Extraterrestrial stone found in Egypt 'carries evidence of supernova'

The Hypatia stone was found in the Sahara desert (fragments next to a coin for size) (University of Johannesburg)
The Hypatia stone was found in the Sahara desert (fragments next to a coin for size). (University of Johannesburg)

A mysterious stone unearthed in 1992 in the Sahara desert contains evidence of a supernova type 1a explosion – one of the most energetic events in the universe.

The Hypatia stone came from an ancient supernova explosion after a white dwarf star ‘devoured’ another star, the researchers believe - and formed into a rock at the edge of our solar system.

Researchers Jan Kramers and Georgy Belyanin have been analysing the stone since 2013.

The researchers believe that the origin of the Hypatia stone stretches back to the early stages of the formation of Earth, our Sun, and the other planets in our solar system.

The researchers think that Hypatia’s origin starts with a red giant star collapsed into a white dwarf star. The collapse would have happened inside a gigantic dust cloud, also called a nebula.

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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.

“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.

“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.”

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

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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. Hypatia’s ‘parent body’ would become a solid rock sometime in the early stages of the 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 south-western 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.

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.

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 analyse further.

Kramers started analysing 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.

“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 analysing all the data,” says Belyanin.

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.

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