Presolar grains

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Boeing Delta II rocket carrying the Stardust spacecraft waiting for launch. Stardust had a close encounter with the comet Wild 2 in January 2004 and also collected interstellar dust containing pre-solar interstellar grains.

Presolar grains are interstellar solid matter in the form of tiny solid grains that originated at a time before the Sun was formed (presolar: before the Sun). Meteoriticists often use the term to represent stardust, grains that originated within a single star and which they extract from meteorites for study. Because most interstellar grains are not stardust from a single star, however, being instead interstellar cloud matter accreted by smaller presolar grains, most presolar grains are also not stardust. Logistically, all stardust are presolar grains; but not all presolar grains are stardust. This confusing terminology is heavily entrenched among 21st century meteoriticists who prefer to use the terms interchangeably, however, so it is best to live with both usages or to write presolar stardust grains for stardust.

Presolar stardust grains formed within outflowing and cooling gases from earlier presolar stars. The stellar nucleosynthesis that took place within each presolar star gives to each granule an isotopic composition unique to that parent star, which differs from the isotopic composition of our solar system's matter as well as from the galactic average. These isotopic signatures often fingerprint very specific astrophysical nuclear processes[1] that took place within the parent star and prove their presolar origin.[2][3]


In the 1960s, the noble gases neon[4] and xenon[5] were discovered to have unusual isotopic ratios in primitive meteorites. Their origin and the type of matter that contained them was a mystery. These discoveries were made by vaporizing a bulk sample of a meteorite within a mass spectrometer, an instrument that is able to count the relative abundances of the isotopes of noble gases that are trapped in the meteorite sample. During the 1970s similar mass spectrometers discovered more components of trapped xenon isotopes.[6] Competing speculations about the origins of the xenon isotopic components were advanced, all within the existing paradigm that the variations were created by processes within an initially homogeneous solar gas cloud.

A new theoretical framework for interpretation was advanced during the 1970s when Donald D. Clayton introduced stardust into planetary science. At the same time he rejected the popular belief among meteoriticists that the solar system began as a uniform hot gas.[7] Instead he predicted that unusual but predictable isotopic compositions would be found within thermally condensed interstellar grains that had condensed during mass loss from stars of differing types. He argued that such grains exist throughout the interstellar medium.[7][8] Clayton's first papers using that idea in 1975 pictured an interstellar medium populated with supernova grains that are rich in the radiogenic isotopes of Ne and Xe that had defined the extinct radioactivities.[9] Clayton defined several different types of stardust presolar grains likely to be discovered: stardust from red giant stars, sunocons (acronym from SUperNOva CONdensates) from supernovae, nebcons from nebular condensation by accretion of cold cloud gaseous atoms and molecules, and novacons from nova condensation.[7] Despite vigorous and continuous active development of this picture, Clayton's suggestions lay unsupported by others for a decade until such grains were discovered within meteorites.

The first unambiguous consequence of the existence of stardust within meteorites came from the laboratory of Edward Anders in Chicago,[10] who found using traditional mass spectrometry that the xenon isotopic abundances contained within an acid-insoluble carbonaceous residue that remained after the meteorite bulk had been dissolved in acids matched almost exactly the predictions for isotopic xenon in red giant stardust.[8] It then seemed certain that stardust grains were contained within Anders' acid-insoluble residue. Finding the actual stardust grains and documenting them was a much harder challenge that required locating the grains and showing that their isotopes matched those within the red-giant star. There followed a decade of intense experimental searching in the attempt to isolate individual grains of those xenon carriers. But what was really needed to discover stardust was a new type of mass spectrometer that could measure the smaller number of atoms in a single grain. Sputtering ion probes were pursued by several laboratories in the attempt to demonstrate such an instrument. But the contemporary ion probes needed to be technologically much better.

