Stellar Snow

Beneath pristine packs of southern snow

Echoes of a violent past lay scattered;

Lost amongst the landscape like fragments

Of half-remembered, ancient dreams,

These imprints of impossible ferocity

Permeate the permafrost with their

Sparse, unnatural presence.

 

Carefully              we              sieve                    the

Frozen              dust,          shaking      out

Terrestrial                         impurities

To catch these tiny

Specks

 

Of interstellar intolerance.

 

Blushing beneath the sudden

Light from a brash and unfamiliar star

These tiny ferrous needles fall from

Frigid haystacks –

Their secrets undressed beneath our

Cool and unrelenting gaze;

Peeling back their aged, translucent skin

To reveal their buried ancestry:

A cast off from the cloud of

Lost and broken stars that

We unwittingly call home.

The German Kohnen Station in Antarctica, where the snow in this study was harvested from (Image Credit: DiedrichF; Public domain).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has discovered the rare isotope iron-60 (which is created during supernova events) in Antarctic snow for the first time.

While most of the iron in the universe is iron-56 (a stable isotope which has a nucleus made up of 26 protons and 30 neutrons), a small proportion is made up of iron-60, an unstable isotope with 34 neutrons in each nucleus of the atom. There are no natural terrestrial sources for the iron-60 isotope, and it most likely originates from supernovae, i.e. exploding stars that release huge amounts of energy and scatter material across the Universe.

In this new study, researchers collected 500 kg of snow from Antarctica, and upon analysis found a total of five iron-60 atoms in the samples. Further analysis ruled out nuclear weapons tests or reactor accidents as sources of the iron-60, and by studying additional isotopes like manganese-53, the researchers also ruled out any significant contributions from cosmic rays, which generate iron-60 when they interact with dust and meteorites. This indicates that the iron-60 detected in the Antarctic snow does indeed comes from supernova explosions. The researchers also located the source of this stardust as likely coming from the Local Interstellar Cloud, a region roughly 30 light-years across, which likely formed from exploding massive stars, and through which our Solar System is currently moving.

An audio version of this poem can be heard here:

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