7 bn years: Scientists say oldest solid material found

Oldest material on Earth discovered

Oldest material on Earth discovered

Stars have life cycles.

Stars are formed when dust, gas and heat combine in just the right way. They're between 5 billion and 7 billion years old.

When stars die after millions or billions of years, their particles end up in outer space - eventually forming new stars as well as moons or meteorites.

That's because plate tectonics, volcanism and other planetary processes heated and transformed all the presolar dust that may have collected during Earth's formation, said lead study author Philipp Heck, the Robert A. Pritzker Associate Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

"We image them, we analyse their isotopic composition to find out what type of star they came from, and then we can start our study ... to find out how old they are".

Heck and an worldwide team of cosmochemists published the new study on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

"Thanks to these grains, we now have direct evidence for a period of enhanced star formation in our galaxy 7 billion years ago", Heck said in the release.

The stardust represented time capsules dating to before the solar system.

While it's actually not unheard of for meteorites to contain grains of material that predate the Solar System - they're called "presolar grains" - they are rare, and hard to identify because the bits of material are so small, and deeply embedded in the rock.

Presolar grains for this study were isolated from the Murchison meteorite about 30 years ago at the University of Chicago.

"Once all the pieces are segregated, it's a kind of paste, and it has a pungent characteristic - it smells like rotten peanut butter". It was then dissolved with acid until only stardust grains remained.

"It's like burning down the haystack to find the needle", Dr Heck said. These high-energy particles flit around space and can pass through solid matter, creating new elements inside the existing minerals as they interact with them. The longer they are exposed, the more of these elements form.

Instead the researchers measured how long the grains have been exposed to the cosmic rays shooting through the universe.

"We have some grains which are a billion years older than the Sun, making them 5.5 billion years old ... a few grains that are 2 billion years older and we have one grain that is 3 billion years older [than the Sun]".

In 1969, a 4.6-billion-year-old meteorite struck Murchison, Australia.

The presolar grains Dr.

However, the oldest yielded a date of around 7.5 billion years old.

Most of the grains - about 60% - dated to around 4.6 billion to 4.9 billion years ago.

In other words, he added, "there was a time before the start of the solar system when more stars formed than normal". According to the researchers, this finding suggests that our galaxy went through a period of intense star formation around that time.

"Our hypothesis is that the majority of those grains, which are 4.6 to 4.9 billion years old, formed in an episode of enhanced star formation. This is one of the key findings of our study", said Dr Heck.

Heck notes that this isn't the only unexpected thing his team found.

The researchers learned that some of the presolar grains in their sample were the oldest ever discovered on Earth. "No one thought this was possible at that scale".

Heck and his colleagues look forward to all of these discoveries furthering our knowledge of our galaxy.

The ages of these grains of stardust isn't only important in themselves, but also because of what they tell us about the evolution of our galaxy.

Heck notes that there are lifetimes' worth of questions left to answer about presolar grains and the early Solar System.

"Once learning about this, how do you want to study anything else?" says Greer.

Murchison is really interesting because it's not being cooked up that much in the asteroid from which it came from, hence more of these delicate grains survived than would have in an asteroid with more geological activity going on. Stardust is the oldest material to reach Earth, and from it, we can learn about our parent stars, the origin of the carbon in our bodies, the origin of the oxygen we breathe. That spectrometer is the only one on the planet sensitive enough to detect the trace amounts of neon gas trapped in the stardust, he said.

As clusters, they may have been able to better weather the supernova shock waves when the stars explode.

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