In 1987 diamond grains[11] and silicon carbide grains[12] were found to exist abundantly in those same acid-insoluble residues and also to contain large concentrations of noble gases. Significant isotopic anomalies were in turn measured by improvements in secondary ion mass spectrometry within the structural chemical elements of these grains.[13] Improved SIMS experiments showed that the silicon isotopes within each SiC grain did not have solar isotopic ratios but rather those expected in certain red-giant stars. The finding of stardust is therefore dated 1987.[12] To measure the isotopic abundance ratios of the structural elements (e.g. silicon in an SiC grain) in microscopic stardust grains had required two difficult technological and scientific steps: 1) locating micron-sized stardust grains within the meteorite's overwhelming mass; 2) development of SIMS technology to a sufficiently high level to measure isotopic abundance ratios within micron-sized grains. Ernst Zinner became the undisputed leader of SIMS applications to microscopic grains,[14] earning him historic acclaim.[15]

In meteoritics[edit]

Presolar grains are the solid matter that was contained in the interstellar gas before the Sun formed. The stardust component can be identified in the laboratory by their abnormal isotopic abundances and consists of refractory minerals which survived the collapse of the solar nebula and the subsequent formation of planetesimals.[16]

To meteorite researchers, the term presolar grains has come to mean presolar grains found in meteorites, which are overwhelmingly stardust. Many other types of cosmic dust have not been detected in meteorites. Presolar stardust grains comprise only about 0.1 percent of the total mass of particulate matter found in meteorites. Such grains are isotopically-distinct material found in the fine-grained matrix of meteorites, such as primitive chondrites. Their isotopic differences from the encasing meteorite require that they predate the Solar System. The crystallinity of those clusters ranges from micrometer-sized silicon carbide crystals (up to 1013 atoms), down to that of nanometer-sized diamond (about 1000 atoms), and unlayered graphene crystals of fewer than 100 atoms. The refractory grains achieved their mineral structures by condensing thermally within the slowly cooling expanding gases of supernovae and of red giant stars.


Presolar grains are investigated using scanning or transmission electron microscopes (SEM/TEM), and mass spectrometric methods (noble gas mass spectrometry, resonance ionization mass spectrometry (RIMS), secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS, NanoSIMS)). Presolar grains that consist of diamonds are only a few nanometers in size and are, therefore, called nanodiamonds. Because of their small size, nanodiamonds are hard to investigate and, although they are among the first presolar grains discovered, relatively little is known about them. The typical sizes of other presolar grains are in the range of micrometers.

Presolar grains consisting of the following minerals have so far been identified:

  • diamond (C) nanometer-sized grains (~2.6 nanometres (1.0×10−7 in) diameter)[17] possibly formed by vapor deposition[18]
  • graphite (C) particles and anions,[19] some with unlayered graphene cores[20]
  • silicon carbide (SiC) submicrometer to micrometer sized grains. Presolar SiC occurs as single-polytype grains or polytype intergrowths. The atomic structures observed contain the two lowest order polytypes: hexagonal 2H and cubic 3C (with varying degrees of stacking fault disorder) as well as 1-dimensionally disordered SiC grains.[21] In comparison, terrestrial laboratory synthesized SiC is known to form over a hundred different polytypes.
  • titanium carbide (TiC) and other carbides within C and SiC grains[22]
  • silicon nitride (Si3N4)
  • corundum (Al2O3)[23]
  • spinel (MgAl2O4)[24]
  • hibonite ((Ca,Ce)(Al,Ti,Mg)12O19)[25]
  • titanium oxide (TiO2)
  • silicate minerals (olivine and pyroxene)

Information on stellar evolution[edit]

The study of presolar grains provides information about nucleosynthesis and stellar evolution.[26] Grains bearing the isotopic signature of "r-process" (rapid neutron capture) and alpha process (alpha capture) types of nucleosynthesis are useful in testing models of supernovae explosions.

