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Researchers: Radioactive snowflakes will destroy stars!

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New theory suggests uranium “snowflakes” in white dwarfs could set off star destroying explosion
This is a Hubble Space Telescope composite image of a supernova explosion designated SN 2014J in the galaxy M82/NASA, ESA, A. Goobar (Stockholm University), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Barry and Jonathan have offered reasonable, serious news today.

But it’s Saturday night so what we need just now is a total freakout over something that doesn’t matter much. We can’t offer you Murder hornets attack! or COVID from space! just yet. But we CAN offer you radioactive snowflakes:

A pair of researchers with Indiana University and Illinois University, respectively, has developed a theory that suggests crystalizing uranium “snowflakes” deep inside white dwarfs could instigate an explosion large enough to destroy the star. In their paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters, C. J. Horowitz and M. E. Caplan describe their theory and what it could mean to astrophysical theories about white dwarfs and supernovas.

White dwarfs are small stars that have burned up most of their nuclear fuel—they are typically much cooler than they once were and are very dense. In this new effort, Horowitz and Caplan used data from the Gaia space observatory to theorize that sometimes small grains of uranium could begin to crystalize (due to enriched actinides), forming what they describe as snowflakes. They suggest this could happen because of the differing melting points of the material involved. They further suggest that if this were to occur, it could lead to splitting of atomic nuclei, resulting in a series of fission reactions as the solids become enriched in actinides. And if such reactions were to raise the temperature of the interior of the star by igniting carbon, the result would likely be merging of atomic nuclei and eventually a very large fusion reaction that would result in a large explosion—likely large enough to destroy the star. They note that such an occurrence would be much like a thermonuclear bomb detonating due to fission reactions.

Bob Yirka, “New theory suggests uranium ‘snowflakes’ in white dwarfs could set off star-destroying explosion” at Phys.org

The paper is closed access.

Try to forget the fact that none of it matters to us. If you need a freakout closer to home, go back to murder hornets. If you need to freak out with a group, turn on the TV and listen to a cacophony around COVID-19 Be sure to wear your mask in the shower!

If you want to stay sane most of the time, keep reading Uncommon Descent. It’s free and it is good for your mental health.

Get to know the white dwarfs:

The usual stellar theory supposes that uranium is produced by supernovae, not the cause of supernovae. Numerous other doubts about this hypothesis also come to mind: age of star vs half-life of uranium, stability of large quantities of "snowflakes" inside a star, precise conditions needed for a fission explosion to trigger a fusion explosion, especially in carbon, the likely quantities of uranium needed vs what is available, and so on. Not having read the paper, I cannot say whether the authors dealt with any of these objections. Fasteddious

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