Mystery of Our Solar System’s Origin –“May Have Formed in Bubbles Around a Giant, Long-Dead Star”

 

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Despite the many impressive discoveries humans have made about the universe, scientists are still unsure about the birth story of our solar system. But now scientists have laid out a comprehensive theory for how our solar system could have formed in the wind-blown bubbles around a giant, long-dead star, addressing a nagging cosmic mystery about the abundance of two elements in our solar system compared to the rest of the galaxy.


The general prevailing theory is that our solar system formed billions of years ago near a supernova. But the new scenario instead begins with a giant type of star called a Wolf-Rayet star, which is more than 40 to 50 times the size of our own sun. They burn the hottest of all stars, producing tons of elements which are flung off the surface in an intense stellar wind. As the Wolf-Rayet star sheds its mass, the stellar wind plows through the material that was around it, forming a bubble structure with a dense shell.

 

The Hubble image above shows of an enormous bubble being blown into space by a super-hot, massive star. The Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula, or NGC 7635, was chosen to mark the 26th anniversary of the launch of Hubble into Earth orbit by the STS-31 space shuttle crew on April 24, 1990.

"As Hubble makes its 26th revolution around our home star, the sun, we celebrate the event with a spectacular image of a dynamic and exciting interaction of a young star with its environment. The view of the Bubble Nebula, crafted from Wide Field Camera 3 images, reminds us that Hubble gives us a front-row seat to the awe-inspiring universe we live in," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, D.C.

The Bubble Nebula is 7 light-years across – about one-and-a-half times the distance from our sun to its nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri – and resides 7,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia. The seething star forming this nebula is 45 times more massive than our sun. Gas on the star gets so hot that it escapes away into space as a "stellar wind" moving at over 4 million miles per hour.

"The shell of such a bubble is a good place to produce stars," because dust and gas become trapped inside where they can condense into stars, said coauthor Nicolas Dauphas, professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences. The authors estimate that 1 percent to 16 percent of all sun-like stars could be formed in such stellar nurseries.

As for the fate of the giant Wolf-Rayet star that sheltered us: Its life ended long ago, likely in a supernova explosion or a direct collapse to a black hole. A direct collapse to a black hole would produce little iron-60; if it was a supernova, the iron-60 created in the explosion may not have penetrated the bubble walls, or was distributed unequally.

This setup differs from the supernova hypothesis in order to make sense of two isotopes that occur in strange proportions in the early solar system, compared to the rest of the galaxy. Meteorites left over from the early solar system tell us there was a lot of aluminium-26. In addition, studies, including a 2015 one by Dauphas and a former student, increasingly suggest we had less of the isotope iron-60.

This brings scientists up short, because supernovae produce both isotopes. "It begs the question of why one was injected into the solar system and the other was not," said coauthor Vikram Dwarkadas, a research associate professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

This brought them to Wolf-Rayet stars, which release lots of aluminium-26, but no iron-60. "The idea is that aluminum-26 flung from the Wolf-Rayet star is carried outwards on grains of dust formed around the star. These grains have enough momentum to punch through one side of the shell, where they are mostly destroyed–trapping the aluminum inside the shell," Dwarkadas said. Eventually, part of the shell collapses inward due to gravity, forming our solar system.

The Daily Galaxy via University of Chicago and Hubblesite,org

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