A small meteorite contains interstellar material from a distant supernova

From outside, the little pebble looks like an ordinary rock: yellowish-brown in color, a bit lumpy, and only about three grams in mass. But underneath that brown layer, it’s studded with microscopic diamonds and another super-hard form of carbon, both formed by the heat and pressure of a meteorite’s impact with Earth.

A recent study published in the journal icarussuggests that some of the unassuming little stone may have come from beyond our Solar System, long before our Sun was born.

What’s new – Chemical tests on the meteorite, nicknamed Hypatia, suggest that some of the material it’s made of comes from outside our Solar System. In fact, the team behind the study say it was forged in the death throes of a massive star long before our Solar System began to form.

University of Johannesburg geochemist Jan Kramers and colleagues measured the chemical composition of the stone and found that it is actually made of two types of material. Most of the stone is almost pure carbon, but small patches contain a mixture of heavier elements, such as aluminum, silicon, zinc, and iron. In total, the authors measured 15 chemical elements in the rock matrix. They were especially interested in the amount of each element mixed in the rock compared to each of the other elements. Those ratios act like a chemical fingerprint that can reveal information about how and where the mysterious stone was formed.

But Hypatia’s chemical fingerprint was a surprise: It was unlike anything scientists had seen before.

“That’s why it was very important to look for additional evidence, because it didn’t look like any meteorite. Then we tried to compare it to comets, and it didn’t look like a comet,” says University of Johannesburg geochemist Georgy Belyanin, co-author of the recent paper. Reverse. It also didn’t quite match the element ratios astronomers had seen in interstellar dust and gas. The closest match Kramers and his colleagues could find was in cosmic debris from a powerful stellar explosion called a Type Ia supernova.

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When massive stars die, the tremendous heat and pressure of the cataclysm fuses the atoms into new elements. Without supernovae, we would have nothing in the universe heavier than carbon. And Kramers and his colleagues’ simulations of Type Ia supernovae (a specific type of supernova that occurs in binary star systems when one star is a white dwarf) produced a mixture of elements very similar to Hypatia’s chemical composition.

Hypatia is about 3 centimeters long and weighs about 3 grams, and the supposed interstellar dust makes up only 1% of its matrix.Kramer et al. 2013

Why does it matter? According to Kramers and his colleagues, sometime before 4.5 billion years ago, gravity pulled a small amount of dust from a supernova into a much larger nebula. That nebula would eventually merge into our Solar System. In the process, the tiny amount of interstellar dust adhered to a larger mass made up mostly of carbon, with a little oxygen mixed in.

Somehow, the chunk of rock that contained our sample of interstellar dust stayed on the edges, away from the scorching heat of the newly formed Sun. It became, like many other asteroids and comets in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, a sample of the material that originally formed the Solar System.

It’s probably not an unusual origin story: Many of the carbon-rich asteroids known as chondrites in our Solar System contain grains of material that once drifted through interstellar space before ending up here. And each of them bears the chemical imprint of its own formation, whether in the heart of a star or in the cataclysm of a supernova. As Kramers and his colleagues put it in their paper, these grains “testify that matter originated from many different stellar processes that contributed to the solar nebula.”

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What is unusual is that this particular sample ended up on Earth, and that scientists found and analyzed it.

“That’s the first real piece found on Earth that, we guess, was formed before the Solar System was formed,” says Belyanin. And if he and his colleagues are right, it’s also a part of a supernova from long ago that scientists here on Earth can now get their hands on. Eventually, studying Hypatia could help us better understand not only the formation of the Solar System, but also the composition of the interstellar medium and the physics of stellar explosions.

Here is the background – A geologist collected the stone in 1996, from an area of ​​the Sahara desert littered with yellowish glass shards. The glass, called Libyan desert glass or impactite, is made from pure silica. Its edges are sharp, and the Paleolithic peoples of the region shaped blades and other tools. The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun even had a breastplate with a scarab carved into the yellowish glass.

Libyan desert glass is found in a region of the Sahara desert that encompasses eastern Libya and western Egypt.By Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22694874

But melting and fusing silica into glass requires temperatures much higher than any volcano on Earth, and there is no volcano anywhere near the glass fields of the Libyan desert. The glass that once adorned a pharaoh’s chest was produced by an otherworldly impact: a meteorite or comet that struck the Sahara desert, fusing some of its sand into impacted glass. Geologists have dated the glass itself to around 30,000 years ago, but have found no definitive trace of the space rock that created it. Unless, of course, that’s Hypatia.

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Kramers and his colleagues measured the isotope ratios of the element argon in Hypatia and found that its signature did not match rocks that formed here on Earth. Instead, Hypatia seemed to have come from somewhere in space. It was then that Belyanin took a closer look under a microscope and realized that Hypatia was actually made of two different types of material glued together. If he and the rest of the Kramer team are right, some of that material came from far, far away.

And there may be more interstellar samples waiting to be found, or already in collections, waiting to be analyzed. One of the most widely accepted theories about the impact that formed the Libyan desert glass involves a meteorite exploding in mid-air, creating a thermal shock wave that turned some of the sand below into glass. If that’s true, and if Hypatia is a fragment of that exploding meteorite (called a bolide), then other fragments may be mixed in with the glass scattered across eastern Libya and western Egypt.

Belyanin suggests that there may be other meteorites with similar backgrounds elsewhere on Earth as well.

“The chances of that happening are obviously very, very slim,” he says, “but considering the age of the Solar System is about 5 billion years, it could have happened, and there could have been another landing somewhere, long before 30 million years ago. Obviously, if they find something similar in the future, that will obviously test our assumptions, especially if they get something similar in terms of that chemical signature.”

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