Formation and evolution of the Solar System

Formation and evolution of the Solar System
The Solar System formed 4.568 billion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a region within a large molecular cloud. This initial cloud was likely several light-years across and probably birthed several stars. As is typical of molecular clouds, this one consisted mostly of hydrogen, with some helium, and small amounts of heavier elements fused by previous generations of stars. As the region that would become the Solar System, known as the pre-solar nebula, collapsed, conservation of angular momentum caused it to rotate faster. The centre, where most of the mass collected, became increasingly hotter than the surrounding disc. As the contracting nebula rotated faster, it began to flatten into a protoplanetary disc with a diameter of roughly 200 AU and a hot, dense protostar at the centre. The planets formed by accretion from this disc, in which dust and gas gravitationally attracted each other, coalescing to form ever larger bodies. Hundreds of protoplanets may have existed in the early Solar System, but they either merged or were destroyed, leaving the planets, dwarf planets, and leftover minor bodies.

Due to their higher boiling points, only metals and silicates could exist in the warm inner Solar System close to the Sun, and these would form the rocky planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Since metallic elements only comprised a very small fraction of the solar nebula, the terrestrial planets could not grow very large. The gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) formed further out, beyond the frost line, the point between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where material is cool enough for volatile icy compounds to remain solid. The ices that formed these planets were more plentiful than the metals and silicates that formed the terrestrial inner planets, allowing them to grow massive enough to capture large atmospheres of hydrogen and helium, the lightest and most abundant elements. Leftover debris that never became planets congregated in regions such as the asteroid belt, Kuiper belt, and Oort cloud.

Within 50 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the centre of the protostar became great enough for it to begin thermonuclear fusion. The temperature, reaction rate, pressure, and density increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved: the thermal pressure equaled the force of gravity. At this point the Sun became a main-sequence star. Solar wind from the Sun created the heliosphere and swept away the remaining gas and dust from the protoplanetary disc into interstellar space, ending the planetary formation process.

The Solar System will remain roughly as we know it today until the hydrogen in the core of the Sun has been entirely converted to helium, which will occur roughly 5.4 billion years from now. This will mark the end of the Sun's main-sequence life. At this time, the core of the Sun will collapse, and the energy output will be much greater than at present. The outer layers of the Sun will expand to roughly up to 260 times its current diameter and the Sun will become a red giant. Because of its vastly increased surface area, the surface of the Sun will be considerably cooler than it is on the main sequence (2600 K at the coolest). The expanding Sun is expected to vaporize Mercury and Venus and render the Earth uninhabitable, as the habitable zone moves out to the orbit of Mars. Eventually, the core will be hot enough for helium fusion to begin in the core; the Sun will burn helium for a fraction of the time it burned hydrogen in the core. The Sun is not massive enough to commence fusion of heavier elements, and nuclear reactions in the core will dwindle. Its outer layers will fall away into space, leaving a white dwarf, an extraordinarily dense object, half the original mass of the Sun but only the size of the Earth. The ejected outer layers will form what is known as a planetary nebula, returning some of the material that formed the Sun—but now enriched with heavier elements like carbon—to the interstellar medium.

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