Phosphorus in the Young Supernova Remnant Cassiopeia A

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Science  13 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6164, pp. 1346-1348
DOI: 10.1126/science.1243823

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We Are Stardust

Most of the universe's chemical elements were produced in stars, with the heaviest elements being produced when stars explode. Barlow et al. (p. 1343) used the Herschel Space Observatory to obtain submillimeter spectra of the Crab Nebula, the remains of a stellar explosion that was witnessed on Earth in 1054 AD, and detected the first evidence of a noble gas-containing molecular ion in space—36ArH+. Koo et al. (p. 1346) obtained near-infrared spectroscopic observations of the remains of another stellar explosion, Cassiopeia A, with the Palomar 5-m Hale telescope, and found evidence that a substantial amount of phosphorus was formed in the explosion. Among the six elements essential for life (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur), only the origin of phosphorus remained to be confirmed by observation.


Phosphorus (31P), which is essential for life, is thought to be synthesized in massive stars and dispersed into interstellar space when these stars explode as supernovae (SNe). Here, we report on near-infrared spectroscopic observations of the young SN remnant Cassiopeia A, which show that the abundance ratio of phosphorus to the major nucleosynthetic product iron (56Fe) in SN material is up to 100 times the average ratio of the Milky Way, confirming that phosphorus is produced in SNe. The observed range is compatible with predictions from SN nucleosynthetic models but not with the scenario in which the chemical elements in the inner SN layers are completely mixed by hydrodynamic instabilities during the explosion.

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