An ‘unexpected’ space traveler challenges theories about the origin of the solar system

Fireball captured by the Global Observatory’s Fireball Camera at Miquilon Lake Provincial Park, Alberta. Credit: University of Alberta

Researchers from the West have shown that the fireball that originated at the edge of the solar system was likely made of rock, not ice, challenging ancient beliefs about how the solar system formed.

At the edge of our solar system and halfway to the nearest stars is a collection of icy objects that sail through space, known as the Oort Cloud. Transient stars sometimes push these icy travelers toward the sun, and we see them as comets with long tails. Scientists have not yet spotted any objects directly in the Oort Cloud, but everything that has been detected so far coming from its direction has been made of ice.

Theoretically, the basis for understanding the beginnings of our solar system is built on the premise that only icy bodies exist in these outer regions and certainly nothing made of rock.

That changed last year when an international team of scientists, stargazers, and professional and amateur astronomers led by Western meteorite physicists captured images and video of a stony meteorite that soared into the sky over central Alberta as a dazzling fireball. Researchers have since concluded that all signs point to the object’s origin being smack in the middle of the Oort Cloud.

The results are published in natural astronomy.

Credit: University of Western Ontario

“This discovery supports a completely different model for the formation of the solar system, a model that supports the idea that large amounts of rocky material co-exist with icy bodies within the Oort Cloud,” said Dennis Veda, a Western researcher in meteorite physics. “This result is not explained by currently favored solar system formation models. It’s a complete game changer.”

All previous rocky fireballs had arrived from very close to Earth, making this object — which had traveled great distances — completely unexpected. The cameras of the Global Fireball Observatory (GFO), developed in Australia and operated by the University of Alberta, detected a rocky meteorite the size of a grapefruit (about 2 kg). Using the Global Meteor Network’s instruments, which were developed for the Winchombe fireball, Western researchers estimated that it was traveling in an orbit normally reserved only for long-period icy comets from the Oort Cloud.

“In 70 years of regular fireball observations, this is one of the most bizarre events ever recorded. It validates the strategy of the Regional Office created five years ago, which expanded the ‘fishing net’ to 5 million square kilometers of sky , and brought together scientific experts from all over the world,” said Hadrian Devilepuikes, Research Associate at Curtin University, Australia, and Principal Investigator in the Regional Office.

“Not only does it allow us to find and study precious meteorites, but it is the only way to have a chance to capture these rare events that are essential to understanding our solar system.”

As it flew, Alberta’s fireball descended much deeper into the atmosphere than icy bodies in similar orbits and shattered just as a fireball dropped rocks—necessary evidence that it was, in fact, made of rock. On the contrary, comets are basically soft snowballs mixed with dust that slowly evaporate as they approach the sun. The dust and gases inside make up the characteristic tail that can extend for millions of kilometers.

“We want to explain how this stony meteorite ended up so far away because we want to understand its origins. The better we understand the conditions in which the solar system formed, the better we understand what was necessary to ignite life,” he said. Veda.

“We want to paint a picture, as accurately as possible, of these early moments in the solar system that were so crucial to everything that happened after that.”

more information:
Dennis Vida et al., Direct measurement of decimeter-sized rocky material in the Oort Cloud, natural astronomy (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01844-3

Provided by the University of Western Ontario

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