Image: Copernicium on periodic table
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Copernicium is the heaviest known element on the periodic table, with 112 protons in its nucleus and an atomic mass 277 times heavier than hydrogen.
updated 2/24/2010 1:40:20 PM ET 2010-02-24T18:40:20

The heaviest element yet known is now officially named "Copernicium," after the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

Copernicium has the atomic number 112 — this number denotes the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. It is 277 times heavier than hydrogen, making it the heaviest element officially recognized by international union for chemistry IUPAC.

The name for the element was suggested by the team that discovered it, led by Sigurd Hofmann at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung in Germany.

The suggested name "Copernicium" in honor of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) follows the tradition of naming chemical elements after merited scientists. IUPAC officially announced the endorsement of the new element's name on Feb. 19, Nicolaus Copernicus' birthday. Copernicus' work in the field of astronomy is the basis for our modern, heliocentric world view, which states that the sun is the center of our solar system with Earth and all the other planets (in our solar system) circling around it.

On the periodic table of elements, Copernicium will have the symbol "Cn." The team had originally suggested "Cp" as the element's symbol, but because this abbreviation has other uses in science (such as a material's specific heat), the team agreed to "Cn."

Other elements named for famous scientists include: Einsteinium (for Albert Einstein), Fermium (for nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi), and Curium (after Marie Curie and her husband Pierre).

Hofmann and his team were able to produce the element Copernicium at GSI for the first time on Feb. 9, 1996. Using the 100-meter long GSI accelerator (an atom smasher), they fired zinc ions onto a lead foil. The fusion of the atomic nuclei of the two elements produced an atom of the new element 112. But the atom was only stable for a fraction of a second.

Further independent experiments confirmed the discovery of the element. Last year, IUPAC officially recognized the existence of element 112, acknowledged the GSI team’s discovery and invited them to propose a name.

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