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Starts With A Bang

This Is Where The 10 Most Common Elements In The Universe Come From

Atoms can link up to form molecules, including organic molecules and biological processes, in interstellar space as well as on planets. But this is only possible with heavy elements, which are only created once stars form. (JENNY MOTTAR)

In order, they go: hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, neon, nitrogen, magnesium, silicon, iron, sulfur. Here’s how we made them.


Everything found on planet Earth is composed of the same ingredients: atoms.

The most current, up-to-date image showing the primary origin of each of the elements that occur naturally in the periodic table. Neutron star mergers, white dwarf collisions, and core-collapse supernovae may allow us to climb even higher than this table shows. (JENNIFER JOHNSON; ESA/NASA/AASNOVA)

Found throughout the Universe, atoms naturally occur in over 80 varieties.

The abundances of the elements in the Universe today, as measured for our Solar System. Despite being the 3rd, 4th, and 5th lightest elements of all, the abundances of lithium, beryllium, and boron are far below all the other nearby elements in the periodic table. (MHZ`AS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (IMAGE); K. LODDERS, APJ 591, 1220 (2003) (DATA))

But they’re all created in unequal amounts; here are our Universe’s top 10 (by mass).

The first stars and galaxies in the Universe will be surrounded by neutral atoms of (mostly) hydrogen gas, which absorbs the starlight and slows any ejecta. The large masses and high temperatures of these early stars helps ionize the Universe, but until enough heavy elements are formed and recycled into future generations of stars and planets, life and potentially habitable planets are utterly impossible. (NICOLE RAGER FULLER / NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION)

1.) Hydrogen. Created during the hot Big Bang but depleted by stellar fusion, ~70% of the Universe remains hydrogen.

The pathway that protons and neutrons take in the early Universe to form the lightest elements and isotopes: deuterium, helium-3, and helium-4. The nucleon-to-photon ratio determines how many of each element and isotope existed after the Big Bang, with about 25% helium. Over 13.8 billion years of star formation, the helium percentage has now increased to ~28%. (E. SIEGEL / BEYOND THE GALAXY)

2.) Helium. About 28% is helium, with 25% formed in the Big Bang and 3% from stellar fusion.

Some rare galaxies exhibit a green glow thanks to the presence of doubly ionized oxygen. This requires UV light from stellar temperatures of 50,000 K and above. Oxygen is the 3rd most abundant element in the Universe: about 1% of all the atoms, by mass. (NASA, ESA, AND W. KEEL (UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA, TUSCALOOSA), OF NGC 5972)

3.) Oxygen. The most common (~1%) heavy element, oxygen arises from fusion in massive, pre-supernova stars.

The Sun, today, is very small compared to giants, but will grow to the size of Arcturus in its red giant phase, some 250 times its current size. Red giants fuse helium into carbon, which becomes the first element created purely in stars rather than in the Big Bang. Carbon is the 4th most abundant element in the Universe today. (ENGLISH WIKIPEDIA AUTHOR SAKURAMBO)

4.) Carbon. The first heavy element created by stars, carbon mostly originates within red giants.

Betelgeuse, a supergiant on the path to an eventual supernova, has given off large amounts of gas and dust over its history. Inside, it’s fusing elements like carbon into heavier ones, producing neon as part of that chain reaction. When these stars go supernova, the neon is released back into the Universe. (ESO/P. KERVELLA/M. MONTARGÈS ET AL., ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: ERIC PANTIN)

5.) Neon. Produced as an intermediate step between carbon and oxygen, neon is another pre-supernova element.

The classification system of stars by color and magnitude is very useful. By surveying our local region of the Universe, we find that only 5% of stars are as massive (or more) than our Sun is. More massive stars have additional reactions, like the CNO cycle and other avenues for the proton-proton chain, that dominate at higher temperatures. This produces the majority of the Universe’s nitrogen. (KIEFF/LUCASVB OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / E. SIEGEL)

6.) Nitrogen. Nitrogen arises from Sun-like stars in a fusion cycle that includes carbon and oxygen.

Artist’s illustration (left) of the interior of a massive star in the final stages, pre-supernova, of silicon-burning in a shell surrounding the core. Other layers fuse other elements, a number of which dead-end in magnesium: the 7th most abundant element in the Universe. (NASA/CXC/M.WEISS; X-RAY: NASA/CXC/GSFC/U.HWANG & J.LAMING)

7.) Magnesium. Created by fusion processes in massive stars, magnesium is Earth’s #4 element: behind iron, silicon and oxygen.

This image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the location of different elements in the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant including silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple). Each of these elements produces X-rays within narrow energy ranges, allowing maps of their location to be created. (NASA/CXC/SAO)

8.) Silicon. The final element to successfully fuse in pre-supernova stars, silicon is observed in supernova remnants.

Two different ways to make a Type Ia supernova: the accretion scenario (L) and the merger scenario (R). The merger scenario is responsible for the majority of many of the heavy elements in the Universe, including iron, which is the 9th most abundant element and the heaviest one to crack the top 10. (NASA / CXC / M. WEISS)

9.) Iron. Although it’s vitally important for core-collapse supernovae, iron primarily originates from merging white dwarfs.

The nebula, officially known as Hen 2–104, appears to have two nested hourglass-shaped structures that were sculpted by a whirling pair of stars in a binary system. The duo consists of an aging red giant star and a burned-out star, a white dwarf. This image is a composite of observations taken in various colors of light that correspond to the glowing gases in the nebula, where red is sulfur, green is hydrogen, orange is nitrogen, and blue is oxygen. (NASA, ESA, AND STSCI)

10.) Sulfur. Produced from both core-collapse supernovae and white dwarf mergers, sulfur rounds out the Universe’s top 10 elements.

The elements of the periodic table, and where they originate, are detailed in this image above. While most elements originate primarily in supernovae or merging neutron stars, many vitally important elements are created, in part or even mostly, in planetary nebulae, which do not arise from the first generation of stars. (NASA/CXC/SAO/K. DIVONA)

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.

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