To truly get to the bottom of neutrons, scientist might actually have to go to space. When outside the normal borders of an atomic nucleus, a neutron tends to decay in many other particles, lasting an average of 15 minutes. It is, however, difficult to figure out how long it takes for a neuron to decay, because there are two conflicting opinions on the subject.
Scientists have finally discovered a third type of measurement that was based on data from the MESSENGER spacecraft, belonging to the North American Space Agency. This measurement was not sensitive enough to solve the dispute for good, but a space mission in the future could help scientists get over the situation. This information was reported by a team of physicists in the academic journal Physical Review Research, on June 11. In order to determine the lifetime of a neutron, it is absolutely necessary to understand some important cosmic questions, such as how elements formed in the aftermath of the Big Bang.
The MESSENGER spacecraft went in Mercury’s orbit from 2011 to 2015, flying by Venus on its way, taking a series of measurements of neurons close to the two planets. The way neutrons are produced is that a number of reactions is set off by some high-energy particles, coming from space, crashing into individual planets. In order to quickly estimate how fast those particles were actually disappearing, researchers had to detect the number of neutrons that decreased as the spacecraft got farther and farther away from each planet. This new analysis seems to indicate that the lifespan of neutrons is slightly shorter, at about 13 minutes. There is, however, a large experimental uncertainty on the previously mentioned figure, so there is still some consistency with the previous two measurements of the lifespan of the neutron.