Category Archives: Meteorites

The Rare Gem Series: Meteorites (Part Two: Gas Clouds to The Sky is Falling)

Our last installment I learned y’all about where the existence of everything came from.  This time around you get to know how rocks condense out of clouds of gas spiriting around outer space, how they get stuck together, what they are made of, and how they made the Earth!

Meteors love Russia…

After gigantic, spectacular, awe-inspiring, neighborhood-killing supernovae explosions, the blast waves can expand from the epicenter at rates of speed close to 40% the speed of light.  This is really, really fast!  When these insanely speedy blast waves bonk into the aimless clouds of hydrogen and helium in the galaxy the clouds get compressed.  This compression can be the catalyst for the formation of a new star.  If you remember last post (, when a large interstellar cloud is compressed it can begin to collapse thanks to its new, denser center of gravity.  The cloud contracts even further as it begins its journey to becoming a star.

For the first few million years after the star inside the cloud begins to fuse hydrogen and enter the main sequence of its life cycle, it’s not very bright thanks to all the dust and debris obscuring the light of the young star.  Both the cloud and the star inside are rotating much like a figure skater who pulls in their arms to spin faster.  As the cloud collapses it begins to spin faster and faster (when the core of a supernova collapses into a black hole or a neutron star it can be spinning at several (hundred? thousand?) times a second!).  This orbiting debris around the dim new star can crash and smash into each other on the atomic and molecular level sticking together thanks to static electricity.  Think of the atoms like a bunch of socks and fleece pullovers in the dryer colliding and sticking while continuing their orbit of the star.  When enough bits get stuck together (well, a lot of bits) they can begin to have enough mass to attract other atoms, molecules, and bits of matter.  These hunks of matter are what we call ‘asteroids’ and if they got big enough, ‘protoplanets’.

Planets forming from the dust around a new star.
This is an artists representation of the disk of a proto star forming planets from the dust and debris that orbit it. (From

Protoplanets are like Rumba robot vacuum cleaners blindly going around the solar system sucking up debris.  These protoplanets were originally comets and asteroids as they clear a swath around the stars cloud and eventually the biggest chuck of rock in a particular orbit monopolized gravity and started to absorb anything in it’s reach.  One of the definitions of  a planet is an object that “sweeps its orbit” of all the dust and debris and incorporates it into its planet (the other two main rules for a planet: must be rounded, and must orbit in the plane of the solar system).  The Earth began dominating its region of the solar system and clearing its orbit somewhere around 4.4 billion years ago

When an interstellar cloud collapses, and begins to spin, the big blobby cloud will flatten out, like a disk of pizza dough spinning through the air, condensing the cloud adding to the material being swept clean by the protoplanets.

As the protoplanets clear the area around the new star more light begins to shine throughout the star system.  The hot and energetic solar winds begin to blow the lighter material into the further reaches of the solar system concentrating large swaths of hydrogen and helium far away.  This is why we have the gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all 500 million or more miles from the Sun.  Out at these distances the light particles lose much of their energy and find themselves trapped gravitationally much more easily to nearby objects.

Closer to a newborn star we find rocks condensing where it is too hot for ice or gas to still exist.  Rocks are made of heavy things like silica, iron, aluminum, zinc, and other metals (astronomers refer to anything heavier than helium as “metals”… I think it’s just to piss of chemists), stuff that is too heavy for solar winds to push out into the far reaches of the star system.  We all know that it can take a few thousand degrees to melt metal or a rock, and only a couple hundred degrees to melt something like water or to sublimate carbon dioxide, right?  Well, space knows this too, and while it may be completely inhospitable only a few million miles from a star, it is cool enough that things like iron, nickel, silica, and aluminum will no longer be gas (even though it may be 1000 degrees or more).  This is why we find rocky planets near the sun like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.  It’s so warm that most of the lighter particles energetically vibrate away from the strong pull of gravity generated by these small planets and then get blown far away by the solar winds.

It’s also true that the closer a planet is to the Sun, the larger the percentage of it will be comprised of iron and nickel, and don’t have much in the way of water, methane, CO2, or ammonia (which are largely made up of lighter elements than the stuff of rocks).  Planets like Earth most likely got most of its atmosphere and water from the impacts of comets.

The solar winds are constant.  As long as there is fabulous radiation produced by the nuclear reactions inside a star (or in our case, the Sun), small particles will have a constant force acting upon them trying to push them further and further way from the star.  Into the farthest reaches of the solar system they go.  Since all the dense atoms are solidifying not too far from the star itself they begin to randomly bonk into each other.  Many of these particles have been stripped of electrons and when they clumsily run into a counter part they can stick statically like a sock to a sweater in the drier.  If enough of these particles being to stick to each other the begin to actually draw in other atoms and small clumps of matter to them via gravity.  The solar system has just made it’s first asteroids and proto-planets!

As for all the light bits of matter that are kicked out of the inner circle and sent to the great beyond, they too begin to cool off once they reach a zone where the light from the star is too weak.  Water, ammonia, and CO2 will begin to freeze and form their own chucks of ice balls.  These too can become large enough to start to attract wayward particles via gravity.  Out at this distance from the star, loose atoms of hydrogen and helium do not have the energy to escape anything that is large in mass.  As these balls of ice smash into more balls of ice they too begin to form proto-planets.  When the proto-planets are big enough an ever-thickening atmosphere comprised of hydrogen and helium begins to form.  These are the gas giant planets with Jupiter as their king.  Any planets that formed beyond the asteroid belt were formed beyond what scientists call the “Frost Line”.  Any closer and their constituent materials melt.

Frost Line of the Early Solar System
Any planets inside the Frost Line are mostly comprised of rock, any planets beyond the Frost Line are mostly comprised of volatiles. (From the University of Arizona)

The early solar system is a violent, violent place.  Rocks hurtling in random vectors at speeds beyond 100,000 MPH can obliviously smash into each other in outrageous explosions; their obliterated remnants quickly coalescing into a new celestial body drawn into the center of their collective mass.  Soon, at varying distances out from the star, alpha proto-planets begin to appear.  These large rocky or icy bodies begin to “sweep” their orbits clean; meaning, anything smaller than the proto-planet gets “sucked” in via immense gravitational pull.

When the proto-planet is about 500 kilometers across (~300 miles) gravity begins to round it into a sphere.  For an early solar system this period of violence can last billions of years.  In our own solar system the Sun started out with maybe only 2% of the gas cloud it formed from comprised of something other than hydrogen or helium.  This means that the heavy elements that condensed near the Sun to form the rocky inner planets didn’t really have that much material to work with.  For the outer planets this means the opposite was true as there is way more volatile material rich with hydrogen and bits of helium that got blown to the outer solar system by solar winds.  Thus, the inner planets are rocky and small while the outer planets are gassy and ginormous.

Early Earth was hell.  Literally hell on Earth.  Imagine a barren sphere whose surface is comprised entirely of hundreds of millions of square miles of boiling lava.  There is no discernible atmosphere beyond the thin wisps of fart-smelling vapor pooped out by bubbles of gas of the churning oceans of lava.  This is the Earth of about 4.55 billion years ago.  Every few hours a new rock from space the size of a city smashes into the surface at tens of thousands of miles per hour with enough force to vaporize solid rock into gas creating yet another reason the surface is molten.

Nothing but magma, folks
So much lava, so much violence.

This goo-ball Earth is just a big jiggly mess, its gravity constantly inviting trouble upon its surface.  There is one advantage to being a hellacious ball of goo: differentiation.

Rocks in space want to smash your face.
Rocks in space were just waiting for their turn to vaporize upon impact and become one with the Earth.

