Meteorite From Supernova That Formed Solar System: What Do Sand Grains Tell Us? [PHOTO]

By Staff Reporter on April 29, 2013 1:38 PM EDT

supernova
NASA’s Spitzer space telescope image of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. The cyan dot just off center is all that remains of the star that exploded. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ O. Krause (S)

Scientists are investigating the origins of two rare meteorites discovered in Antarctica. New research suggests that the meteorites formed during a single supernova that occurred 4.6 billion years ago. In fact, the supernova in question is likely the very star explosion that formed our solar system.

A supernova is the collapse of a massive star after it is no longer able to perform nuclear fusion, resulting in a giant cosmic explosion. Scientists believe the shockwave from a mighty supernova event that occurred 4.6 billion years ago caused rotating clouds of gas and dust to condense, an activity that eventually led to the formation of planets in our solar system.

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Following a series of tests on the unique meteorites, grains of silica (SiO2) within the specimens were found to possess the extremely rare chemical signature of oxygen-18. According to Space.com, silica in space rocks more commonly feature oxygen-17, which indicate the rock is derived from a living star. The slightly heavier oxygen-18 requires a specific and precise mix of material from various layers of the star as it explodes in a supernova. The most likely nearby candidate for creating this specific isotope is our sun.

These silica grains are extremely tiny and require the use of the state-of-the-art NanoSIMS 50 ion microprobe, a lens capable of magnifying objects at 20,000 times. The silica grain on the first rock was first identified by Washington University in St. Louis graduate student Pierre Haenecour. Next, the silica grain found in the second meteorite was uncovered by Institute of Geology and Geophysics scientist Xuchao Zhao.

A remarkable discovery, scientists are stunned at the thought of debris that existed amongst the cloud of the very supernova that created our solar system. A journey more than 4.6 billion years in the making, those very particles finally arrived underneath the microscopes of our scientists. The research is discussed in a detailed report to be published in the May 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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