The Surprising Discovery of Ceramic Chips Inside Meteorites Means There Were Wild Temperature Variations In the Early Solar System

Meteorites are excellent windows into early solar system formation.  Many were formed in the those early days, and unlike rocks on the Earth, most are not affected by billions of years of tectonic activity that wipes away any of their original structure.  Recently a team led by Nicolas Dauphas and Justin Hu at the University of Chicago (UC) found that the formation process for many of these meteorites was much more violent than previously thought.

Typical models of the early formation of the solar system have the sun starting out hot and then gradually cooling down as it aged.  That model does not fit the findings data present in the paper recently accepted to Science Advances.  

UT Q&A Session Discussing the origins of some meteorites

In it, the team looks carefully at some ceramic chips that were present inside of a meteorite sample.  Normally, these ceramics are thought to be even older than the surrounding meteorite itself and were likely formed in the first 100,000 years of the solar system.  This isn’t the first time scientists have attempted to analyze these ceramics, knowing that they held the key to understanding the early solar system.

Previously efforts were held back by technological limitations however, and if there’s one thing that engineering is very good at it is overcoming technological limitations. The research team at UC actually invented a completely new type of high specialized purification system to analyze isotopes found in the ceramic chips of meteorites.

Meteorite from Mars nicknamed "Black Beauty",
Meteorites don’t only come from the early solar system – some, such as this “Black Beauty” meteorite, come from Mars, and have a very different chemical composition than those studied by the UC team.
Credit: NASA

The new tool showed that the isotopes present in the ceramic chips must have been formed at extremely high temperatures (1,300 degrees C) over extremely long periods of times (tens of thousands of years).  In short, environmental conditions needed to form these early stage ceramics were not the same as those in the current early models of the solar system.

Findings such as these fit into a newer narrative about solar system formation that is starting to take shape.  Scientists have already had some data pointing to a much more violent early period of the sun, but the new data from the analysis of the ceramic add a new layer of evidence to the more violent models of early solar system formation.

Meteorite that has embedded itself in some Earth stone.
Some meteorites embedded themselves in the Earth, such as this “fossil meteorite”.
Image credit – Birger Schmitz

That formation impacts not only meteorites but also planetary formation processes such as those of Earth, Mars, and Venus.  Insight into early solar system formation models could lead to better understanding of why only one of the three main rocky planets is believed to be habitable, and other mysteries of planetary formation that have long eluded scientists.

Image of one of the early solar system meteorites that was used in the UC study.
Close up image of the meteorite, and associated ceramic chips, that was used as part of the UC study.
Credit: Hu et all. / University of Chicago

Understanding meteorite composition is only one small part of that effort though.  With new technology and ever increasing evidence in the form of new data, someday scientists will have a much more complete and accurate picture of the very early days of our solar system.

Learn More:
UC: Ceramic chips inside meteorites hint at wild days of the early solar system
Science Advances: Heating events in the nascent solar system recorded by rare earth element isotopic fractionation in refractory inclusions
Futurity: Ceramic in meteorites upends theory of early solar system

Lead Image:
Artist conception of the early solar system.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech