Did Our Solar System Start With a “Little Bang?”

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What prompted the formation of our little corner of the universe – our sun and planetary system? For several decades, scientists have thought that the Solar System formed as a result of a shock wave from an exploding star—a supernova—that triggered the collapse of a dense, dusty gas cloud, which then contracted to form the Sun and the planets. But detailed models of this formation process have only worked under the simplifying assumption that the temperatures during the violent events remained constant. That, of course, is very unlikely. But now, astrophysicists at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) have shown for the first time that a supernova could indeed have triggered the Solar System’s formation under the more likely conditions of rapid heating and cooling. So have these new findings resolved this long-standing debate?

“We’ve had chemical evidence from meteorites that points to a supernova triggering our Solar System’s formation since the 1970s,” remarked lead author, Carnegie’s Alan Boss. “But the devil has been in the details. Until this study, scientists have not been able to work out a self-consistent scenario, where collapse is triggered at the same time that newly created isotopes from the supernova are injected into the collapsing cloud.”

Short-lived radioactive isotopes—versions of elements with the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons—found in very old meteorites decay on time scales of millions of years and turn into different (so-called daughter) elements. Finding the daughter elements in primitive meteorites implies that the parent short-lived radioisotopes must have been created only a million or so years before the meteorites themselves were formed. “One of these parent isotopes, iron-60, can be made in significant amounts only in the potent nuclear furnaces of massive or evolved stars,” explained Boss. “Iron-60 decays into nickel-60, and nickel-60 has been found in primitive meteorites. So we’ve known where and when the parent isotope was made, but not how it got here.”

Cross-sectional view of one-half of a solar-mass target cloud being struck by a supernova shock front that is traveling downward. Credit:  Carnigie Institution for Science
Cross-sectional view of one-half of a solar-mass target cloud being struck by a supernova shock front that is traveling downward. Credit: Carnigie Institution for Science

Previous models by Boss and former DTM Fellow Prudence Foster showed that the isotopes could be deposited into a pre-solar cloud if a shock wave from a supernova explosion slowed to 6 to 25 miles per second and the wave and cloud had a constant temperature of -440 °F (10 K). “Those models didn’t work if the material was heated by compression and cooled by radiation, and this conundrum has left serious doubts in the community about whether a supernova shock started these events over four billion years ago or not,” remarked Harri Vanhala, who found the negative result in his Ph.D. thesis work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1997.

Using an adaptive mesh refinement hydrodynamics code, FLASH2.5, designed to handle shock fronts, as well as an improved cooling law, the Carnegie researchers considered several different situations. In all of the models, the shock front struck a pre-solar cloud with the mass of our Sun, consisting of dust, water, carbon monoxide, and molecular hydrogen, reaching temperatures as high as 1,340°F (1000 K). In the absence of cooling, the cloud could not collapse. However, with the new cooling law, they found that after 100,000 years the pre-solar cloud was 1,000 times denser than before, and that heat from the shock front was rapidly lost, resulting in only a thin layer with temperatures close to 1,340°F (1000 K). After 160,000 years, the cloud center had collapsed to become a million times denser, forming the protosun. The researchers found that isotopes from the shock front were mixed into the protosun in a manner consistent with their origin in a supernova.

“This is the first time a detailed model for a supernova triggering the formation of our solar system has been shown to work,” said Boss. “We started with a Little Bang 9 billion years after the Big Bang.”

Source: Carnegie Institution for Science

Evidence of Our Violent Early Solar System

Meteorite. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell Click to enlarge
A U of T scientist has found unexpectedly ?young? material in meteorites ? a discovery that breaks open current theory on the earliest events of the solar system.

A paper published today in the August issue of Nature reports that the youngest known chondrules ? the small grains of mineral that make up certain meteorites ? have been identified in the meteorites known as Gujba and Hammadah al Hamra.

Researchers who have studied chondrules generally agree that most were formed as a sudden, repetitive heat, likely from a shock wave, condensed the nebula of dust floating around the early Sun. Thinking that an analysis of the chondrules in Gujba and Hammadah al Hamra would be appropriate for accurately dating this process, U of T geologist Yuri Amelin, together with lead author Alexander Krot of the University of Hawaii, studied the chondrules? mineralogical structure and determined their isotopic age. ?It soon became clear that these particular chondrules were not of a nebular origin,? says Amelin. ?And the ages were quite different from what was expected. It was exciting.?

Amelin explains that not only were these chondrules not formed by a shock wave, but rather emerged much later than other chondrules. ?They actually post-date the oldest asteroids,? he says. ?We think these chondrules were formed by a giant plume of vapour produced when two planetary embryos, somewhere between moon-size and Mars-size, collided.?

What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? The evolution of the solar system has traditionally been seen as a linear process, through which gases around the early sun gradually cooled to form small particles that eventually clumped into asteroids and planets. Now there is evidence of chondrules forming at two very distinct times, and evidence that embryo planets already existed when chondrules were still forming. ?It moves our understanding from order to disorder,? Amelin admits. ?But I?m sure that as new data is collected, a new order will emerge.?

Financial support for this project was provided by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency.

Original Source: University of Toronto

Space News for March 31, 1999

Comets an Unlikely Source for Earth’s Water

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ESA Focuses Attention on Mars

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Hydrogen Peroxide on Europa’s Surface

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Reporter Gets a Ride on the Vomit Comet

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