Cosmic C.S.I.: Searching for the Origins of the Solar System in Two Grains of Sand

Composite Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra image of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. A new study shows that a supernova as far away as 50 light years could have devastating effects on life on Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO)

“The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth,” Carl Sagan famously said in his iconic TV series Cosmos. But when two of those grains are made of a silicon-and-oxygen compound called silica, and they were found hiding deep inside ancient meteorites recovered from Antarctica, they very well may be from a star… possibly even the one whose explosive collapse sparked the formation of the Solar System itself.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis with support from the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences have announced the discovery of two microscopic grains of silica in primitive meteorites originating from two different sources. This discovery is surprising because silica — one of the main components of sand on Earth today — is not one of the minerals thought to have formed within the Sun’s early circumstellar disk of material.

Instead, it’s thought that the two silica grains were created by a single supernova that seeded the early solar system with its cast-off material and helped set into motion the eventual formation of the planets.

According to a news release by Washington University, “it’s a bit like learning the secrets of the family that lived in your house in the 1800s by examining dust particles they left behind in cracks in the floorboards.”

A 3.5-cm chondrite meteorite found in Antarctica in Nov. 1998. Dark meteorites show up well against the icy terrain of Antarctica. (Carnegie Mellon University)
A 3.5-cm chondrite meteorite found in Antarctica in Nov. 1998. Dark meteorites show up well against the icy terrain of Antarctica. (Carnegie Mellon University)

Until the 1960s most scientists believed the early Solar System got so hot that presolar material could not have survived. But in 1987 scientists at the University of Chicago discovered miniscule diamonds in a primitive meteorite (ones that had not been heated and reworked). Since then they’ve found grains of more than ten other minerals in primitive meteorites.

The scientists can tell these grains came from ancient stars because they have highly unusual isotopic signatures, and different stars produce different proportions of isotopes.

But the material from which our Solar System was fashioned was mixed and homogenized before the planets formed. So all of the planets and the Sun have the pretty much the same “solar” isotopic composition.

Meteorites, most of which are pieces of asteroids, have the solar composition as well, but trapped deep within the primitive ones are pure samples of stars, and the isotopic compositions of these presolar grains can provide clues to their complex nuclear and convective processes.

The layered structure of a star about to go supernova; different layers contain different elements (Wikimedia)
The layered structure of a star about to go supernova; different layers contain different elements (Wikimedia)

Some models of stellar evolution predict that silica could condense in the cooler outer atmospheres of stars, but others say silicon would be completely consumed by the formation of magnesium- or iron-rich silicates, leaving none to form silica.

“We didn’t know which model was right and which was not, because the models had so many parameters,” said Pierre Haenecour, a graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University and the first author on a paper to be published in the May 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Under the guidance of physics professor Dr. Christine Floss, who found some of the first silica grains in a meteorite in 2009, Haenecour investigated slices of a primitive meteorite brought back from Antarctica and located a single grain of silica out of 138 presolar grains. The grain he found was rich in oxygen-18, signifying its source as from a core-collapse supernova.

Finding that along with another oxygen-18-enriched silica grain identified within another meteorite by graduate student Xuchao Zhao, Haenecour and his team set about figuring out how such silica grains could form within the collapsing layers of a dying star. They found they could reproduce the oxygen-18 enrichment of the two grains through the mixing of small amounts of material from a star’s oxygen-rich inner zones and the oxygen-18-rich helium/carbon zone with large amounts of material from the outer hydrogen envelope of the supernova.

In fact, Haenecour said, the mixing that produced the composition of the two grains was so similar, the grains might well have come from the same supernova — possibly the very same one that sparked the collapse of the molecular cloud that formed our Solar System.

“It’s a bit like learning the secrets of the family that lived in your house in the 1800s by examining dust particles they left behind in cracks in the floorboards.”

Ancient meteorites, a few microscopic grains of stellar sand, and a lot of lab work… it’s an example of cosmic forensics at its best!

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Isotopic Evidence of the Moon’s Violent Origins

Artist’s impression of an impact of two planet-sized worlds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists have uncovered a history of violence hidden within lunar rocks, further evidence that our large, lovely Moon was born of a cataclysmic collision between worlds billions of years ago.

Using samples gathered during several Apollo missions as well as a lunar meteorite that had fallen to Earth (and using Martian meteorites as comparisons) researchers have observed a marked depletion in lunar rocks of lighter isotopes, including those of zinc — a telltale element that can be “a powerful tracer of the volatile histories of planets.”

The research utilized an advanced mass spectroscopy instrument to measure the ratios of specific isotopes present in the lunar samples. The spectrometer’s high level of precision allows for data not possible even five years ago.

Scientists have been looking for this kind of sorting by mass, called isotopic fractionation, since the Apollo missions first brought Moon rocks to Earth in the 1970s, and Frédéric Moynier, PhD, assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis — together with PhD student, Randal Paniello, and colleague James Day of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — are the first to find it.

The team’s findings support a now-widely-accepted hypothesis — called the Giant Impact Theory, first suggested by PSI scientists William K. Hartmann and Donald Davis in 1975 — that the Moon was created from a collision between early Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet about 4.5 billion years ago. The effects of the impact eventually formed the Moon and changed the evolution of our planet forever — possibly even proving crucial to the development of life on Earth.

(What would a catastrophic event like that have looked like? Probably something like this:)

Read more: What’s the Moon Made Of? Earth, Most Likely.

“This is compelling evidence of extreme volatile depletion of the moon,” said Scripps researcher James Day, a member of the team. “How do you remove all of the volatiles from a planet, or in this case a planetary body? You require some kind of wholesale melting event of the moon to provide the heat necessary to evaporate the zinc.”

In the team’s paper, published in the October 18 issue of Nature, the researchers suggest that the only way for such lunar volatiles to be absent on such a large scale would be evaporation resulting from a massive impact event.

“When a rock is melted and then evaporated, the light isotopes enter the vapor phase faster than the heavy isotopes, so you end up with a vapor enriched in the light isotopes and a solid residue enriched in the heavier isotopes. If you lose the vapor, the residue will be enriched in the heavy isotopes compared to the starting material,” explains Moynier.

The fact that similar isotopic fractionation has been found in lunar samples gathered from many different locations indicates a widespread global event, and not something limited to any specific regional effect.

The next step is finding out why Earth’s crust doesn’t show an absence of similar volatiles, an investigation that may lead to clues to where Earth’s surface water came from.

“Where did all the water on Earth come from?” asked Day. “This is a very important question because if we are looking for life on other planets we have to recognize that similar conditions are probably required. So understanding how planets obtain such conditions is critical for understanding how life ultimately occurs on a planet.”

“The work also has implications for the origin of the Earth,”  adds Moynier, “because the origin of the Moon was a big part of the origin of the Earth.”

Read more on the Washington University news release and at the UC San Diego news center.

Inset image: Cross-polarized transmitted-light image of a lunar rock. Photo by James Day, Scripps/UCSD