Differentiation is when heavy stuff sinks and light stuff floats.  We have all see it work with a rock and piece of wood in some water, but what about with lava?  Here is a fun experiment to try:  If you have two ping pong balls and you place them at the bottom of a jar, then pour sand over them they will stay at the bottom of the pile of sand, right?  Same thing if you then place two steel balls on the top of the sand, those balls aren’t going to go anywhere.  What if you added energy to the jar?  Say you could put a vibrator to the jar and make the sand jiggle much like how atoms in a liquid would jiggle.  Two things will happen; the steel balls will vanish into the sand and the ping pong balls will suddenly appear at the surface!  The early Earth was in a constant state of fluidization since it was a giant ball of liquid. The heavy metals began sinking toward the Earth’s core and the lighter materials began to float toward the surface.  This is why today the surface of the Earth is rocky and about 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter in density, while the Earth’s core is metal and about 12.5 grams per cubic centimeter.

Differentiation also meant that light fluffy volatiles like CO2, oxygen, nitrogen, water, etc… that somehow found themselves weirdly trapped inside of early Earth, and not blasted into the deeper reaches of the solar system, rose to the surface.  Earth began building a very crappy atmosphere.  Way to go, Earth.

Oops, I spoke too soon.  Somewhere between 4.5 billion and 4.25 billion years ago the Earth got into an accident.  A planetoid (a fellow proto-planet) got thrown off course, probably by a larger body like Jupiter acting like a gravitational slingshot, and crossed the Earth’s path.  This planetoid is likely to have been about the size of Mars (about 10% of the Mass of today’s Earth) and the two decided to engage in a hostile merger.  The collision was so large as to be essentially unexplainable in comprehendible magnitude.  Both planets (if there was any solid features between them) instantly vaporized most of their constituent material.  Much of the Earth’s crustal material splattered into space resulting in billions of new pieces of rock that would rain back down on the Earth’s surface further liquefying the young injured planet.  About 1/80th of the mass of Earth stayed in orbit above the Earth and eventually coalesced into what we know as the Moon.  The Moon is not very dense and is about 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter; meaning it has about the same density as the Earth’s surface.  This is the largest telltale sign that the Moon was born of the Earth.  All rocky bodies in the inner solar system are denser than the Moon.  If the Moon had been a captured body that wandered near the Earth’s gravitational field, it would more than likely be denser with a larger metallic core.

When planets collide.
Something about the size of Mars smashed into Early Earth blasting much of the surface material out into space which later formed our Moon.
The Moon forming
A computer model of how the Moon probably formed.

Many of these early proto-planets and planetoids that were quickly maturing throughout the solar system also differentiated.  Many of these objects were blasted apart by collisions.  This leaves us with four basic kinds of materials that smash into objects in the solar system today (I am being very hand-wavy and leaving out lots of details that will be explained in Part III):

1) Ancient “first” rocks. These are the asteroids that first condensed out of the cloud from which our Sun and solar system was born (scientists refer to them as “chondrites”.

2) Differentiated rocky material.  These are rocks of igneous nature that are the bits of surface of near by moons and planets, or the blasted apart surface material of obliterated planetoids.

3) Differentiated metallic material (more commonly referred to as “iron-nickel” asteroids.  When a differentiated planetoid is blasted apart due to a collision this is the remaining core material.

4) Comets.  Balls of ice from much deeper out in the solar system.  The most common prevailing hypothesis ties comet impacts to the source of most of the Earth’s water and atmosphere.  Since the European Space Agency’s successful landing of the Rosetta probe on the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko this hypothesis has been turned on its head.  Rosetta drilled into the comet and discovered that the ice material is different isotopically from the majority of the material found on Earth.  Oh, science!

The odds of the Earth experiencing another mass extinction via a comet of meteor impact is 100%.  What we cannot predict with any statistical certainty is if this will occur while humans are still alive.  In lieu of significance in our probabilities we instead turn to hard data by mapping our solar system and charting the orbits of every object we have ever seen.  At the moment astronomers are aware of, and are mapping, about half a million objects that are known to cross the Earth’s orbit.  These objects are important for two reasons: One, they have the potential of ending our species; and two, they could be worth trillions of dollars.

