Imagine you are a scientist examining a sample of rock that had fallen from space a few days earlier and you find within it some of the chemical building blocks of life. How could you determine whether those “organic” materials came from space or were merely the result of earthly contamination?
We conclude our survey of the solar system with a discussion of its origin and evolution. Some of these ideas were introduced in Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System; we now return to them, using the information we have learned about individual planets and smaller members of the solar system. In addition, astronomers have recently discovered several thousand planets around other stars, including numerous multiplanet systems. This is an important new source of data, providing us a perspective that extends beyond our own particular (and perhaps atypical) solar system.
But first, we want to look at another crucial way that astronomers learn about the ancient history of the solar system: by examining samples of primitive matter, the debris of the processes that formed the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. Unlike the Apollo Moon rocks, these samples of cosmic material come to us free of charge—they literally fall from the sky. We call this material cosmic dust and meteorites.
- 14.1: Meteors
- When a fragment of interplanetary dust strikes Earth’s atmosphere, it burns up to create a meteor. Streams of dust particles traveling through space together produce meteor showers, in which we see meteors diverging from a spot in the sky called the radiant of the shower. Many meteor showers recur each year and are associated with particular comets that have left dust behind as they come close to the Sun and their ices evaporate (or have broken up into smaller pieces).
- 14.2: Meteorites - Stones from Heaven
- Meteorites are the debris from space that survive to reach the surface of Earth. Meteorites are called finds or falls according to how they are discovered; the most productive source today is the Antarctic ice cap. Meteorites are classified as irons, stony-irons, or stones accordingly to their composition. Most stones are primitive objects, dated to the origin of the solar system. The most primitive are the carbonaceous meteorites that can contain a number of organic (carbon-rich) molecules.
- 14.3: Formation of the Solar System
- Meteorites, comets, and asteroids are survivors of the solar nebula out of which the solar system formed. This nebula was the result of the collapse of an interstellar cloud of gas and dust, which contracted (conserving its angular momentum) to form our star, the Sun, surrounded by a thin, spinning disk of dust and vapor. Condensation in the disk led to the formation of planetesimals, which became the building blocks of the planets.
- 14.4: Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
- The first planet circling a distant solar-type star was announced in 1995. Twenty years later, thousands of exoplanets have been identified, including planets with sizes and masses between Earth’s and Neptune’s, which we don’t have in our own solar system. A few percent of exoplanet systems have “hot Jupiters,” massive planets that orbit close to their stars, and many exoplanets are also in eccentric orbits.
- 14.5: Planetary Evolution
- fter their common beginning, each of the planets evolved on its own path. Different possible outcomes are illustrated by comparison of the terrestrial planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the Moon). All are rocky, differentiated objects. The level of geological activity is proportional to mass: greatest for Earth and Venus, less for Mars, and absent for the Moon and Mercury. However, tides from another nearby world can also generate heat to drive geological activity.
Thumbnail: This illustration depicts a disk of dust and gas around a new star. Material in this disk comes together to form planetesimals. (credit: modification of work by University of Copenhagen/Lars Buchhave, NASA).
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).