Scientists Have Finally Measured the Lifespan of a Neutron in Space

Scientists succeeded for the first time in analyzing the lifespan of a neutron in space. 

And once their technique is refined, it could demonstrate to be a game-changer. Here are the latest details.

Intriguing Technique Measured the Lifetime of a Neutron

When safely settled in the nucleus of an atom, the subatomic particles, known as neutrons have a somehow stable existence. Once discharged from that nucleus, a neutron’s lifespan is much shorter. How short?

Recently, scientists used an intriguing measurement technique on neutrons out in space that could help solve the mystery. It could also help them to comprehend better how quickly elements developed out of the particle soup that filled the Universe right after the Big Bang, almost 13.8 billion years ago. 

That process is dubbed the Big Bang nucleosynthesis, and it’s believed to have occurred somewhere within 10 seconds and 20 minutes after the well-known Big Bang. Discovering how long neutrons can last on their own will let cosmologists find the upper limit of that timespan. 

“This is the first time anyone has ever measured the neutron lifetime from space,” stated Jack Wilson, a planetary scientist from the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. 

Between 2011 and 2015, Space ENvironment, NASA’s Mercury Surface, GEoschemistry, Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, orbited Mercury, but its path was complicated because it involved two Venus flybys and three Mercury flybys. As it approached Venus, MESSENGER’s neutron spectrometer obtained data from the neutrons streaming out of the planet at a velocity of a few kilometers/s. 

At a minimum altitude of 339 kilometers, the spacecraft was close to the maximum length those neutrons could have traveled before fading. Similar measurements were performed during the Mercury flybys, at a minimum altitude of only 205 kilometers. 

To measure the neutrons’ lifespan, scientists simulated how many neutrons they should identify at the Venusian flyby altitudes for a variety of lifespans, between 10 and 17 minutes. According to this simulation, a lifespan of around 780 seconds (13 minutes) was the best result.

But it also came with an error margin of 60 seconds. Such a thing means that it’s still within range of the bottle and beam analyses. So, the neutron lifespan isn’t completely solved yet. The scientists’ work, however, won’t stop here. 

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