Remember those iron-nickel asteroids?  Yeah, just one of those little guys can potentially be worth more than all of the human productivity in our entire history.  Here is how it works:  A planetoid is at one time a bubbling, boiling mass of magma and lava.  All the heavy metallic elements are sinking toward the core, and all of the light rocky material is floating toward the surface.  Then some other asshole jerk-of-an-asteroid/planetoid collides with our differentiating body and explodes the whole thing to kingdom come.  Now chunks of differentiated core is floating around space just chock full of base metals like iron, nickel, copper, zinc, etc… as well as really heavy precious metals like gold, platinum, uranium, rhodium, palladium, and so on…

Iron-Nickel meteor thin section
The differentiated innards of some poor son of a bitch that done got exploded. Eventually it hurdled through space and smacked into the Earth. This is a thin section of an iron-nickel meteor.

One iron-nickel asteroid a mile in diameter has, in just precious metal, $4-5 trillion dollars in material.  Why are we wasting our time planning missions to stupid fucking useless Mars when there are trillions of dollars to be made off of space rocks? I have no clue.  Fortunately there are a few eccentric billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson who see things my way, and they are investing large portions of their fortunes into space exploration companies like SpaceX and Planetary Resources.

Mining space has a couple of benefits.  Chief among these is that we would have no need to ever mine the Earth for metals ever again.  A huge source of pollution and environmental degradation gone!  The drawback?  How do we do it?  Do we capture an asteroid into our orbit and mine it from there utilizing something like a space elevator?  If so, how do we capture it without accidently killing everything on Earth when we make a wrong calculation and miss our target and instead hit the Earth’s surface?

Every thing has a risk and reward, I suppose.

Next time join me for Part III and learn about how often meteors hit us, where we can find them, how we can find them, what you can sell them for, and why they love Russian dash cameras so much!

The Rare Gem Series: Meteorites (Part One: The Big Bang to Supernovae)

Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)
Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)

About 13.8 billion ago the lights turned on.  Or more accurately: THE Light turned on.  That is when scientists have estimated the Big Bang occurred; the singularity that began it all.  As an astronomer as well as a geologist I can go on for days about the fractions of a second in which our story began.  Instead, I will only go on for a few minutes… Or more, depending on your reading skills.  (Please note: if you really don’t want the literal History of the Universe, too bad, because I can’t talk about what meteorites are and where we can find them when I haven’t explained what asteroids are and where they came from, and to explain where asteroids came from I have to explain what they’re made of, and to explain what asteroids are made of I have to explain where matter came from, and to explain where matter came from I have to explain how stars formed and the extent of their lifecycles, and to explain how stars formed and how they die I have to take you back to the beginning of it all.  Thus, when you are finished with these articles, you will essentially have the equivalent of an Astronomy degree without the ability to do the math and physics that makes such a degree useful.  Satisfied?  Didn’t think so.)

For starters, all around us, matter and antimatter are going to war.  It’s an ancient war, the most ancient of wars.  It has been waged since the beginning of time, and possibly, since always.  It is a useless war, one that only ends in photons (nerd joke).  Basically, every second of every day, out of fucking nowhere, a piece of matter appears, and at that same moment, its antimatter counterpart appears as well.  The particles scratch their hooves like angry bulls and make a go at their nemesis.  They violently collide and as instantly and randomly as they appeared, they disappear.  Nothing to show for it but a single gamma photon thrust into the Universe as an orphan with random vector.  Why? Beats the hell out me.  It just does, and that is as good an answer as you will get from anybody.

Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)
Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)

So, this instant where the singularity, this infinitely dense, infinitely small point in an infinite Universe that did not even exist yet went *blamo*, the very moment when it all began, nothing but a hot mess could exist.   The amount of energy that was released was so unbelievably unfathomable that nothing bigger than a quark, gluon, or a lepton could exist.  In other words, atoms, the building blocks of matter, did not exist because the infant Universe was hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves.  Run that through your brain for a minute or two.  Hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves…

Atoms melt?

Well, when there is more energy present than either the strong or weak nuclear forces that holds the constituent particles together that form constituent nucleons of an atom the glue is melted and quarks run free!

OK, what’s a quark?

Fuck you. You figure it out.

Back to the message at hand:  This beginning, when the Universe was only 10^-37 seconds old (or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds), the greatest matter/antimatter war that will ever exist raged.  We are the only survivors.  Well, us and the 250 billion other galaxies in the known Universe (and the countless billions in the unknown Universe).  For some reason, yet to be explained by some supernerd (who is more than likely not to have even been born yet), there was more matter than anti matter that farted out of the singularity.  Something on the order of one extra quark or lepton in every thirty million particles.  Think about that.  All the matter that exists in the Universe is impressive, but at the moment of the Big Bang there was not thirty million, but SIXTY million times more matter in the Universe that just obliterated each other out of existence in just a few seconds.  *POOF*

We have no clue as to why there was more matter than antimatter.  There just is.  Maybe on the other side of the Universe there is nothing but entire reaches of space made up of antimatter with antipeople pondering why there is more antimatter than matter.  I don’t know, I am an not an interdimensional space traveler who can answer that for you.

As the nanosecond war of existence raged, the Universe became instantly less dense.  Combine this with the huuuuuge expansion of the nearly instant expansion of the fabric of space with the explosion of the Big Bang and things began to cool down.  At about 10^-6 seconds ( or 0.000001 seconds) temperatures dropped to a mere several billion degrees and the quarks, gluons, leptons, antiquarks, antigluons, and antileptons were allowed to combine into baryons to form things like protons and neutrons, and antiprotons and antineutrons who continued the war for survival even more violently.  By about 1 second (or 1.0 seconds) electrons and positrons sprang from the womb with their fists clenched and swinging.

A few seconds in and the war was over. Matter won and temperatures continued to drop.  A few minutes later with the Universe at a balmy one billion degrees the first hydrogen and deuterium atoms formed out of the protons and neutrons that were basking in the glory of their victory over their anti-selves (it was still too hot for the electrons to join in on the fun).  It took close to 400,000 years for things to cool off enough for electrons to happily orbit the nucleus of an atom, then we started really cooking with fire… er fusion.

Think of this early Universe as a giant, billion light year-wide cloud of particles.  Where the matter was more dense, the pull of gravity brought giant swarming clouds of particles into spinning giant clouds of particles and thus the earliest galaxies began to form.  Even denser regions of clouds inside these galaxies condensed into the first protostars.  At this time the Universe was about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with no heavier elements.  As the clouds within the clouds began to collapse they got really warm from pressure forcing the particles of helium and hydrogen to bounce off of each other with ever more vigor.  As more particles were attracted to the growing center of mass of this cloud, the pressure became greater and things heated up even more.  Soon so much matter was inside these clouds that they began to glow from the pressure oven they had created giving off a bunch of infrared radiation.  The Universe was on the verge of is second light turning on.

The more mass one of these protostars had, the more gravitational pressure there was within the protostar.  If enough material gathered the hydrogen and helium atoms stopped having enough elbow room to really bounce around and they started smashing into each other, fusing their nucleuses of protons and neutrons into each other forming newer, denser matter.  This is how we got things like lithium (hydrogen + helium), beryllium (helium + helium), and boron (lithium + helium, or beryllium + hydrogen), and so on.  Whenever two atoms smashed together and fused, an insane amount of radiation was emitted.  Once fusion reactions began in the very dense core the protostar ceased to exist, for now it had become a man–I mean a STAR.

