Manchester astronomers detect precious element in space

May 13, 2016 by Joe Paxton, University of Manchester

A team of astronomers from The University of Manchester, together with collaborators from the Centro de Astrobiología and the Deep Space Network, Spain and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, have detected a rare gas 4000 light years away from Earth. The discovery, made using the largest antenna of NASA's Madrid Deep Space Communication Complex (70 metres in diameter), could help scientists to understand more about the history of this important element.

Helium-3 is a gas that has the potential to be used as a fuel in nuclear fusion power plants in the future, and is crucial for use in cryogenics and medical imaging techniques. There is very little of it available on Earth, so most of it is manufactured in nuclear laboratories at great cost. There are thought to be significant supplies on the Moon, and several governments around the world have signalled their intention to go to there to mine it, which could trigger a new space race.

The gas is produced in low mass stars, less than twice the mass of the Sun, which expel most of their matter into space at the end of their lives, forming a planetary nebula (the Sun will do this in about 5 billion years). This should begin to slowly enrich the Universe in -3. Of all elements produced in stars (and that ranges from carbon to uranium), helium-3 is the one that takes longest to reach space.

The team leader, Lizette Guzman-Ramirez, started to research Helium-3 as a PhD student at The University of Manchester, before moving to the European Southern Observatory in Chile. She teamed up with Albert Zijlstra and Malcolm Gray from The University of Manchester and colleagues from Spain and Mexico to search for helium-3 in a 4000 light years away from Earth, and to measure how much is produced in its star. The team detected an unexpectedly high amount of the gas, almost 500 times higher than its relative percentage on Earth, and several times higher than any of the team's models had predicted.

The detection proves that Helium-3 is produced at the centre of stars like the Sun, and is ejected into at the end of the life of the star – however, the large amount that was found remains unexplained. The star may have been more productive than models assume, but if this is true for all stars there would be much more Helium-3 currently in the Universe than is the case.

Further research on other planetary nebulae will be needed, but as the emission is extremely weak and hard to detect, the Square Kilometre Array will be needed to do the research - headquartered at Jodrell Bank, this international project is currently in development in Australia and South Africa, and will be the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

The team's research is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Letters.

Explore further: Something new under a (dead) sun

Related Stories

Something new under a (dead) sun

April 1, 2016

For all their enormous size and furious energies, stars are remarkably simple. Knowing just their mass and the smattering of elements heavier than hydrogen we can predict their lives from cradles to grave. But every now and ...

Born-again planetary nebula

July 28, 2015

Beneath the vivid hues of this eye-shaped cloud, named Abell 78, a tale of stellar life and death is unfolding. At the centre of the nebula, a dying star – not unlike our Sun – which shed its outer layers on its way to ...

Image: A cosmic trick of the eye

April 4, 2016

Stars of different masses end their lives in different ways. While truly massive stars go out in a blaze of glory, intermediate-mass stars—those between roughly one and eight times the mass of the Sun—are somewhat quieter, ...

Hubble sees an aging star wave goodbye

October 12, 2015

This planetary nebula is called PK 329-02.2 and is located in the constellation of Norma in the southern sky. It is also sometimes referred to as Menzel 2, or Mz 2, named after the astronomer Donald Menzel who discovered ...

Hubble sees a star 'inflating' a giant bubble

April 21, 2016

For the 26th birthday of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers are highlighting a Hubble image of an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. The Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula, or NGC ...

What are the different kinds of supernovae?

March 15, 2016

There are a few places in the universe that defy comprehension. And supernovae have got to be the most extreme places you can imagine. We're talking about a star with potentially dozens of times the size and mass of our own ...

Recommended for you

'X'-ploring the Eagle Nebula and 'Pillars of Creation'

July 13, 2018

The Eagle Nebula, also known as Messier 16, contains the young star cluster NGC 6611. It also the site of the spectacular star-forming region known as the Pillars of Creation, which is located in the southern portion of the ...

Observatories team up to reveal rare double asteroid

July 13, 2018

New observations by three of the world's largest radio telescopes have revealed that an asteroid discovered last year is actually two objects, each about 3,000 feet (900 meters) in size, orbiting each other.

First space tourist flights could come in 2019

July 13, 2018

The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights—though neither has set a firm date.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Osiris1
1 / 5 (7) May 13, 2016
Sun is making a lot of this. The space war for that resource is already ON, and China is in the lead because it KNOWS it is out there so no amount of lying will stop them. But Chinese agents COULD be spreading lies about its scarcity here so that we do not go. J. Edgar Hoover wrote about this kind of enemy agent in his books about the enemy within. These enemies will be sought out, especially in a Trump presidency. Probably there lurks in our Republican Congress somebody like Ryan or Cruz who would make realllly good McCarthy type investigators. We need another House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate these traitors and bring them to justice. AirForce pilots are taught 'situational awareness' in combat situations, so that when they are in a fight with one enemy, our trained pilots will notice these fights they are already in with OTHER enemies and act accordingly.
Tektrix
5 / 5 (10) May 13, 2016
We need another House Un-American Activities Committee . . .


What, you can't find enough witches to burn all by yourself?
ScottyB
not rated yet May 16, 2016
Is that the University of Manchester (UK)?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.