Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
You may recall the famous words of Carl Sagan: “We’re made of star stuff.” Turns out we’re not made of just any old star stuff. No, a great deal of our stuff came from one star in particular, a giant star named Coatlicue that went supernova about 4.5 billion years ago.
I first saw this name in a recent article from Scientific American called “The New Biography of the Sun,” which in turn referenced a paper from the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics titled “Solar System Genealogy Revealed by Extinct Short-Lived Radionuclides in Meteorites.”
In short, certain radioactive isotopes found in our Solar System can be thought of as our Solar System’s D.N.A. The authors of that “Solar System Geneaology” paper used some of those isotopes (most notably aluminum-26) to try to reconstruct our Sun’s family tree and give us some idea about what the Sun’s “mother” must have been like.
Coatlicue would have been a giant star, approximately 30 times as massive as our Sun, ensconced within a giant molecular cloud along with other giant star siblings. This is sort of like what we see today with the stars of the Trapezium inside the Orion Nebula.
About 4.5 billion years ago, Coatlicue went supernova. The explosion accomplished two things: it seeded the surrounding molecular clouds with heavy elements (like aluminum-26) and, because of the force of the explosion, caused those molecular clouds to compress, triggering new star formation.
I have to confess that I feel like there’s a lot of guesswork and speculation going on here about how, specifically, Coatlicue died and how, specifically, the Sun and its planets were born. But the general idea that the death of one star triggers the formation of others is consistent with what we already know about star formation, so it makes sense to me that something like this must have happened for our own Solar System.
As for the name Coatlicue (which I believe is pronounced Kwat-LEE-kway), that comes from Aztec mythology. Coatlicue was the mother of the Sun. So that makes sense. In the myth, Coatlicue was also the mother of the stars, which actually sort of matches up with the science too. That supernova explosion 4.5 billion years ago would have triggered the formation of other stars—perhaps several hundred of them—in addition to our own Sun.
I didn’t see this in either Scientific American or that “Solar System Genealogy” paper, but I’d like to believe Coatlicue might not have been totally destroyed in that supernova. Perhaps some remnant is still out there, living on as a neutron star or a black hole or something. If so, I doubt we’ll ever find it, but if I know anything about mothers, I’m sure our Sun still hears from Coatlicue every now and then.