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How was our solar system created?

Updated on November 30, 2015
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For centuries, astronomers gazed toward the heavens seeking an answer to the question; where did the sun and the planets come from? As man developed more powerful telescopes and sent probes into space, we gained a better understanding of the origins of our own solar system, but it was not until more recently, that the Hubble Telescope provided scientists with clearer clues to how planets and stars are formed. The theory of how a solar system born is now better understood, but the basic theory was actually first developed in the 18th century and it has been developed further since then.

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Portion of the Carina Nebula
Portion of the Carina Nebula | Source

It all started with a cloud

Within our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and other galaxies in the universe like it, there are vast clouds of dust known as nebulae, which scientists have been able to study, thanks to the Hubble telescope. These nebulae were formed when a star reached the end of its life and exploded, throwing billions of tons of dust, gas and debris into space.

To say that nebulae are vast, is an understatement, because some that have been observed are hundreds if light years in diameter. To put that into some form perspective, a light year is the distance that light travels in one year, which is 5,900,000,000,000 miles.

A nebula, although not very dense, does contain a lot of mass and, in time, the gravitational pull of the dust particles, causes those particles to clump together, which then causes them to attract even more and more dust particles and, the steadily increasing gravitational pull, begins to make the cloud collapse in on its self.

As the cloud collapses, the matter at the centre of the cloud becomes more and more condensed and begins to heat up and, it is this dense, increasingly hot core, which eventually becomes the core of a new star.

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Artist's conception of a protoplanetary disk
Artist's conception of a protoplanetary disk | Source

The cloud became a disk

As the cloud continues to collapse, the motion of the dust, and growing clumps of rock, begin to cause the cloud, as whole, to rotate in one direction. This rotation has the same effect on the cloud as the spinning of a lump of pizza dough would; the cloud begins to flatten out into a disk shape.

Meanwhile, gravity is still pulling the particles closer and closer together so, as the disk begins to shrink in size, the speed of its rotation increases, just as the speed of an ice-skaters spin gets faster as she pulls in her arms closer to her body. These disks, which are known as "protoplanetary" or "circumstellar" disks are thought to be the birthplace of stars and planets like our own.

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Artist's conception of the birth of a star within a dense molecular cloud. NASA image
Artist's conception of the birth of a star within a dense molecular cloud. NASA image | Source

A star is born

As the mass at the centre of the disk continues to grow, the temperature and the pressure grow too. Until, eventually, there is enough energy contained in the rocky core at the centre of the disk to set off the first of many nuclear reactions. Hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium, huge bursts of energy are realised and, then, you have the early beginnings of a star. However, it will be at least another 10 million years, though, before the new-born star stabilises and develops into a grown-up star, as you would recognise one today.

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Artist's conception of the solar nebula
Artist's conception of the solar nebula | Source

The left over ‘clumps’ begin to become planets

While the new star continues to grow in size and its heat increases, the dust and rocks that are further away from the centre of the disk continue to rotate around the central point and the largest of the rocks drag in the smaller ones with their own gravitational pull. These early planets are called ‘planetesimals’ and they grow in size and, the more they grow, the more material they attract to themselves.

Close to the star, gas and ice will be burned off by the heat. So, planetesimals forming in the inner rings of the disk will be smaller rocky ones, while further away from the star, gas and ice will collect around the planetesimals, forming ice and gas giants.

The larger of planetesimals will continue circling the star. Sometimes, they will smash into smaller planetesimals, breaking them into smaller fragments and dust. At other times, they will merge with other planetesimals and become larger. And, all the time, they will be slowly mopping up the particles of dust, by attracting them with their gravitational pull. After many millions of years of this smashing, merging and attracting, we are left with what we recognise as a solar system; a single star, encircled by a relatively small number of orbiting planets. The final clean-up operation that removes all the remaining dust and gas from around the newly formed planets is thought to be caused by a blast of the solar wind from the newly born star, which blows any remaining debris far out into space.

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Our Solar System
Our Solar System | Source

The story of our solar system continues

One of the great joys for me, of writing here on Hub Pages, is that I can write about whatever takes my interest at any particular time. For me, that invariably means writing on topics that I don’t think I know enough about! So, when one of my children asked me some questions about the solar system and I didn't have all the answers, I decided that I would write a series of hubs about the cosmos.

So then, if this hub appears to be a little light on detail, bear with me, there are more hubs on the topic to come and, to any experts out there, if I have made any glaring errors, please feel free to let me know. In the meantime, I’m having fun, I hope you stick with me as I share what I learn.

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    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Hi Artois52 Thanks for the comment. All I was trying to say was that we still don't really know the answer and there are many theories. You're right about it being fascinating trying to find out the answers but if Einstein and Stephen Hawking can disagree then there's hope for us all!

    • Artois52 profile image
      Author

      Artois52 2 years ago from England

      Hi Lawrence. Many thanks for your comments. Your hubs look really interesting and I'm going to give them a proper read later. It's fascinating how science strives to find answers, but often just raises more questions.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I did some hubs on the subject a few months ago (looking at the Big Bang from a scientific point of view) I was surprised to find how many scientists actually reject the Big bang theory (about 40%) and evolution (8%)

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Very good article on the subject. There are some problems with the theory (all the nebulae observed are expanding but should be contracting according to the theory) well presented. I really enjoyed the hub

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 2 years ago from West By God

      Eric, it is said that out in space two atoms made conact with eah other. That was how the first star was formed. Now some scientist, I forgot Her name, discovered that out in space vs. here or on Earth that atoms attrack each other more so there than here. I wish I could remember he name because she also found a solar system that runs the opposite of others that we know.

    • Artois52 profile image
      Author

      Artois52 2 years ago from England

      Thanks for popping by Eric. Good question.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Really a great explanation. You took real complex and made it understandable. But I just have to know where the first star came from.

    • Artois52 profile image
      Author

      Artois52 2 years ago from England

      Thanks for commenting Dustin. I intend to come onto the creation Vs formation debate in a later hub.

    • Dustin Loeschner profile image

      Dustin Loeschner 2 years ago from Wynne, Arkansas

      No offense to any religion, but factual information such as this is very useful. The more we, as humans, learn about the upbringing of a certain thing, such as the universe, the more we can utilize that information for our living. Thank you for not being close-minded. The world could use more people such as yourself.