Sample of Hypatia Stone From Outside Solar System

Alien rock could be Earth’s first evidence of supernova Ia explosion

A 3 gram (0.1 ounce) sample of the Hypatia stone. Researchers found a consistent pattern of 15 elements in the Hypatia stone. The pattern is completely different from anything in our solar system or our solar neighborhood, in the Milky Way. Credit: Romano Serra

New chemistry ‘forensics’ indicates that the rock called Hypatia from the Egyptian desert could be the first physical evidence found on Earth of a supernova type Ia explosion. These rare supernovae are some of the most energetic events in the universe.

This is the conclusion of a new study by Jan Kramers, Georgy Belyanin and Hartmut Winkler of the[{” attribute=””>University of Johannesburg, and others that has been published in the journal Icarus.

Since 2013, Belyanin and Kramers have discovered a series of highly unusual chemistry clues in a small fragment of the Hypatia Stone.

In the new research, they meticulously eliminate ‘cosmic suspects’ for the origin of the stone in a painstaking process. They have pieced together a timeline stretching back to the early stages of the formation of Earth, our Sun, and the other planets in our solar system.

A cosmic timeline

Their hypothesis about Hypatia’s origin starts with a star: A red giant star collapsed into a white dwarf star. The collapse would have happened inside a gigantic dust cloud, also called a nebula.

That white dwarf found itself in a binary system with a second star. The white dwarf star eventually ‘ate’ the other star. At some point, the ‘hungry’ white dwarf exploded as a supernova type Ia inside the dust cloud.

After cooling, the gas atoms which remained of the supernova Ia started sticking to the particles of the dust cloud.

Extraterrestrial Hypatia Stone May Be First Tangible Evidence of a Supernova Explosion

The tiny samples of the extraterrestrial Hypatia stone next to a small coin. Rare type Ia supernovas are some of the most energetic events in the universe. Researchers found a consistent pattern of 15 elements in the Hypatia stone. The pattern is completely unlike anything in our solar system or our solar neighborhood, the Milky Way. Prof Jan Kramers (University of Johannesburg) is the lead author. Credit: Jan Kramers

“In a sense we could say, we have ‘caught’ a supernova Ia explosion ‘in the act’, because the gas atoms from the explosion were caught in the surrounding dust cloud, which eventually formed Hypatia’s parent body,” says Kramers.

A huge ‘bubble’ of this supernova dust-and-gas-atoms mix never interacted with other dust clouds.

Millions of years would pass, and eventually the ‘bubble’ would slowly become solid, in a ‘cosmic dust bunny’ kind of way. Hypatia’s ‘parent body’ would become a solid rock sometime in the early stages of formation of our solar system.

This process probably happened in a cold, uneventful outer part of our solar system – in the Oort cloud or in the Kuiper belt.

At some point, Hypatia’s parent rock started hurtling towards Earth. The heat of entry into the earth’s atmosphere, combined with the pressure of impact in the Great Sand Sea in southwestern Egypt, created micro-diamonds and shattered the parent rock.

The Hypatia stone picked up in the desert must be one of many fragments of the original impactor.

The Hypatia rock could be Earth’s first tangible evidence of a supernova Type Ia explosion. Type Ia supernovae are rare – and among the most energetic events in the universe. UJ researchers found a consistent pattern of 15 elements in the Hypatia stone discovered in Egypt. The pattern is completely different from anything in our solar system or our solar neighborhood in the[{” attribute=””>Milky Way. But most of the elements match the pattern of supernova type Ia models. Prof Jan Kramers (University of Johannesburg) is the lead author. Credit: Therese van Wyk

“If this hypothesis is correct, the Hypatia stone would be the first tangible evidence on Earth of a supernova type Ia explosion. Perhaps equally important, it shows that an individual anomalous ‘parcel’ of dust from outer space could actually be incorporated in the solar nebula that our solar system was formed from, without being fully mixed in,” says Kramers.

“This goes against the conventional view that dust which our solar system was formed from, was thoroughly mixed.”

Three million volts for a tiny sample

To piece together the timeline of how Hypatia may have formed, the researchers used several techniques to analyze the strange stone.

In 2013, a study of the argon isotopes showed the rock was not formed on earth. It had to be extraterrestrial. A 2015 study of noble gases in the fragment indicated that it may not be from any known type of meteorite or comet.

High-Voltage Proton Beam Data for Stone Formed Outside Solar System

A high-voltage proton beam shows three trace elements in the extraterrestrial Hypatia stone, and their concentrations. Here, we see sulphur, iron and nickel for targets 1 and 2 within region 14 on the sample. Dr Georgy Belyanin (University of Johannesburg) used a 3-million Volt proton beam to analyse the tiny fragment of the stone. Credit: Georgy Belyanin

In 2018 the UJ team published various analyses, which included the discovery of a mineral, nickel phosphide, not previously found in any object in our solar system.

At that stage Hypatia was proving difficult to analyze further. The trace metals Kramers and Belyanin were looking for, couldn’t really be ‘seen in detail’ with the equipment they had. They needed a more powerful instrument that would not destroy the tiny sample.

Kramers started analyzing a dataset that Belyanin had created a few years before.

In 2015, Belyanin had done a series of analyses on a proton beam at the iThemba Labs in Somerset West. At the time, Dr. Wojciech Przybylowicz kept the three-million Volt machine humming along.

In search of a pattern

“Rather than exploring all the incredible anomalies Hypatia presents, we wanted to explore if there is an underlying unity. We wanted to see if there is some kind of consistent chemical pattern in the stone,” says Kramers.

Belyanin carefully selected 17 targets on the tiny sample for analysis. All were chosen to be well away from the earthly minerals that had formed in the cracks of the original rock after its impact in the desert.

