Research ArticlesAstronomy

Observation of the 60Fe nucleosynthesis-clock isotope in galactic cosmic rays

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Science  06 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6286, pp. 677-680
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6004

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Cosmic rays from a nearby supernova

Supernova explosions produce unstable isotopes, spreading them through space in the form of cosmic rays. Binns et al. used NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer spacecraft to search for previously undetected traces of 60Fe in cosmic rays passing through the solar system. Seventeen years of observations detected just 15 60Fe nuclei—a small but statistically significant number. Because 60Fe is radioactive, with a half-life of 2.6 million years, these nuclei must have formed relatively recently in a nearby supernova. The most likely candidates are massive stars in the Scorpius-Centaurus association.

Science, this issue p. 677


Iron-60 (60Fe) is a radioactive isotope in cosmic rays that serves as a clock to infer an upper limit on the time between nucleosynthesis and acceleration. We have used the ACE-CRIS instrument to collect 3.55 × 105 iron nuclei, with energies ~195 to ~500 mega–electron volts per nucleon, of which we identify 15 60Fe nuclei. The 60Fe/56Fe source ratio is (7.5 ± 2.9) × 10−5. The detection of supernova-produced 60Fe in cosmic rays implies that the time required for acceleration and transport to Earth does not greatly exceed the 60Fe half-life of 2.6 million years and that the 60Fe source distance does not greatly exceed the distance cosmic rays can diffuse over this time, ⪍1 kiloparsec. A natural place for 60Fe origin is in nearby clusters of massive stars.

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