"Heavy elements, like gold in their jewelry, are produced by special processes in stars, and SuperTIGER aims to help us understand how and where this happens," said co-principal investigator John Mitchell at Goddard Space Flight Center NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We are all stardust, but discovering where and how this star dust is made helps us to better understand our galaxy and our place in it," said Mitchell.
The most common cosmic ray particles are protons or hydrogen nuclei, which make up approximately 90 percent, followed by helium nuclei (eight percent) and electrons (one percent). The rest contains the nuclei of other elements, with a decreasing number of heavy nuclei as their mass increases. With SuperTIGER, researchers are looking for the rarest of so-called extra-heavy cosmic ray nuclei beyond iron, from cobalt to barium.
"In recent years, it has become apparent that some or all of the very neutron-rich elements heavier than iron can be produced by mergers of neutron stars instead of supernovas," said co-investigator Jason Link in Goddard. "It is possible that neutron star fusions are the dominant source of strong neutron-rich cosmic rays, but different theoretical models produce different amounts of elements and their isotopes," said Robert Binns, principal investigator at the University of Washington at St. Louis, who leads the mission.
"The only way to choose between them is to measure what's really out there, and that's what we will do with SuperTIGER," Binns added. The previous SuperTIGER flight, which ended in February 2013, lasted 55 days, setting a record for the longest flight of any heavy scientific balloon.
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