“We identified 15 different elements in Hypatia with much greater precision and accuracy, with the proton microprobe. This gave us the chemical ‘ingredients’ we needed, so Jan could start the next process of analyzing all the data,” says Belyanin.

Distinctive Pattern Matching Elements in Supernova Ia Model

UJ researchers find that most of the elements they analysed in the extraterrestrial Hypatia stone fit the predictions from supernova Ia models well. The high-voltage proton beam data shows that for 9 of the 15 elements, concentrations are close to the predicted values. Prof Jan Kramers (University of Johannesburg) is the lead author. Credit: Jan Kramers

Proton beam also rules out solar system

The first big new clue from the proton beam analyses was the surprisingly low level of silicon in the Hypatia stone targets. The silicon, along with chromium and manganese, were less than 1% to be expected for something formed within our inner solar system.

Further, high iron, high sulfur, high phosphorus, high copper, and high vanadium were conspicuous and anomalous, adds Kramers.

“We found a consistent pattern of trace element abundances that is completely different from anything in the solar system, primitive or evolved. Objects in the asteroid belt and meteors don’t match this either. So next we looked outside the solar system,” says Kramers.

Several analyzes of the Hypatia Stone in Egypt indicate that it was not formed on Earth or in our solar system. A new study shows it may have preserved an unusual chemical pattern similar to that of a supernova Ia explosion. dr. Georgy Belyanin (University of Johannesburg) used a 3 million Volt proton beam to analyze a small fragment of the stone. Credit: Therese van Wyk

Not from us

Next, Kramers compared the concentration pattern of the Hypatia element with what you would expect in the dust between the stars in our solar arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.

“We looked at whether the pattern we get from average interstellar dust in our arm of the Milky Way galaxy matches what we see in Hypatia. Again, there was no resemblance at all,” Kramers adds.

At this point, the proton beam data had also ruled out four “suspects” from where Hypatia might have formed.

Hypatia did not originate on Earth, was not part of any known type of comet or meteorite, was not formed from average dust in the inner solar system, nor from average interstellar dust.

no red giant

The next simplest possible explanation for the element concentration pattern in Hypatia would be a red giant star. Red giant stars are common in the universe.

But the proton beam data also ruled out massive outflows from a red giant star: Hypatia had too much iron, too little silicon, and too low concentrations of heavy elements heavier than iron.

Nor a supernova Type II

The next ‘suspect’ to consider was a type II supernova. Type II supernovae boil a lot of iron. They are also a relatively common type of supernova.

Again, the proton beam data for Hypatia ruled out a promising suspect with “chemistry forensics.” A type II supernova was highly unlikely as a source of strange minerals such as nickel phosphide in the pebble. There was also too much iron in Hypatia compared to silicon and calcium.

It was time to scrutinize the predicted chemistry of one of the most dramatic explosions in the universe.

Heavy metal factory

A rarer type of supernova also makes a lot of iron. Type Ia supernovae only occur once or twice per galaxy per century. But they produce most of the iron (Fe) in the universe. Most steel on Earth was once the element iron created by Ia supernovae.

Also, established science says that some Ia supernovae leave very distinctive “forensic chemistry” clues. This is due to the way some Ia supernovas are set up.

First, a red giant star at the end of its life collapses into a very dense white dwarf star. White dwarf stars are usually incredibly stable for very long periods of time and most likely will not explode. However, there are exceptions to this.

A white dwarf star could “pull” matter from another star in a binary star system. You could say that the white dwarf star ‘eats’ its companion star. Eventually the white dwarf becomes so heavy, hot and unstable that it explodes in a supernova Ia.

The nuclear fusion during the supernova Ia explosion should create highly unusual patterns of element concentrations, as accepted scientific theoretical models predict.

Also, the white dwarf star that explodes in a supernova Ia is not only blown to pieces, but literally blown into atoms. The supernova Ia matter is sent into space as gas atoms.

In an extensive literature search of star data and model results, the team was unable to identify a comparable or better chemical fit for the Hypatia rock than a specific set of supernova Ia models.

Forensic Elements Evidence

“All supernova Ia data and theoretical models show much higher amounts of iron compared to silicon and calcium than supernova II models,” Kramers said.

“In this regard, the lab data from the proton beam on Hypatia fits supernova Ia data and models.”

In total, eight of the 15 elements analyzed meet the predicted proportions in relation to iron. These are the elements silicon, sulfur, calcium, titanium, vanadium, chromium, manganese, iron and nickel.

However, not all 15 analyzed elements in Hypatia live up to the predictions. In six of the 15 elements, the ratios were between 10 and 100 times higher than the ranges predicted by theoretical models for type 1A supernovae. These are the elements aluminum, phosphorus, chlorine, potassium, copper and zinc.

“Since a white dwarf star is formed from a dying red giant, Hypatia could have inherited these element ratios for the six elements of a red giant star. This phenomenon has also been observed in other studies in white dwarf stars,” Kramers adds.

If this hypothesis is correct, the Hypatia rock would be the first tangible evidence on Earth of a supernova Type Ia explosion, one of the most energetic events in the universe.

The Hypatia Stone is said to be a clue to a cosmic story that began during the early formation of our solar system and would be found many years later in a remote desert strewn with other pebbles.

Reference: “The Chemistry of the Alien Carbonaceous Rock “Hypatia”: A Perspective on Dust Heterogeneity in Interstellar Space” by Jan D. Kramers, Georgy A. Belyanin, Wojciech J. Przybylowicz, Hartmut Winkler and Marco AG Andreoli, Apr 22, 2022, icarus
DOI: 10.116/j.icarus.2022.115043

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