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date: 25 March 2023

Presolar Grainslocked

Presolar Grainslocked

  • Nan LiuNan LiuDepartment of Physics and McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Presolar grains are dust produced by stars that died before the formation of the Earth’s solar system. Stardust grains condense out of cooling gas lost via stellar winds from the surface of low-mass stars and stellar explosions and become a constituent of interstellar medium (ISM). About 4.6 Ga, a molecular cloud in the ISM collapsed to form the solar system, during which some primordial stardust grains from the ISM survived and were incorporated into small bodies formed in the early solar system. Some of these small solar system bodies, including asteroids and comets, escaped planet formation and have remained minimally altered, thus preserving their initially incorporated presolar grains. Fragments of asteroids and comets are collected on Earth as interplanetary dust particles (IDPs) and meteorites. Presolar grains have been found in primitive IDPs and chondrites—stony meteorites that have not been modified by either melting or differentiation of their parent bodies.

Presolar grains, typically less than a few μm, are identified in primitive extraterrestrial materials by their unique isotopic signatures, revealing the effects of galactic chemical evolution (GCE), stellar nucleosynthesis, and cosmic ray exposure. Comparisons of presolar grain isotope data with stellar observations and nucleosynthesis model calculations suggest that presolar grains were dominantly sourced from asymptotic giant branch stars and core-collapse supernovae, although there are still ambiguities in assigning the type of star to some groups of grains. So far, various presolar phases have been identified such as corundum, olivine, and silicon carbide, reflecting diverse condensation environments in different types of stars. The abundances of different presolar phases in primitive extraterrestrial materials vary widely, ranging from a few percent for presolar silicates to a few parts per million for presolar oxides.

Presolar grain studies rely on the synergy between astronomy, astrophysics, nuclear physics, and cosmochemistry. To understand the stellar sources of presolar grains, it is important to compare isotope data of presolar grains to astronomical observations for different types of stellar objects. When such astronomical observations are unavailable, stellar nucleosynthesis models must be relied upon, which require inputs of (a) initial stellar composition estimated based on solar system nuclide abundances, (b) stellar evolution models, and (c) nuclear reaction rates determined by theories and laboratory experiments. Once the stellar source of a group of presolar grains is ascertained, isotope information extracted from the grains can then be used to constrain stellar mixing processes, nuclear reaction rates, GCE, and the ISM residence times of the grains. In addition, crystal structures and chemical compositions of presolar grains can provide information to infer dust condensation conditions in their parent stars, while abundances of presolar grains in primitive chondrites can help constrain secondary processing experienced by the parent asteroids of their host chondrites.

Since the discovery of presolar grains in meteorites in 1980s, a diverse array of information about stars and GCE has been gleaned by studying them. Technological advances will likely allow for the discovery of additional types of presolar grains and analysis of smaller, more typical presolar grains in the future.


  • Planetary Chemistry and Cosmochemistry