For example, some presolar grains (supernova grains) have very large excesses of calcium-44, a stable isotope of calcium which normally composes only 2% of the calcium abundance. The calcium in some presolar grains is composed primarily of Ca-44, which is presumably the remains of the extinct radionuclide Ti-44, a titanium isotope which is formed in abundance in Type II supernovae such as SN 1987A after rapid capture of eight alpha particles by Si-28, after the process of silicon burning normally begins, and prior to the supernova explosion. However, Ti-44 has a half-life of only 59 years, and thus it is soon converted entirely to calcium-44. Excesses of the decay products of the longer lived, but extinct, nuclides Ca-41 (half life 350,000 years) and Al-26 (730,000 years) have also been detected in such grains. The rapid-process isotopic anomalies of these grains include relative excesses of N-15 and O-18 relative to Solar System abundances, as well as excesses of the neutron-rich stable nuclides Ca-42, and Ti-49.[27]

Other presolar grains (AGB star grains) provide isotopic and physical information on asymptotic giant branch stars, which have manufactured the lion's share of the refractory elements lighter than iron in the galaxy. Because the elements in these particles were made at different times (and places) in the early Milky Way, the set of collected particles further provides insight into galactic evolution prior to the formation of the Solar System.

In addition to providing information on nucleosynthesis of the grain's elements, solid grains provide information on the physico-chemical conditions under which they condensed, and on events subsequent to their formation. For example, consider red giants — which produce much of the carbon in our galaxy. Their atmospheres are cool enough for condensation processes to take place, resulting in the precipitation of solid particles (i.e., multiple atom agglomerations of elements such as carbon) in their atmosphere. This is unlike the atmosphere of the Sun, which is too hot to allow atoms to build up into more complex molecules. These solid fragments of matter are then injected into the interstellar medium by radiation pressure. Hence, particles bearing the signature of stellar nucleosynthesis provide information on (i) condensation processes in red giant atmospheres, (ii) radiation and heating processes in the interstellar medium, and (iii) the types of particles that carried the elements of which we are made, across the galaxy to our Solar System.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ernst Zinner (1998) Stellar nucleosynthesis and the isotopic composition of presolar grains from primitive meteorites, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 26:147-188.
  2. ^ T. J. Bernatowicz and R. M Walker (1997) Ancient stardust in the laboratory, Physics Today 50:1212, 26-32
  3. ^ D.D. Clayton and L.R. Nittler, Astrophysics with presolar stardust, Ann. Review of astron. Astrophys. 42, 39-78 (2004)
  4. ^ D. C. Black and R. O. Pepin (1969) Trapped neon in meteorites. II., Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 36, 377-394
  5. ^ J. H. Reynolds and G. Turner (1964) Rare gases in the chondrite Renazzo, J. Geo. Phys. Res. 69, 3263-3281
  6. ^ Xenon has nine stable isotopes that differ in mass because they have different numbers of neutrons in their atomic nuclei. The mass spectrometer records the number of detected xenon atoms at atomic weights A=124, 126, 128, 129, 130, 131, 132, 134 and 136. By measuring these at several temperature steps in the heating of the sample it was demonstrated that trapped xenon had differing components within its total. It was speculated that one such component was xenon created when an unknown superheavy nucleus that was assumed to exist in the early Solar System underwent fission.
