Thousands of metres below the sea, trapped in the fossilized remains of ancient bacteria, exists the iron remnants of a supernova explosion that happened millions of years ago. An imprint, here on Earth, of a dying star.
Iron-60, an isotope of iron created only in supernovae, has been found in fossilised seabed bacteria. The preliminary findings, announced by Shawn Bishop of the Technical University of Munich at a 14 April meeting of the American Physical Society in Colorado, may be the first time that a specific star’s debris has been found in our fossil record.
Iron-60’s half-life is relatively short when compared to the age of our solar system, so traces of the isotope on Earth suggests a direct interaction with a supernova in the planet’s history. The researchers searched for the isotope in fossils from seabed samples between 1.7 million to 3.3 million years old. They likely found traces of the isotope in fossils around 2.2 million years old.
The bacteria containing the Iron-60 are magnetotactic; they are strange organisms live in the seabed and align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field. They extract iron from the water and sediment around them and create iron oxide crystals that are then preserved in the fossil record.
“For me, philosophically, the charm is that this is sitting in the fossil record of our planet,” said Bishop in a Nature.com report. The isotope had previously been discovered in seabed samples, but not in the fossil record.
“We are all, as Carl Sagan put it, stardust,” Bishop told Wired.co.uk. “[We have now] likely discovered, within crystal nano-fossils left behind by primitive bacteria, […] still-live radioactive atoms that can only have been synthesized within the same kind of nuclear furnace — an exploding star — that forged the elements from which all live on Earth is made. The cycle comes full-circle.”
It has been estimated that the supernova happened around 2.2 million years ago, and that the stream of cosmic rays would have had an effect on the Earth’s atmosphere by increasing cloud cover. The supernova responsible for depositing the iron-60 has not yet been found, but possible suspects have been identified in the nearby Scorpius-Centarus association.
This isn’t the first time that distant astronomical events have made an impact on Earth. In 2012, researchers found a surplus of radioactive atoms in Japanese trees, hinting at a violent cosmic event around 1,200 years ago.