THE Sun went through violent outbursts of intense radiation when it was just a baby four billion years ago, spewing scorching, high-energy clouds and particles across the solar system. These growing pains helped seed life on early Earth by igniting chemical reactions that kept Earth warm and wet. Yet, this solar crankiness also may have prevented life from emerging on other worlds by stripping them of atmospheres and demolishing nourishing chemicals.
How negative these primeval outbursts were to other worlds would have depended on how quickly the baby Sun rotated on its axis. The faster the Sun turned, the quicker it would have destroyed conditions for habitability.
This significant piece of the Sun’s history, though, has bedeviled scientists, said Prabal Saxena, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Saxena studies how space weather, the variations in solar activity and other radiation conditions in space, interacts with the surfaces of planets and moons.
Now, he and other scientists are realizing that the Moon, where NASA will be sending astronauts by 2024, contains clues to the ancient mysteries of the Sun, which are crucial to understanding the development of life.
“The Earth and Moon would have formed with similar materials, so the question is, why was the Moon depleted in these elements?” said Rosemary Killen, a planetary scientist at NASA Goddard who researches the effect of space weather on planetary atmospheres and exospheres.
The two scientists suspected that one big question informed the other — that the history of the Sun is buried in the Moon’s crust.
Killen’s earlier work laid the foundation for the team’s investigation. In 2012, she helped simulate the effect solar activity has on the amount of sodium and potassium that is either delivered to the Moon’s surface or knocked off by a stream of charged particles from the Sun, known as the solar wind, or by powerful eruptions known as coronal mass ejections.
While the Earth and Moon are generally similar in composition, a notable difference between the two is the apparent depletion in moderately volatile elements in lunar samples. This is often attributed to the formation process of the Moon, and it demonstrates the importance of these elements as evolutionary tracers. Here we show that paleo space weather may have driven the loss of a significant portion of moderate volatiles, such as sodium and potassium, from the surface of the Moon.
Using computer models, Saxena, Killen
They determined this by simulating the evolution of our solar system under a slow, medium, and then a fast-rotating star. And they found that just one version — the slow-rotating star — was able to blast the right amount of charged particles into the Moon’s surface to knock enough sodium and potassium into space
Life under the early Sun
The rotation rate of the early Sun is partly responsible for life on Earth. But for Venus and Mars — both rocky planets similar to Earth — it may have precluded it. (Mercury, the closest rocky planet to the Sun, never had a chance.)
Earth’s atmosphere was once very different from the oxygen-dominated one we find today. When Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago, a thin envelope of hydrogen and helium clung to our molten planet. But outbursts from the young Sun stripped away that primordial haze within 200 million years.
As Earth’s crust solidified, volcanoes gradually coughed up a new atmosphere, filling the air with carbon dioxide, water, and nitrogen. Over the next billion years, the earliest bacterial life consumed that carbon dioxide and, in exchange, released methane and oxygen into the atmosphere. Earth also developed a magnetic field, which helped protect it from the Sun, allowing our atmosphere to transform into the oxygen- and nitrogen-rich air we breathe today.
The Sun rotated at an ideal pace for Earth, which thrived under the early star. Venus and Mars weren’t so lucky. Venus was once covered in water oceans and may have been habitable. But due to many factors, including solar activity and the lack of an internally generated magnetic field, Venus lost its hydrogen — a critical component of water. As a result, its oceans evaporated within its first 600 million years, according to estimates. The planet’s atmosphere became thick with carbon dioxide, a heavy molecule that’s harder to blow away. These forces led to a runaway greenhouse effect that keeps Venus a sizzling 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius), far too hot for life.
Mars, farther from the Sun than Earth is, would seem to be safer from stellar outbursts. Yet, it had less protection than did Earth. Due partly to the Red Planet’s weak magnetic field and low gravity, the early Sun gradually was able to blow away its air and water. By about 3.7 billion years ago, the Martian atmosphere had become so thin that liquid water immediately evaporated into space. (Water still exists on the planet, frozen in the polar caps and in the soil.)
After influencing the course for life (or lack thereof) on the inner planets, the aging Sun gradually slowed its pace and continues to do so. Today, it revolves once every 27 days, three times slower than it did in its infancy. The slower spin renders it much less active, though the Sun still has violent outbursts occasionally.
Apollo samples and lunar meteorites are a great starting point for probing the early solar system, but they are only small pieces in a large and mysterious puzzle. The samples are from a small region near the lunar equator, and scientists can’t tell with complete certainty where on the Moon the meteorites came from, which makes it hard to place them into geological context.