Space crystals from ancient times show evidence of a temperamental sun

4.5 billion year old rocks tell a violent tale

Artist's illustration of the early solar disk, with an inset image of a blue hibonite crystal, one of the first minerals to form in the solar system
Artist's illustration of the early solar disk, with an inset image of a blue hibonite crystal, one of the first minerals to form in the solar system

Newborn stars and newborn humans have many similar behaviors, colicky and fussy, flaring tempers, spewing disgusting refuse in all directions. Most would agree our 4.6 billion year old sun had a tumultuous time in its youth. At best this was suspicious rhetoric.

New data focuses on a particular set of sun soaked blue crystals that came to earth from space. They are called Hibonites. This new data leads us to believe the sun emitted a much higher level of cosmic activity than once thought.

Sun eruptions
Sun Eruptions

What are Hibonites? They are blue crystals delivered to Earth by crashing meteors. In fact, some of the earliest crystals ever formed were Hibonites. They were created from cooling gasses derived from the sun. The main focus of this topic is the Murchison meteor, which impacted the Earth in Australia in 1969. This meteor is believed to have originated from an asteroid in the asteroid belt. Some sample pieces are so tiny, they are about the size of a human hair. This study was published in the journal “Nature Astronomy.”

“We think hibonites like those in Murchison formed close to the young sun, because that is where temperatures were high enough to form such minerals,” says Levke Kööp, lead author and cosmo chemistry researcher at the University of Chicago. “Hibonites from Murchison are famous for showing large isotope anomalies that tell us about the types of stars that contributed material to the molecular cloud that the sun formed from.”

Lead author Levke Kööp at work in the lab
Lead author Levke Kööp at work in the lab
(c) Field Museum

The age of the refractory elements give us a clue about the age of the hibonite grains. It seems to be about 4.5 billion years old. The important question is whether hibonite was produced by a volatile sun. This mystery is being solved by analyzing the hibonite crystals for helium and neon isotopes. High energy particles spewing from the young sun would have struck the calcium and aluminum deposits, splitting their atoms forming neon and helium. These neon and helium atoms would be embedded in the hibonite crystals for billions of years.

Scientists have been using a powerfully sensitive mass spectrometer at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, and melting the grains down with a laser confirms the presence of helium and neon atoms.

In contrast, newer, younger samples were absent of helium and neon materials illustrating and confirming the suns’ early volatile behavior. This shines a little more light on the early times of the stars’ life and how elements and materials behave in the creation of planets and space phenomena.

A tiny hibonite crystal from the Murchison meteorite-Credit Copyright Andy Davis, University of Chicago
A tiny hibonite crystal from the Murchison meteorite
Credit Copyright Andy Davis, University of Chicago

“Over the last few decades, there has been a controversy whether meteorites contain evidence of an early active sun,” says Kööp. “In general, even for us, it was hard to know what to expect from this study. In the end, we were very excited to see such a clear irradiation signature in the hibonites.”

Andrew Davis, a study coauthor affiliated with the University of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History adds, “We are working on a new instrument in my lab to study the isotopic compositions of more elements in the hibonite grains, to better understand how different sources of dust were mixed in the early solar nebula…I’ve been involved with this type research for a very long time. I’ve constantly been skeptical of claims from scientists that traces of the early sun have been found.” He concludes, “With this new study, I’m happy to change my mind.”

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