Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles (ionizing radiation). There are many different types of radioactive decay (see table below). A decay, or loss of energy, results when an atom with one type of nucleus, called the parent radionuclide, transforms to an atom with a nucleus in a different state, or to a different nucleus containing different numbers of nucleons. Either of these products is named the daughter nuclide. In some decays the parent and daughter are different chemical elements, and thus the decay process results in nuclear transmutation (creation of an atom of a new element).
The first decay processes to be discovered were alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay. Alpha decay occurs when the nucleus ejects an alpha particle (helium nucleus). This is the most common process of emitting nucleons, but in rarer types of decays, nuclei can eject protons, or specific nuclei of other elements (in the process called cluster decay). Beta decay occurs when the nucleus emits anelectron or positron and a type of neutrino, in a process that changes a proton to a neutron or vice versa. The nucleus may capture an orbiting electron, converting a proton into an neutron (electron capture). All of these processes result in nuclear transmutation.
By contrast, there exist radioactive decay processes that do not result in transmutation. The energy of an excited nucleus may be emitted as a gamma ray in gamma decay, or used to eject an orbital electron by interaction with the excited nucleus in a process calledinternal conversion. Radioisotopes occasionally emit neutrons, and this results in a change in an element from one isotope to another.
One type of radioactive decay results in products which are not defined, but appear in a range of "pieces" of the original nucleus. This decay is called spontaneous fission. This decay happens when a large unstable nucleus spontaneously splits into two (and occasionally three) smaller daughter nuclei, and usually emits gamma rays, neutrons, or other particles as a consequence.
Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e., random) process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay However, the chance that a given atom will decay is constant over time. For a large number of atoms, the decay rate for the collection is computable from the measureddecay constants of the nuclides (or equivalently from the half-lifes).