For decades, Dr. Oliver Manuel, a professor of nuclear chemistry at the University of Missouri-Rolla, has been telling anyone who will listen that the accepted theory on the sun’s origin that it was created slowly along with the planets in a huge collapsing cloud of hydrogen and helium is seriously flawed.
"That story about the solar system’s creation certainly doesn’t match my findings," says Manuel, who, back in the 1970s, uncovered evidence supporting a different theory: that a supernova explosion created the sun and planets.
Lately, it appears Manuel’s ideas aren’t quite as far-fetched as they used to seem.
New findings at Arizona State University convinced a Chinese-American team of scientists that the origins of the solar system, indeed, were hotter and more violent than previously thought. After detecting clear evidence in meteorites for the past presence of chlorine-36, they concluded a nearby supernova must have injected radioactive isotopes into the interstellar cloud of light elements that was forming our sun and planets. The conclusions are reported in the Feb. 1 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Manuel says these researchers are on the right track, but they have failed to realize just how close the supernova explosion was to our solar system.
"I am pleased the Chinese-Arizona State team of scientists recognizes this new evidence of a supernova at the birth of the solar system," he says. "But our own studies show that fresh supernova debris formed the sun and its planets directly. The hot radioactive debris never mixed with a cloud of hydrogen and helium."
According to Manuel, the sun itself used to be a massive star. He says the entire solar system was created out of highly radioactive debris when the star exploded as a supernova five billion years ago.
Manuel and a colleague hatched this theory in 1975. In 1977, their conclusions were published in the journal Science. In conjunction with this supernova theory, they suggested that iron from the supernova made iron meteorites, formed the interior of the new sun, and created the iron cores of the inner planets.
Because there is very little iron at the surface of the sun, Manuel didn’t have much luck convincing people that the heavy element played such an important role in the solar system’s formation. The conventional wisdom was that the light elements seen at the surface of the sun, hydrogen and helium, were prevalent inside the sun and throughout the solar system. Last spring, the Arizona State team detected the footprints of iron-60 in a meteorite that circled the sun for billions of years before landing on Earth. In a Science article, the team noted that iron-60 can only be made in a supernova.
"All of the iron in the sun and Earth came with radioactive iron-60 from the supernova, along with many other radioactive elements," Manuel says. "Long-lived radioactive elements like uranium still survive, which is why the insides of the Earth are hot today."
Back in 1971, Manuel reported in Science the discovery of short-lived plutonium-244 inside the Earth. Like iron-60, plutonium-244 can only be made in a supernova blast.
Prior to the Galileo probe that entered Jupiter in 1996, Manuel and a UMR graduate student predicted that the hydrogen and helium in Jupiter would contain "strange xenon" made by nuclear reactions in the outer part of the supernova. Data from the Galileo probe confirmed that prediction.
In Manuel’s model of the solar system’s creation, heavy elements stayed close to the sun and congregated to form terrestrial planets like Earth, while the light elements from the outer layers of the supernova formed the big gaseous planets like Jupiter.
Although the sun’s surface is covered with hydrogen and helium, Manuel says he’s absolutely convinced the sun is made mostly of iron and other heavy elements that were left over from reactions inside the supernova.
"Our sun is a huge plasma diffuser that sorts atoms by weight and moves lightweight elements like hydrogen and helium to its surface," he says.
In 1983, Manuel studied the solar wind and found that 22 different types of atoms had been sorted by weight.
"Atoms in the solar wind showed us the seven most abundant elements in the sun are iron, oxygen, silicon, nickel, sulfur, magnesium and calcium," says Manuel. "The most abundant elements inside the sun turned out to be the same elements that are most abundant in ordinary meteorites. The likelihood of this spectacular agreement being a meaningless coincidence is less than one in a billion."
As part of a continuing effort to prove he’s been right all along, Manuel’s latest publication shows that an additional 72 types of atoms in the outer layer of the sun or photosphere are sorted by weight. Those results, and additional evidence suggesting that iron is the most abundant element in the sun, will be published with co-authors in the next issue of the Journal of Fusion Energy.