A supernova may have come very close to destroying the early solar system

A new paper suggests the early solar system was shielded from the destructive force of a dying star.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of a supernova colliding with the molecular cloud filament.
An artist's impression of a supernova colliding with the molecular cloud filament.


Our sun may have been shielded from a massive supernova explosion by a shield of molecular gas during the early evolution of our solar system, a press statement reveals.

The researchers, led by National Astronomical Observatory of Japan astrophysicist Doris Arzoumanian, believe their findings could shed light on the early formation of the solar system at the same time as helping us better understand how distant star systems evolve over time.

They paint a picture of a destructive universe in which entire solar systems are wiped out of existence far before there's any chance for life to evolve.

Our early solar system escaped annihilation

The new hypothesis comes from scientists studying isotopes of elements discovered in meteorites. As these space rocks contain materials dating back to the early formative period of our solar system, they can tell us a great deal about that particular period of planetary evolution.

In their paper, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the researchers explained that they found varying concentrations of a radioactive isotope of aluminum in their meteorite samples. This showed that roughly 4.6 billion years ago, a significant amount of this substance entered the region that went on to become the solar system we know today.

The most logical explanation for this sudden abundance of radioactive aluminum, the researchers explain, is a nearby supernova blast. However, for it to have delivered such a relatively large amount of the isotope, it would have been close enough to rip the early solar system apart.

This suggests that the early solar system likely survived a supernova blast, according to the researchers. So how did our solar system not get obliterated by the shockwave of a nearby dying star? It was likely protected by dense filaments, or tendrils, of gas responsible for the formation of the early Sun.

Findings have "important implications" for solar system formation

The scientists calculated that it would take roughly 300,000 years for the supernova from the nearby star to break up the dense filament of gas shielding our solar system.

The meteorites containing the radioactive isotopes likely broke off larger asteroids that were born in the first 100,000 years of the solar system – while it was still cocooned within this dense filament.

The researchers believe their findings could help us better understand the early formation and evolution of distant star systems, as well as our own. "This scenario may have multiple important implications in our understanding of the formation, evolution, and properties of stellar systems," they stated in their paper.

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