An iron Sun: Groundbreaking or cracked?

July 17, 2002 at 6:51 PM

ROLLA, Mo., July 17 (UPI) -- A new and radical theory about the composition of the Sun is challenging some well-established ideas about our nearby star's makeup and, predictably, has generated counter arguments and even some derision.

Oliver Manuel, professor of nuclear chemistry at the University of Missouri-Rolla, said his research suggests the main element in the Sun is iron.

However, David Hathaway, solar physics group leader at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, told United Press International, "This is crackpot science. We've got information on the composition of the Sun from a variety of different sources ... There's no way it's mostly iron. We would have known that a century ago."

Manuel acknowledges his conclusions counter current scientific orthodoxy, but said the theory is based on a lifetime of research. Manuel said he believes the Sun was formed from a supernova -- a gigantic explosion caused by the sudden, gravitationally driven collapse of a super-massive star -- about five billion years ago. As the mass of the Sun accreted, he said, its heavier elements sank to the center while the lighter elements remained on the surface.

"This is something I'm in essence quite certain of," Manuel told UPI. Although the surface of the Sun and its atmosphere are made of more than 90 percent hydrogen and nearly all rest helium, he said, there is no reason to think the Sun's center is composed of the same material as the surface -- any more than Earth's center is the same as the surface. Recent research has found evidence our planet's core actually may be composed of uranium and operating as a nuclear reactor.

NASA's Hathaway countered that data from many sources point to a hydrogen-helium Sun composition, with about 70 percent of its mass composed of hydrogen, 28 percent helium, and the remaining 2 percent a concoction of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen -- and very little iron.

"Helioseismology basically has to do with how the Sun vibrates," Hathaway said. "You can think of it as clinking a crystal glass. From the sound, you can tell what it is made of (and the) Sun rings at a typical frequency ... of hydrogen and helium."

From astronomical observations, Hathaway continued, "You can actually see the Sun vibrating. It vibrates like a gas ball made out of hydrogen." Iron is undoubtedly a small percentage of the elements in the Sun, but it is much less than 2 percent."

Don Burnett, professor of geochemistry at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, was less critical.

"I have not studied exactly how (Manuel) comes to this conclusion," Burnett said. "He ends up with (something) that is very, very different from what anybody else believes. But Oliver is a legitimate scientist. In our field he has made important contributions in the past."

He noted, however, current research in astrophysics indicates the usual result of a supernova is either a black hole or a neutron star, not a fairly typical star like our Sun.

Manuel acknowledged the Sun's surface is made up of hydrogen and helium, but explained this is because they are the two lightest elements, which naturally would rise to the surface. He also addressed a potential consequence if the Sun were made of iron -- it would not shine. Fusing a stable element such as iron -- the Sun operates on nuclear fusion -- would consume more energy than it produced. Manuel has an elaborate theory to account for the difference, essentially arguing the Sun surrounds a dense neutron star at its center that makes up for the lost energy.

Most other scientists argue, however, this explanation is not as economical as the existing model of nuclear fusion of hydrogen within the Sun.

Manuel will present his theory at the July 21-26 annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society in Los Angeles.

(Reported by Dan Whipple, UPI Science News, in Broomfield, Colo.)

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