Falling out of a Cluster: The history of the Sun

One of my favorite things to do with students in the late fall is to take them outside and point first to the Orion nebula, then to the Pleiades, and finally to the Hyades cluster, saying “these are snap shots in the evolution of open clusters.” Each of these systems is the home of young stars, but while the Orion nebula is very much a stellar nursery, with stars just 10 million years old or younger, the Pleiades, is more like a day care center with stars 100 million years old or younger. At the same time, Hyades is more like an afterschool program for stars 730 million years old or younger. All these systems are filled with celestial children. In their youth these stars still gather in clumps. But, as they age, the stars will drift apart until, as adults, they have no memory of the place they were born. Our Sun is one of these solitary stars and every time I introduce my students to these three open clusters, they ask what happened to the open cluster where our Sun was born. (Image Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team)

The truth is, the cluster and our Sun had a falling out.

Once upon a time, somewhere in our galaxy, our Sun’s atoms were part of a giant molecular cloud. Approximately 7 billion years ago, that molecular cloud was bumped. Exactly what did the bumping no one knows. That anonymous bump so shocked the dark molecular cloud that in recoiled and collapsed in on itself. At first this inward spiral wasn’t at all dramatic, and an imaginary space traveler looking at this shocked cloud with her imaginary eyes might not have perceived the motion. Over time, however, momentum built up, and the collapse gained speed, with the densest parts of the cloud pulling themselves into fragments, as more ethereal parts were left behind to collapse more slowly. In one of these collapsing regions a womb of gas and dust that was neither too big nor too small began to glow as a single star exhaled its first breath of heat. As it grew and began to illuminate its surroundings, a disk formed; a disk containing just enough stardust to someday form 8 planets and a lot of harder to categorize smaller bits.

While this star, which would come to be called “The Sun,” was busy forming, its nursery mates were similarly busy growing, glowing, and in some cases even going an extra step and exploding. This stellar nursery was filled with screaming stars that wept radio waves and threw off high energy jets as they tried to find their way onto the main sequence. While these stars wailed and grabbed at matter, they also traveled as a pack around the galaxy. While we can’t do more than guess at the Sun’s original orbital position, we know that today it takes about 135 million years for the Sun to orbit the galaxy. Let’s assume for a minute that the Sun emerged from the center of of that cluster. This would put it in a position to watch some of its nursery mates race ahead around the galaxy, take less time to orbit, while other of its nursery mates slowly fell behind, taking longer to orbit (and a few just explode themselves into oblivion as supernovae). After a few orbits and a few hundreds of millions of years, these differences in speed caused the fastest (and slowest) stars to fall out of the cluster, as their positions no longer made it possible for the casual observer to match them up with their cluster of origin. Over time, differences in orbital velocities drew more and more of the stars away from their siblings. Eventually, it became impossible to tell exactly which stars made up those sibling stars to the Sun.

The Sun, like its sisters and brothers, simply fell out of the cluster as it raced around the galaxy, just as a runner might fall away from the pack.

We are an orphan system, alone in the galaxy. Unlike the majority of stars, our Sun has no companion. Having escaped the chaos of our home, we are now simply alone.

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14 Comments

  1. Richard B. Drumm May 14, 2008 at 1:03 am #

    “…screaming stars that wept radio waves…”
    I just might have to send that off to Dr. Adams at the NRAO for his perusal.
    He’ll like that! :-D

    We are indeed alone, and it might be a good thing. Is planetary orbit stability hard to maintain in a binary system? Earth would be merrily trying to orbit the Sun while the Sun is wobbling around in response to the stellar companion. Could get messy?
    Rich in Charlottesville

  2. Zach May 14, 2008 at 7:17 am #

    Excellent!

    When I take a look at the astronomy picture of the day and see a nebula I try and think of it as a dynamic thing and imigine how it would evolve if I could see it over a long period of time.

    My imigination has been give a huge boost by your description of the evolution of stars in their ‘home’ nebulas.

    Thank you!

  3. Beth May 14, 2008 at 3:55 pm #

    Oooh! Now on those cold winter nights, I have another comparison to make. What a great way to describe the different stages of stellar development.

  4. Helio George May 15, 2008 at 10:03 pm #

    And to think some of that GMC gas and dust — some of which was forged in supernova stars — came me, but don’t call me Dusty.

    Slyly he asks, I wonder what color our Solar disk would have appeared with such likely bright blue-white neighbors illuminating it? :)

    Very nice image and statement. I did not know that it was about 7 billion years when the beginning began.

  5. Pat Hoppe May 15, 2008 at 11:36 pm #

    Just curious. What in the galaxy takes 135 million years to orbit the sun? (Line 7 of the last big paragraph)

  6. Doc Kinne May 16, 2008 at 1:03 am #

    >This stellar nursery was filled with screaming stars that wept radio waves.

    Damn, Pamela! Rising to the level of poetry here. Wow! That was an image that will stay with me.

  7. Wrye May 18, 2008 at 10:10 pm #

    I wonder, would it be possible to trace stars beginning in a particular cluster via their chemical composition? I suppose the ratios would be too varied at the levels we can detect. Barring that, there’s no Stellar DNA to trace parentage…

  8. pamela May 18, 2008 at 10:46 pm #

    Wrye – In theory, all the stars from the Sun’s stellar nursery should have the exact same composition, and in theory we should be able to identify the Sun’s siblings this way. The galaxy is a really big place however, and we may be searching for a while.

  9. Astrogeek May 21, 2008 at 1:39 pm #

    so do we know how long it takes (generally) for an open cluster to be ripped apart by the galactic tide (which is what we’re talking about here)?

    What about globular clusters? Why do they persist so much better? Is there a path from open cluster to globular cluster, or is it simply a matter of density?

  10. Stu May 22, 2008 at 3:03 pm #

    Very inspiring and absolutely beautiful piece of writing Pamela, thank you!

  11. Tony Sullivan June 2, 2008 at 3:26 pm #

    I agree with the other posts here that Dr. Gay’s article has some GREAT poetic imagery.

    I stumbled across the article in my search on how fast the sun orbits the galaxy. My search also came across another article from a 1999 announcement where the orbit was calculated at 226 million years instead of the 135 million years mentioned on this page. The other article for your persual is at http://www.chron.com/content/interactive/space/astronomy/news/1999/ds/990602.html.

    I share this data in order to provide an opportunity for further study and do not intend to detract in any way from Dr. Gay’s excellent article here.

  12. Syed Moin Doja August 24, 2008 at 6:43 pm #

    wow like everyone is saying theres real poetry here. Doctor you really are eloquent. also thanks for all the info about suns birth, now i know.

    4.10 a.m
    Calcutta, India.

  13. Rodd April 30, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    The sun and inner planets formed out of different “stuff”–the sun was (and stll is) almost all Hydrogen (some helium, while the inner planets are mostly Heavier elements. This is mysterious.

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  1. Carnival of Space #55 « Catholic Sensibility - May 22, 2008

    [...] Pamela reminds us that our solar system used to call a piece of an open cluster home. That humble birthplace has been long left behind, but we can still reminisce, can’t we? [...]

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