Did Our Solar System Evolve in a Separate, More Oxygen-Rich Part of the Milky Way?
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May 14, 2012

Did Our Solar System Evolve in a Separate, More Oxygen-Rich Part of the Milky Way?

 

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Based on new data from NASA’s IBEX spacecraft this past January, which is able to sample material flowing into the solar system from interstellar space, scientists "Detected alien matter that came into our solar system from other parts of the galaxy--and, chemically speaking, it’s not exactly like what we find here at home.” according to David McComas the principal investigator for IBEX at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

“There are at least two possibilities," says McComas. "Either the solar system evolved in a separate, more oxygen-rich part of the galaxy than where we currently reside or a great deal of critical, life-giving oxygen lies trapped in interstellar dust grains or ices, unable to move freely throughout space—and thus undetectable by IBEX."

Either way, this affects scientific models of how our solar system – and life – formed.“It’s a real puzzle,” he says.

Using data from IBEX, the researchers team compared the neon-to-oxygen ratio inside vs. outside the heliosphere, they reported that for every 20 neon atoms in the galactic wind, there are 74 oxygen atoms. In our own solar system, however, for every 20 neon atoms there are 111 oxygen atoms, which means there's more oxygen in any given slice of the solar system than in local interstellar space.

Launched in 2008, the IBEX spacecraft spins in Earth orbit scanning the entire sky, detecting neutral alien atoms that slip through the heliosphere’s magnetic defenses.  Without actually exiting the solar system, IBEX is able to sample the Milky Way  outside.

"We've directly measured four separate types of atoms from interstellar space and the composition just doesn't match up with what we see in the solar system," said Eric Christian, mission scientist for IBEX at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Among the four types of atoms detected—H, He, O and Ne—the last one, neon, serves as a particularly useful reference. “Neon is a noble gas, so it doesn’t react with anything. And it’s relatively abundant, so we can measure it with good statistics,” explains McComas. 

The Daily Galaxy via NASA IBEX and Goddard Space Flight Center

Comments

I can think of at least two other possible explanations for this that Dr. McComas hasn't considered (or at least didn't mention).

One is that some property of the solar system has collected much of the oxygen from the local region. After all, there's gravity here, and not so much in interstellar space. Oxygen tends to form molecules (02), which would be heavier and thus more subject to gravity than neon.

Another is that our sun has been creating and spitting out oxygen atoms as it burns. This might be ruled out by looking at the content of the solar winds; is the local space dust mainly static, or can this much of the local oxygen be coming from the sun?

A third possibility is a combination of both of these two.

Both of these, I'll easily admit, are tremendously improbable, but they are at least possible. They're just speculation, the exercise of an imagination that seeks the truth.

While significant, the difference between 74:20 and 111:20 isn't huge (111 is only half again 74 -- it's not like we're dealing with ten or fifty times the amounts), so I suspect that a more subtle explanation, such as those I suggest here, can be considered.

Still, it's an interesting puzzle. If there was a "space opera" TV series on (like Star Trek or Farscape) right now, it'd be interesting to see if and how they'd handle the information.

Since Oxygen is the one needed molecule for any burnable fuel to burn, would it be possible for it to escape a place loaded with the most burnable fuel (hydrogen) and temperatures well past what is needed for spontaneous combustion and remain intact?

Just because it isn't detecting more oxygen now doesn't mean it's not out there in greater abundance. IBEX hasn't been around that long. Were talking measuring something on cosmic scales here...

Maybe elecronegativity has an effect.


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