Researchers using a combination of computer models and meteorite samples have found evidence that the formation of our solar system was triggered by a low-mass supernova, the explosion produced by the death of a star with about 12 times the mass of our Sun.
Approximately 4.6 billion years ago, that supernova disturbed a cloud of gas and dust, triggering its gravitational collapse into a proto-Sun and surrounding protoplanetary disk.
While a supernova is the only thing that has the energy to compress a gas cloud to this extent, scientists had little evidence to confirm this theory until a team of researchers looked to meteorites for answers.
As debris left over from the solar system’s formation, meteorites’ compositions hold clues to the materials that make up the solar system.
Yong-Zhong Qian of the University of Minnesota School of Physics and Astronomy decided to look at short-lived nuclei in the early solar system, which would have come from the supernova.
By studying the products of these nuclei’s decay in meteorites, the researchers infer the nuclei were abundant in the solar system during its earliest years. The meteorites’ compositions reveal which specific nuclei the supernova produced and inform scientists about the solar system’s makeup.
“This is the forensic evidence we need to help us explain how the solar system was formed. It points to a low-mass supernova as the trigger,” Qian said.
In previous studies, Qian and scientists who worked with him on this project determined the formation of the solar system was not triggered by a high-mass supernova.
If that had been the case, traces of different nuclei would have shown up in the meteorites.
Qian and his team published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.