Our solar system is an amazing collection of stellar bodies, ranging from planets, moons, asteroids, and comets. These have long fascinated astronomers and civilizations like for tens of thousands of years – for when we looked to the night sky, we saw wonder and mystery. Today, modern innovations based on technological science and astronomical discoveries have revealed much, answering questions we’ve had for centuries. One of them is thus: how old is the solar system?
The age of the solar system is up to some speculation, along with its formation. There are a few theories on how it occurred. For now, we’ll stick to the most commonly accepted theory: The Nebular Hypothesis. Based on current scientific data and models, this is the likeliest answer to the big question.
As for the estimated age of the solar system, astronomers estimate it’s around 4.5 billion years old. Of course, there are more questions created by this answer: how do we know? How did we measure this? We’ll break it down below.
The Origins of the Solar System
Explaining the how and why of our solar system would take some doing. We’ll discuss this in depth in a different article, but for now, we’ll talk about how astronomers analyzed data to determine estimations of age.
There are quite a few ways astronomers have determined not only the age of the system, but how it began. One of the ways was by observing the formation of other systems and stars. While every solar system is created in its own unique way, there are similar patterns following each evolution.
Primarily, it all begins with a star. Our sun is the reason we have suitable living conditions here on earth, and also the reason other planets are created. Material starts to clump together, known as a “pre solar nebula,” and over the course of millions of years, the material gets closer and hotter, eventually leading to the creation of a star.
Once a star forms, the rest of the system falls into place. A star saturates the surrounding space with its wide gravitational rage and heavy elements, many which are necessary for building life.
Other clumps of material form and clump together, either becoming terrestrial (rocky) objects or gas giants. How these planets form are determined by their distance from the sun.
How each planet formed is still a matter of thesis and debate, although there are some fascinating ideas when determining the solar system age.
For example, the Giant Impact theory involves the Earth and Moon, specifically how the two came to be. For Earth, our world was likely a spinning mass of molten rock for millions of years. At some point, astronomers theorize a larger rocky object collided into Earth. The impact forced the objects to revolve around each other, slowly shaping what we know as the Moon today.
Gas giants came together in a different manner. During the solar system’s formation, elements like hydrogen and helium were vast in their quantities. The giants formed when they clumped together from their gravitational fields, retaining bodies of again, mostly hydrogen and helium. The distance from the sun meant the elements weren’t removed. The closer planets eventually became rocky, terrestrial bodies.
Measuring the Solar System Age
There’s more to discuss on the solar system’s formation, but we’ll get to that in another explanation. The formation does tell astronomers, however, the relative time at which these events occurred.
Beyond making observations with other system formations and our own, how else do we measure the solar system’s age?
There are several ways, but one of the more tried and true is examining isotopes. These isotopes maintain a half-life and overtime, will decay over the course of millions of years. Astronomers can examining the remaining age of the isotope to determine its age. By doing so, they discover isotopes having existed for billions of years.
Uranium, for instance, is one of the most reliable elements to measure, with decaying isotopes like U-238/U-235. These decay by, again, billions of years, providing insight into the age of the solar system. Astronomers and scientists find these elements present on Earth, which is one method to determine its age (again, 4.5 billion years or so).
This isn’t the only way to figure out the solar system age, though. While astronomers and scientists rely on observations from other systems and data gathered from our world, some of the best information comes from space.
Meteorites periodically land on Earth in different places around the world, and each one brings a wealth information giving us insight about its origin. Some of this information relates to the elements it’s comprised of, which also have isotopic decay. Scientists can look at the decay of the meteorites versus similar elements here on Earth, comparing them, acquiring an age. That’s a simplified way of looking at it, but it’s proven reliable to the scientific community.
Wow! Sounds complicated, and it is. There’s naturally a lot of things that go into determining how old our solar system is. But let’s give a quick summary of what you’ve learned so far:
- The solar system is around 4.5 billion years old.
- Astronomers and scientists determine this by observing the formation of other stars/solar systems.
- Scientists also take measurements from isotopes and their decay, generally found in material here on Earth.
- Other material like meteorites contain isotopes billions of years old which are remnants of the system’s creation.
- The solar system was created after the formation of our Sun, which created the necessary gravitational fields for orbit.
Our solar system is a fascinating collection of stellar neighbors, so it’s natural to wonder how it all got there. While the answer isn’t simple, it’s explainable by scientific measurements made by the astronomy community.
The next time you hear “how old is the solar system,” you can say with confidence “at least 4.5 billion years!” And, you’ll have an idea of how it happened.