Inside a star (UC Berkeley)
Inside a star (UC Berkeley)

This star wasn’t that bright, literally; there was still a lot of gas blocking the light being emitted.  Inside the baby star as more and more nuclear reactions were taking place the high-energy photons being released from these reactions began to push the star out against the pull from gravity.  Gravitational pressure wants it to be a nice dense sphere, while radiation pressure wants everything to explode and scatter.  Eventually, the stellar winds of light being emitted by the new star blow away the remaining loitering cloud of gas lingering around, and the light is now able to broadcast the star’s existence to the Universe.  It is during this time when the star finally gets the hang of the battling pressures and finds itself perfectly balanced between the squeeze of gravity and the push of radiation it enters a state known as “hydrostatic equilibrium.”  The star has now begun the “main sequence” of its life.  Just learning the words “hydrostatic equilibrium” has now given you half of a bachelors of science in Astrophysics, by the way.  Good job!

Oh, how these were the halcyon days for our new star.  Happily smashing hydrogen atoms into helium, emitting light into the Universe, having no cares… until that fateful day.  That unforgettable, fateful day.  The day the hydrogen-fusion died.  After tens of millions, or even possibly billions of years of carefree atom smashing our star found itself old and not able to get it up like it used to all of a sudden. “I swear, this has literally never happened to me before!” Exclaimed the star to no one, because stars can’t talk and there wasn’t anything that existed yet who could listen to its cries.

You see, as the star was fusing all these hydrogen atoms into helium, at the very center of the star, the core, the newly formed helium began to pack into a dense degenerate ball of non-fusion.  As the star made more and more helium, this degenerate core got bigger and bigger.  Hydrogen is easy to fuse; it doesn’t take much energy (relatively speaking) to do it and you get a whole bunch of energy out of the reaction to do it some more.  Helium, on the other hand, takes a lot more energy to make them fuse together, and you are not going to get as much energy out of the reaction as you do with the hydrogen. When the core gets bigger and bigger, with more and more helium that refuses to fuse into anything, then the hydrogen fusion zone gets smaller and smaller.  Gravitational pressure is its greatest at the center of the star.  If the center of the star is full of a bunch of stupid helium then the only hydrogen fusion that is going on is at the outside of the degenerate core where gravitational pressure is weaker.  Soon, the number of hydrogen fusions that occur become less and less, and the radiation pressure gets lower and lower, and the star gets all limp and tiny as it begins to collapse in on itself.

There is a silver lining to this rather doomed state; as the star collapses in on itself the gravitational pressure starts to climb like it did when the start first burst onto the scene.  The degenerate helium core starts to feel the squeeze, starts to feel the pressure, and just can’t hold out any longer and *squish*.  A whole bunch of helium just fused into Boron, the star just experienced what is known as a “helium flash” as the core begins to switch to burning helium.  This causes the start to inflate and as it gets bigger it grows redder in color because the envelope of gas surrounding the star is cooler with more surface area.

Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)
Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)

If our star is really big, much bigger than our own Sun, then the core starts to fill up with carbon that was created out of fusing all sorts of combos of helium, hydrogen, and other light elements.  Just like before, the radiation pressure is weaker on the outside of the core where the helium is being smushed together, blah, blah, blah… Eventually *squish* we have a carbon flash.  Now the star is a geezer burning carbon.  If the star is really, really big, like nine times or more larger than our Sun, it will go through oxygen, neon, and silicon flashes.

Stars are born, they get old, and like all things, they die.  Sit down, clutch your security blanket, and steady your heart; it’s time to talk about death.  Stellar death can range from the most pitiful whimper to the greatest party in the Universe.  A teeny tiny star, like a red dwarf star, will never die.  The smaller the star, the more efficiently it burns its hydrogen and can last anywhere from 10 trillion to 100 trillion years or more!  A star like our sun will last about 10 billion years before it withers and does not have the mass necessary to fuse anything above carbon.  The star contracts under its own gravitational pressure, gets really hot, and the remaining gas inside the star either becomes part of a dense core or gets blasted away by the heat.  The star is dead.  This is death by white dwarf.

