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Meteorite's blue crystals offer insights into young sun's chemistry

By Brooks Hays
Meteorite's blue crystals offer insights into young sun's chemistry
A high-powered spectrometer helped scientists capture the signatures of neon and helium atoms inside the blue hibonite crystals. Photo by Andy Davis/University of Chicago

July 30 (UPI) -- Scientists have found minerals old enough to shed light on the composition and behavior of the sun shortly after its birth, 4.6 billion years ago.

The composition of the ancient blue hibonite crystals found inside the remnants of a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite suggest the sun was spewing a plethora of high-energy particles during its earliest years.

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"The sun was very active in its early life -- it had more eruptions and gave off a more intense stream of charged particles," Philipp Heck, a curator at the Field Museum and a professor at the University of Chicago, said in a news release.

Just as the sun was born, the newborn star was surrounded by a thick, swirling circumstellar disk of gas and dust. The disk hosted temperatures upwards of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. As the disk cooled, the solar system's earliest minerals began to form. The hibonite crystals were likely some of the first.

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As these early crystals formed, the sun continued to shoot high-energy particles into space. Some of these speeding protons collided with hibonite's calcium and aluminum atoms, splitting them into smaller neon and helium atoms. These ancient signatures have remained frozen inside the blue crystals for billions of years.

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To peer inside the meteorite minerals, scientists used a massive Swiss spectrometer and a precise laser. The laser beam melted a grain of the bright blue crystal, releasing neon and helium atoms, the signatures of which were measured using the spectrometer.

The signatures marked the first time scientists have found evidence of solar activity inside minerals nearly as old as the sun.

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Researchers described their breakthrough in a new paper published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

"What I think is exciting is that this tells us about conditions in the earliest Solar System, and finally confirms a long-standing suspicion," said Heck. "If we understand the past better, we'll gain a better understanding of the physics and chemistry of our natural world."

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