundances in the current galactic epoch to those present at the time of the formation of the solar system. For example, the data indicate that the abundance of atoms in interstellar dust cannot be explained by simple condensation models alone and must be heavily influenced by chemistry in the interstellar medium. Also, the data for some elements suggest that their true galactic cosmic abundances may be different from the "fossil" abundances incorporated into the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.