The Cosmic Secret: How Gold is Made in the Universe

Published on 15 June 2024 at 21:03
how gold is made in the universe

Have you ever thought about where gold in your jewelry comes from? For ages, people have loved this precious metal. Yet, its true start was a big mystery – until now. What cosmic event makes gold, one of the universe's heaviest things?

Long ago, alchemists tried to turn lead into gold. They thought gold was the purest, most precious form of matter. They didn't succeed in their magical efforts. But today, thanks to advanced telescopes and detectors, we've seen how gold is made. It happens when two neutron stars crash into each other.

Key Takeaways

  • Gold comes from the powerful crashes of neutron stars.
  • These crashes make gold and other heavy elements in a quick, unique way.
  • In 2017, we saw proof of this when we detected the waves from the neutron stars' collision.
  • Experimental evidence showed that gold and other valuable metals were made in this event.
  • This discovery solved the mystery of how gold and other heavy elements are created.

How Gold is Made in the Universe

The universe makes gold through a special process. It happens when neutron stars crash into each other. These neutron stars are the remains of huge stars.

The Neutron Star Merger Process

Some stars in space come in pairs. They're so big they turn into neutron stars. These neutron stars are very small but super heavy.

They keep spinning around each other for millions of years. But, because of a rule from Einstein, they eventually crash. This is when they make gold.

neutreon star merger

Cosmic Alchemy in Action

On August 17, 2017, a huge event shook the universe. It was two neutron stars hitting each other. The crash was so big it moved space and time.

Scientists saw this first with detectors on Earth. It was more powerful than anything made by humans. The gold from this crash was visible from Earth, 130 million light-years away.

That gold was born from a process called rapid neutron capture. This event proved that neutron star mergers make heavy elements like gold. It shows how our universe creates amazing things.

The Ancient Mystery of Gold's Origin

Gold has always fascinated people worldwide, for thousands of years. It's rare, shines forever, and is easy to shape. These qualities have made it popular for making decoration, jewelry, and currency. From old gold coins used in trade to gold leaf on holy items, it has been special throughout time. Yet, until recently, we didn't fully understand how the universe makes gold and other heavy elements.

Gold's Allure Through the Ages

The first gold artifacts are from thousands of years ago. This shows how long people have been interested in it. For instance, in Bulgaria, archaeologists found a 6,500-year-old gold bead. In the Black Sea area, they found a nearly 3,000-year-old gold coin. Ancient Egypt also had big gold mines. They used gold for the tombs of important people, like Tutankhamun, showing its link to royalty and forever life.

Swirling particles of dust and gas merge together, forming a massive and glowing cloud. Bright sparks of energy burst forth, revealing the birth of a star in the heart of the cloud.

Ancient Civilizations and Gold Artifacts

Many ancient cultures saw gold as special because of its rare qualities. The first gold artifacts in England are from Stonehenge. The Incas in South America collected lots of gold for ceremonies and personal use. Gold stays the same over time, unlike metals like silver. This quality, along with its look, added to its importance over the years.

The Search for the Source of Heavy Elements

Scientists wondered for a long time about the beginning of heavy elements like gold. They knew stars could make basic elements like carbon. But, how they make gold and platinum was not clear. In 2017, though, when gravitational waves from two colliding neutron stars were first caught, we got some answers. This event showed the rare, cosmic events that can create gold and other special elements.

Neutron Stars: The Cosmic Alchemists

Neutron stars are super dense, second only to black holes. They form when heavy stars explode, leaving behind a tiny core. This core collapses from gravity’s pressure, turning everything inside almost solely into neutrons. Just a teaspoon of material from a neutron star can weigh as much as 10 million tons. They are the universe’s ultimate leftovers.

Neutron Star Collisions and Gravitational Waves

When two neutron stars smash together, the impact is incredible. It creates huge heat and pressure, sending out gram of free neutrons in every little bit of space. We first saw this in 2017, when two city-sized neutron stars hit each other at almost light speed. The shockwave reached us through the LIGO and Virgo gravity detectors.

neutreon star collison

The Rapid Neutron-Capture Process (R-Process)

This big crash starts the R-process, which is super quick. It starts with a seed nucleus, like iron, that grabs many neutrons in just milliseconds. The extra neutrons change to protons, creating new elements heavier than iron. This includes stuff like gold. In 2017, a neutron star collision like this one made at least 10 Earths' worth of gold.

While supernovas make about the same gold as the weight of the Moon, neutron star mergers make a lot more. About as much as Jupiter’s worth of gold. This makes them thousands of times better at making gold. But, these big smashups are very rare compared to supernova explosions.

Witnessing the Birth of Heavy Elements

The cosmic story of gold and other heavy elements was a mystery. But in 2017, we learned something big. On August 17th, the LIGO detected waves from colliding neutron stars. This happened 130 million light-years away, in NGC 4993. It led us to see how heavy elements are born through a wild cosmic event.

