Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Solar wind samples give insight into birth of solar system

Genesis mission yields solar isotopic composition despite hard landing

Two papers in this week’s issue of Science report the first oxygen and nitrogen isotopic measurements of the Sun, demonstrating that they are very different from the same elements on Earth.

These results were the top two priorities of NASA’s Genesis mission, which was the first spacecraft to return from beyond the Moon, crashing in the Utah desert in 2004 after its parachute failed to deploy during re-entry.

Most of the Genesis payload consisted of fragile solar-wind collectors, which had been exposed to the solar particles over a period of two years. Nearly all of these collectors were decimated during the crash. But the capsule also contained a special instrument built by a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory to enhance the flow of solar wind onto a small target to make possible oxygen and nitrogen measurements. The targets of this Solar Wind Concentrator survived the crash and eventually yielded today’s solar secrets.

"Genesis is the biggest comeback mission since Apollo 13," said Roger Wiens, a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist and Genesis flight payload lead. "Everyone who saw the crash thought it was a terrible disaster, but instead the project has been fully successful, and the results are absolutely fascinating."

The results provide new clues to how the solar system was formed. Oxygen and nitrogen samples collected from various meteorites, as well as nitrogen sampled in lunar soil and in the Jupiter atmosphere by the Galileo probe, vary significantly from that on Earth by cosmochemical standards: 38 percent for nitrogen and up to 7 percent for oxygen. With the first solar wind samples in hand, showing the early Sun’s composition, scientists can begin the game of determining where Earth’s different O and N came from.

"For nitrogen, Jupiter and the Sun look the same," said Wiens. "It tells us that the original gaseous component of the inner and outer solar system was homogeneous for nitrogen, at least. So where did Earth gets its heavier nitrogen from? Maybe it came here in the material comets are made of. Perhaps it was bonded with organic materials."

For oxygen, the evidence points toward a different astrophysical mechanism called photochemical self-shielding, which the authors believe modified the composition of space dust before it coalesced to form the planets, including Earth. According to the article, the Sun shows an enrichment of pure 16O relative to Earth instead of differences in 16O, 17O, and 18O that are proportional to their atomic weight or some other mixture that doesn’t show exclusive enrichment of a single isotope. This unique arrangement strongly favors the self-shielding theory, in which solar UV radiation was responsible for uniformly enhancing the two rarer isotopes, 17O and 18O, in the terrestrial planets.

The Science papers are titled "A 15N-poor isotopic composition for the solar system as shown by Genesis solar wind samples" and "The oxygen isotopic composition of the Sun inferred from captured solar wind." Wiens is among several collaborating authors on both papers, which together are cover stories for this issue. Other LANL coauthors, Beth Nordholt and Ron Moses, along with former LANL scientist Dan Reisenfeld, were all part of the team to develop and fly the Solar Wind Concentrator that provided the samples for the studies reported in Science.

And now that some of the particles flowing past Earth from the sun are in hand, "It’s going to make a mission to a comet all the more interesting," Wiens said.

NASA’s Genesis mission was managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory with major contributions from Lockheed Martin, Caltech, and Johnson Space Center.

Related information online:
About Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, and URS for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.

LANL news media contact: Nancy Ambrosiano, (505) 667-0471,

Nancy Ambrosiano | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht Greater Range and Longer Lifetime
26.10.2016 | Technologie Lizenz-Büro (TLB) der Baden-Württembergischen Hochschulen GmbH

nachricht 3-D-printed magnets
26.10.2016 | Vienna University of Technology

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Greater Range and Longer Lifetime

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VDI presents International Bionic Award of the Schauenburg Foundation

26.10.2016 | Awards Funding

3-D-printed magnets

26.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>