The exciting death, the only one anyone really cares about, is the death of big mutherfukkers.  Stars that are anywhere from nine to twenty five times larger than our own sun.  These guys know how to party.  A nine solar mass star might live 100 million years.  A twenty-five solar mass star may only last as little as 5 million years.  These idiots burn everything they’ve got as fast as they can.  They’ll spend about four million years burning hydrogen, one million burning helium, 500 years burning carbon, six months burning oxygen, a week burning neon, and maybe one day burning silicon.  The size of the degenerate core at this point is gigantic.  The moment the core itself is more than 1.44 times the mass of our own Sun it can’t handle it, and everything collapses like a house of cards.

Crab Nebula
The supernovae remnant known as the Crab Nebula

Imagine the core.  It’s dense, it’s hot.  There is no room to wiggle.  It’s basically the nuclei of atoms stacked on the nuclei of other atoms.  Just protons, electrons and neutrons chillin’ with nowhere to go.   Nothing but the weak nuclear force to keep them separated, and the strong nuclear force to keep them what they are.  Things are about to change.  The moment the core reaches 1.44 solar masses, known as the “Chandrasekhar Limit”, gravity has now become stronger than the weak nuclear force and the protons and electrons fuse to become neutrons (positive + negative = neutral).  This sudden collapse of the core draws in the remaining envelope surrounding it.  The instant and sudden gravitational pressure squeezes everything together and causes the star to burn upwards of 10% of it’s entire mass in one instant.  The star has gone supernovae.

When the star is just being a star, the heaviest element it can make through fusion is iron (26 protons), in a supernovae everything else is made.  Anything heavier than iron comes from a supernovae; radium, iridium, lead, gold, silver, krypton, everything else all the way up to uranium get blasted into existence by the intense explosion of a supernovae.  When a supernovae explodes it outshines the other 100 billion stars in its galaxy combined for an entire month!

This explosion can leave behind one of two things, if the star is big, but not freakishly so, a neutron star will be all that is left.  A dense dark ball of nothing but neutrons a few kilometers wide spinning really fast.  One spoonful of a neutron star would weigh hundreds of millions of pounds… If you could get yourself and a spoon close enough to the surface without somehow become nothing but neutrons yourself, of course.  The second option is the one that overwhelms the strong nuclear force that keeps quarks in their shape of something like a neutron.  If the envelope around the star is really massive when the core collapses at the moment of supernovae, an excess of material can be added to the core that overwhelms the neutrons and forces them to become an infinitely dense singularity, like the point of space from which the Big Bang began.  A black hole.

I’m not going to go into the physics of a black hole.  That would require another few months of writing to describe the mind fucks that go on inside one.  Another time, maybe (but probably not).

Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)
Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)

The explosion of a supernovae is tremendous.  If one occurred within 30 light years of Earth everything would die.  Everything.  Dead.  Forever.  Sanitized.  Even miniscule things like bacteria.  Gone.  EVERYTHING!  The blast wave from a supernovae will travel as fast as 40% the speed of light.  This wall of newly formed elements find themselves slamming into previously content clouds of gas in the galaxy and generate new bouts of star formation.  This time instead of the clouds only being made up of 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, they’re composed of 74% hydrogen, 25% helium, and 1% other things heavier than that.

After about 1300 generations of super giant stars going supernovae we find ourselves in the present where newly formed stars have as much as 5-10% elements heavier than helium.  It is these heavier elements that comprise the elements that make every rock you have ever held, every planet in existence, and every comet that has streaked through the cosmos.  Carl Sagan was right, we are nothing but stardust.

The next installment I will learn you on how the planets formed and just what the hell meteorites are made of.  Until then, revel in the fact that you just became an expert cosmologist.  You’re welcome!