Studying anything in space gives us a whole new perspective of answers.

The scientists have successfully measured the lifespan of neutrons in space by a probe that was purposed for another mission.

This nucleon (neutron) is pretty stable in existence as long as it is ensconced in an atom’s nucleus. But once it’s out from its comfy nucleus, the lifespan reduces drastically.

What is the lifespan of a Neutron?

Well, this is the question that’s been bugging scientists for years. However, they managed to get the answers close to accurate.

Since the 1990s, scientists used 2 different methods namely “bottle method and beam method”  to calculate the lifespan and in return got 2 different results.

In the bottle method, the scientists measured the time taken by the neutron to decay by creating a trap combined of gravitational, magnetic, and mechanical force.

In the beam method, the scientists fired a neutron beam and calculated the number of protons and electrons that resulted due to the neutron’s decay.

Either of these methods are close to accurate.

The bottle method yielded a result decay time of 879.5 seconds or 14 minutes 39 seconds on average, bearing a 0.5-second error margin.

The beam method yielded the decay time of 888 seconds or 14 minutes 48 seconds on average with a 2-second error margin.

There’s a 9-second difference between the results of these 2 methods, it may not look much but when it is considered with the subatomic particles, the difference is massive which became a headache for the researchers.

Space revealed a new way to study the subatomic particles…

According to the report published in Physical Review Research, scientists have opened a portal for the 3 methods to study the subatomic particles.

NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft orbited the 1st planet of the order (Mercury) from 2011 to 2015, its path had 2 Venus flybys.

Messenger spacecraftImage credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
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And during these 2 flybys, the probe gathered data on the neutrons that reflected from the planet’s surface due to the bombardment of cosmic rays. The probe collected data from a minimum altitude of 339 km (210 miles) which was the maximum distance the neutrons could have traveled before decaying.

Similar data was collected during the Mercury flybys from 205 km (127 miles) altitude.

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A stream of neutrons is constantly released when the continuous cosmic rays from space collide with the atoms of a planet’s atmosphere (or) surface.

Some of these neutrons reflect back into space until they decay. The scientists on earth collected this data and modeled it to get an average lifespan of 780 seconds (or) 13 minutes with an error margin of 60 seconds given or taken.

This does not accurately answer the question as the probe wasn’t designed for this mission. But the future missions dedicated to this study may precisely answer these questions.

“This is the 1st time anyone has even measured the neutron lifetime from space,” said Jack Wilson, the planetary scientist of Johns Hopkins  University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

“It proves the feasibility of this method, which could one day be the way to resolve this anomaly,” he added.

This may also help the scientists understand how the elements formed quickly after the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago.


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