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Scientist: Sun composed mostly of iron

Great ball of iron or theory full of hot air?
Great ball of iron or theory full of hot air?  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Most astronomers think the sun consists primarily of hydrogen, but a maverick researcher who believes otherwise hopes to topple conventional theories on the origins of the solar system.

Oliver Manuel, a nuclear chemist and university professor, theorizes that the predominant solar element is iron.

Furthermore, he and colleagues contend the sun and planets formed from the remnants of a supernova that rocked our cosmic neighborhood about 5 billion years ago, not from a cloud of swirling interstellar dust, as commonly thought.

"We think that the solar system came from a single star, and the sun formed on a collapsed supernova core," Manuel said in statement released recently by the University of Missouri in Rolla, where he teaches.

"The inner planets are made mostly of matter produced in the inner part of that star, and the outer planets of material form the outer layers of stars."

Manuel agrees with other scientists that hydrogen fusion -- which produces helium -- generates heat on the sun. But he goes further, arguing that the process accounts for only a fraction of solar energy output.

Hydrogen rises to the sun's surface because it is the lightest element. But an iron-rich interior, the core of a supernova, creates most of the energy, he said.

The unorthodox view is supported by the presence of a strange form of xenon gas in meteorites and the moon and Jupiter, according to Manuel.

In the meteorites, for example, the strange xenon is enriched in isotopes made when a supernova detonates and could not be produced within themselves, he said.

Manuel has the support of Dwarka Das Sabu, a fellow University of Missouri-Rolla researcher, who decades ago proposed that the solar system formed in the wake of a spinning star that exploded as a supernova.

But Manuel has had little luck so far in convincing most of his scientific peers.

"This cannot be correct. I can think of at least half a dozen different lines of evidence that say that the sun is mostly hydrogen and helium with only a tiny amount of iron," said David Hathaway of NASA's Marshal Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"Solar astronomers don't 'assume' that the sun is mostly hydrogen and helium. We deduce it from several different lines of evidence," he said.

"We measure the composition of the sun's interior using helioseismology, the study of solar oscillations produced by sonic noise within the sun. We find 90 percent hydrogen and 8 percent helium."

Added Jeffrey Larsen, an astronomer at the University if Arizona in Tucson:

"A supernova is incredibly energetic. You don't form planets in the aftermath of one of these, since the outer layers of the star are literally blasted off into space for thousands of light years," he said.

"The space next to an exploded star is very, very, very clean. We're standing here on a planet, so we didn't have a supernova in our past."




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