The Kilonova Event of 2017

Twelve hours later, a bright explosion showed where these elements come from. This was the first kilonova we could observe. Telescopes like Gemini and Hubble quickly turned towards this new star. Its light looked like a fading campfire, disappearing into an infrared glow.

Spectroscopic Evidence of Heavy Element Formation

The light from that explosion held clues. It showed us gold and platinum were made. Scientists saw the decay of neutron-star stuff into these heavy elements. This confirmed that neutron star crashes create gold and similar elements. We call this nucleosynthesis.

The 'r-process' makes heavy elements when neutron stars collide. This process floods space with neutrons and creates high heat and pressure. Neutrons attach to atoms like iron, making them heavy. These then change into gold, platinum, and more.

The Cosmic Abundance of Gold

Gold is rare on Earth but not in the wider universe. In the late 19th century, scientists found gold in the Sun's atmosphere. They also saw elements like carbon and nitrogen. There's almost 2.5 trillion tons of gold in the Sun, enough to fill Earth's oceans. But, it's very spread out. There are only 8 gold atoms for every trillion hydrogen atoms.

Gold in the Sun and Stars

In stars, such as our Sun, you can find gold. But most of Earth's gold went to the planet's core when it formed. About 99% of the gold on Earth, which is roughly 1.6 quadrillion tons, is deep inside the planet.

Show a vast, sprawling landscape filled with rocky outcroppings and mountains. In the distance, a river runs through the scene, reflecting the golden light of the setting sun. The rocks and cliffs are flecked with small, glittering veins of gold, indicati

Earth's Precious Metal Reserves

There's a crazy amount of gold hidden deep in the Earth. If it all rose to the surface, it would only make a 16-inch thick layer. This shows just how little gold there really is. Unlike gold, there's more platinum deep in the Earth's core.

Mining is how we get most of the gold we use. It takes processing millions of tons of ore to get a small amount of gold each year. For instance, in 2018, Nevada's Barrick Gold mines turned tons of ore into just 4 million ounces (or 125 tons) of gold.

People have used gold for things like jewelry and electronics for thousands of years. Although some gold can be found in nature as little nuggets or flakes, most of it is deep underground. This makes getting gold out very hard.

The Role of Einstein's Theory of Relativity

Einstein created the famous equation E=mc^2 in 1905. This equation shows the link between mass and energy. It's key for understanding how the Sun creates energy and makes heavy elements. These elements include those like gold.

E=mc^2 and Nuclear Fusion

Arthur Eddington suggested in 1920 that fusion turns hydrogen into helium in the Sun. This fusion happens because of the energy from E=mc^2. It’s the Sun's power source. Through fusion, stars change lighter elements into heavier ones.

Stellar Nucleosynthesis and Heavy Element Production

Stellar nucleosynthesis explains how we get elements up to iron. But it doesn't account for the heaviest elements, such as gold. Hans Bethe found that stars' explosions make elements heavier than iron, up to uranium. The mystery of how gold forms was only solved with neutron star merger finding in 2017.

This discovery showed that when two neutron stars crash, they form extreme conditions. These conditions are perfect for making rare elements. During this event, a lot of free neutrons combine with seed nuclei. This creates elements like gold.


For a long time, we didn't know where gold and other heavy elements came from. But, new studies have shown their cosmic origins. A big event called neutron star merger makes these elements in a quick process. This event was seen for the first time in 2017 from NGC 4993 by looking at gravitational waves and light.

We learned that neutron stars crashing together make heavy elements like gold. This info is big for our knowledge of the universe and nuclear physics. The crash of these stars releases a lot of energy and makes the heaviest metals very fast.

Gravitational waves from neutron star crashes helped figure out how the universe gets gold and other heavy elements. These powerful events make the heaviest elements, giving us a clue about where gold comes from.



How is gold formed in the universe?

Gold forms when two neutron stars crash into each other. During this collision, a process called r-process happens. It quickly adds neutrons to seed nuclei like iron to make heavier elements, including gold.

What is the role of neutron star collisions in creating gold?

Two neutron stars colliding make huge temperatures and pressures. This blasts out a lot of free neutrons. These conditions help form gold and other heavy elements by quickly adding neutrons to lighter seed nuclei.

How was the cosmic origin of gold confirmed?

In 2017, LIGO picked up gravitational waves from neutron stars crashing. Telescopes then saw the bright kilonova after the collision. By analyzing this light, scientists found signs of gold and platinum forming.

Why has gold been so prized throughout human history?

Humans treasure gold due to its beauty, rarity, and unchanging properties. It doesn't tarnish like other metals, making it a symbol of immortality and divine gift. Early civilizations like the Egyptians valued gold for its many uses.

How abundant is gold in the universe?

Gold is very rare in the universe. The Sun has a lot of gold, but just a little. It's like having only 8 grains for every trillion hydrogen grains. Much of Earth's gold is deep in the core, not easy to reach.

What role did Einstein's theory of relativity play in understanding gold's origins?

Einstein's E=mc^2 shows how the Sun makes gold and other heavy elements. This formula explains the Sun's huge energy and the process where stars make elements through nuclear fusion. This includes gold production.

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