  7. ^ a b c D. D. Clayton, Precondensed Matter: Key to the Early Solar System, Astrophys. H. 199, 765 (1975). Moon and Planets 19, 109-137 (1978)
  8. ^ a b D.D. Clayton and R.A. Ward, s-process studies: xenon and krypton isotopic abundances, Astrophys. J. 224, 1000-1006 (1978). This paper was submitted in 1975 to Geochim. et Cosmochim Acta but was judged at that time to not be relevant to geochemistry. It was resubmitted to Astrophys J in 1978 after Edward Anders stated that he had discovered the pure s-process xenon gas in a bulk carbonaceous residue off a meteorite
  9. ^ DD Clayton, Extinct radioactivities: trapped residuals of presolar grains, Astrophys. J. 199, 765 (1975); DD Clayton, 22Na, Ne-E, extinct radioactive anomalies and unsupported 40Ar, Nature 257, 36 (1975)
  10. ^ B. Srinivasan and E. Anders, Science 201, 51-56 (1978)
  11. ^ Lewis R.S., Tang M., Wacker J.F., Anders E. and Steel E. (1987) Interstellar diamonds in meteorites, Nature 326, 160-162
  12. ^ a b Bernatowicz, T., Fraundorf, G., Ming, T., Anders, E., Wopenka, B., Zinner, E., and Fraundorf, P. (1987) Evidence for interstellar SiC in the Murray carbonaceous meteorite, Nature 330, 728.
  13. ^ Ernst Zinner (1996) Stardust in the laboratory, Science 271:5245, 41-42
  14. ^ A special issue of Meteoritics and Planetary Science 42, No. 7/8 (2007) documents Zinner's role in honor of his 70th birthday. Read especially its introductory article by Kevin McKeegan.
  15. ^ Zinner died in 2015 at age 78. His obituary is in February 2016 Physics Today by Donald Clayton tells more of Zinner's relationship to SIMS discoveries.
  16. ^ Maria Lugaro (2005) Stardust from meteorites: An introduction to presolar grains (World Scientific, NY) ISBN 981-256-099-8
  17. ^ P. Fraundorf, G. Fraundorf, T. Bernatowicz, R. Lewis, and M. Tang (1989) Ultramicroscopy 27:401–412.
  18. ^ T. L. Daulton, D. D. Eisenhour, T. J. Bernatowicz, R. S. Lewis and P. R. Buseck (1996) Genesis of presolar diamonds: Comparative high-resolution transmission electron microscopy study of meteoritic and terrestrial nano-diamonds, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 60:23, 4853-4872
  19. ^ T. Bernatowicz, R. Cowsik, P. C. Gibbons, K. Lodders, B. Fegley Jr., S. Amari and R. S. Lewis (1996) Constraints on stellar grain formation from presolar graphite in the Murchison meteorite, Ap. J. 472:760-782
  20. ^ P. Fraundorf and M. Wackenhut (2002) The core structure of pre-solar graphite anions, Ap. J. Lett. 578:2, L153-156
  21. ^ Daulton, T.; Bernatowicz, T. J.; Lewis, R. S.; Messenger, S.; Stadermann, F. J.; Amari, S. (June 2002). "Polytype distribution in circumstellar silicon carbide". Science 296 (5574): 1852–1855. Bibcode:2002Sci...296.1852D. doi:10.1126/science.1071136. PMID 12052956. 
  22. ^ T. Bernatowicz, S. Amari, E. Zinner, & R. Lewis (1991) Presolar grains within presolar grains, Ap J Lett, 373:L73
  23. ^ Hutcheon, I. D.; Huss, G. R.; Fahey, A. J.; Wasserberg, G. J. (1994). "Extreme Mg-26 and O-17 enrichments in an Orgueil corundum: Identification of a presolar oxide grain". Astrophysical Journal Letters 425 (2): L97–L100. Bibcode:1994ApJ...425L..97H. doi:10.1086/187319. 
  24. ^ E. Zinner, S. Amari, R. Guiness, A. Nguyen, F. J. Stadermann, R. M. Walker and R. S. Lewis (2003) Presolar spinel grains from the Murray and Murchison carbonaceous chondrites, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 67:24, 5083-5095
  25. ^ T. R. Ireland (1990) Presolar isotopic and chemical signatures in hibonite-bearing refractory inclusions from the Murchison carbonaceous chondrite, Geochmica et Cosmochimica Acta 54:3219-3237
  26. ^ Donald D. Clayton and Larry R. Nittler (2004) Astrophysics with presolar stardust, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 42:39-78
  27. ^ McSween, Harry; Gary R. Huss (2010). Cosmochemistry (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-87862-4.  page 139

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