Our Sun missed the stellar "baby boom" that erupted in our young Milky Way galaxy 10 billion years ago. During that time the Milky Way was churning out stars 30 times faster than it does today. Our galaxy was ablaze with a firestorm of star birth as its rich reservoir of hydrogen gas compressed under gravity, creating myriad stars. But our Sun was not one of them. It was a late "boomer," arising 5 billion years later, when star birth had plunged to a trickle.
A primordial origin for the compositional similarity between the Earth and the Moon
Nature 520, 7546 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14333
Authors: Alessandra Mastrobuono-Battisti, Hagai B. Perets & Sean N. Raymond
Most of the properties of the Earth–Moon system can be explained by a collision between a planetary embryo (giant impactor) and the growing Earth late in the accretion process. Simulations show that most of the material that eventually aggregates to form the Moon originates from the impactor. However, analysis of the terrestrial and lunar isotopic compositions show them to be highly similar. In contrast, the compositions of other Solar System bodies are significantly different from those of the Earth and Moon, suggesting that different Solar System bodies have distinct compositions. This challenges the giant impact scenario, because the Moon-forming impactor must then also be thought to have a composition different from that of the proto-Earth. Here we track the feeding zones of growing planets in a suite of simulations of planetary accretion, to measure the composition of Moon-forming impactors. We find that different planets formed in the same simulation have distinct compositions, but the compositions of giant impactors are statistically more similar to the planets they impact. A large fraction of planet–impactor pairs have almost identical compositions. Thus, the similarity in composition between the Earth and Moon could be a natural consequence of a late giant impact.
Saturn’s fast spin determined from its gravitational field and oblateness
Nature 520, 7546 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14278
Authors: Ravit Helled, Eli Galanti & Yohai Kaspi
The alignment of Saturn’s magnetic pole with its rotation axis precludes the use of magnetic field measurements to determine its rotation period. The period was previously determined from radio measurements by the Voyager spacecraft to be 10 h 39 min 22.4 s (ref. 2). When the Cassini spacecraft measured a period of 10 h 47 min 6 s, which was additionally found to change between sequential measurements, it became clear that the radio period could not be used to determine the bulk planetary rotation period. Estimates based upon Saturn’s measured wind fields have increased the uncertainty even more, giving numbers smaller than the Voyager rotation period, and at present Saturn’s rotation period is thought to be between 10 h 32 min and 10 h 47 min, which is unsatisfactory for such a fundamental property. Here we report a period of 10 h 32 min 45 s ± 46 s, based upon an optimization approach using Saturn’s measured gravitational field and limits on the observed shape and possible internal density profiles. Moreover, even when solely using the constraints from its gravitational field, the rotation period can be inferred with a precision of several minutes. To validate our method, we applied the same procedure to Jupiter and correctly recovered its well-known rotation period.
The comet-like composition of a protoplanetary disk as revealed by complex cyanides
Nature 520, 7546 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14276
Authors: Karin I. Öberg, Viviana V. Guzmán, Kenji Furuya, Chunhua Qi, Yuri Aikawa, Sean M. Andrews, Ryan Loomis & David J. Wilner
Observations of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned our planetary system was rich in water and organic molecules. Bombardment brought these organics to the young Earth’s surface. Unlike asteroids, comets preserve a nearly pristine record of the solar nebula composition. The presence of cyanides in comets, including 0.01 per cent of methyl cyanide (CH3CN) with respect to water, is of special interest because of the importance of C–N bonds for abiotic amino acid synthesis. Comet-like compositions of simple and complex volatiles are found in protostars, and can readily be explained by a combination of gas-phase chemistry (to form, for example, HCN) and an active ice-phase chemistry on grain surfaces that advances complexity. Simple volatiles, including water and HCN, have been detected previously in solar nebula analogues, indicating that they survive disk formation or are re-formed in situ. It has hitherto been unclear whether the same holds for more complex organic molecules outside the solar nebula, given that recent observations show a marked change in the chemistry at the boundary between nascent envelopes and young disks due to accretion shocks. Here we report the detection of the complex cyanides CH3CN and HC3N (and HCN) in the protoplanetary disk around the young star MWC 480. We find that the abundance ratios of these nitrogen-bearing organics in the gas phase are similar to those in comets, which suggests an even higher relative abundance of complex cyanides in the disk ice. This implies that complex organics accompany simpler volatiles in protoplanetary disks, and that the rich organic chemistry of our solar nebula was not unique.
Solar System: An incredible likeness of being
Nature 520, 7546 (2015). doi:10.1038/520169a
Authors: Robin M. Canup
Earth and the Moon share many puzzling chemical similarities. New analyses show that the last planet-sized body to hit Earth could have been similar enough to Earth to yield a Moon with an Earth-like composition. See Letter p.212
Planetary science: Prebiotic chemistry on the rocks
Nature 520, 7546 (2015). doi:10.1038/520161a
Authors: Geoffrey A. Blake & Edwin A. Bergin
Organic compounds called nitriles have been detected in material surrounding a young star. The finding hints at a vast reservoir of ice and volatile species that can seed the surfaces of young rocky planets or moons. See Letter p.198
Nature 520, 7546 (2015). doi:10.1038/520132a
A study in Nature adds a dramatic twist to the backstory of a neighbour we thought we knew.