Understanding the history and formation of the Solar System and the universe allows us to understand our own origins here on Earth. We group our research into areas of expertise, you can find out more about each area below.
Prehistory of the Solar System
Our Solar System has a long history, a history that we’re only just starting to understand. Now, with the help of presolar grains, we are starting to discover how the Solar System was formed. We study the interstellar dust preserved in primitive meteorites to understand the formation of the chemical elements and processes that occur in the interstellar medium.
Our micrometer-sized presolar grain samples condensed in the expanding envelopes of dying stars and travelled through interstellar space to survive the early stages of the Solar System’s formation. They were incorporated into the dust that forms the matrix of chondritic meteorites which were preserved in primitive meteorites. These samples allow us to conduct studies that further our understanding of late-stage stellar evolution, molecular cloud processes and the origin of the Solar System.
Formation and early evolution of the Solar System
Understanding and establishing a timeline for the formation of our Sun and its family of planets, asteroids, and comets is a research question that scientists have been working on since we first gazed critically into the skies.
Chondritic meteorites offer us insight into the evolution of the Solar System some 4.6 billion years ago. We study the particles that form them, such as chondrules and refractory inclusions, which helps us to unpick the physical and chemical processes that occurred within the protoplanetary disk that surrounded the young Sun.
Alongside this, asteroids offer us additional information about what happened during the early stages of our Solar System’s formation. Asteroids are formed by accretion of dust in the protoplanetary disk. Tens of thousands of meteorites from asteroids are known worldwide. These rocks carry information about the earliest geological activity that took place within the Solar System at the time the planets were forming, including reactions that record the presence of water, heating events, melting and core formation, and the effect of impacts resulting from asteroid collisions.
Asteroids and comets, contain volatile-rich components such as ices and organic material. These components contain large amounts of C, H, O, N and S – elements that are key in promoting the development of life in the Solar System. Through meteorite analysis, our group studies the volatile budget and isotopic composition of these elements to understand the origin and transfer of volatiles and organics in the early Solar System.
All of this understanding contributes to creating a timeline of events for the Solar System: from the formation of the first solid materials to the present day. We use a range of isotopic techniques to establish the timing of events including those that occurred in the nebula before accretion; formation of planetesimals; geologic processes on the first asteroids; melting and core formation on planets; and the impacts that shaped the surface of planetary bodies and that are responsible for the delivery of meteorites to the Earth.
The Moon and Mars
Over time fundamental processes have shaped the evolution of the terrestrial planets. We compare and contrast these processes by taking a closer look at the Moon and Mars which both preserve a record of bombardment and complex geological activity.
The Moon is an excellent record of the early geological evolution of a terrestrial planet, of inner Solar System impact bombardment, and of the solar and galactic environment throughout the last 4.5 billion years. It is also a witness-plate for the processes that affected the history of the Earth. In Manchester we combine chemical and chronological studies of lunar samples and remotely sensed measurements to better understand the Moon’s geological history.
Mars, on the other hand, has experienced a complex geological, hydrological and atmospheric history. Oceans were likely once present on its surface, and rivers carved valley networks into its volcanic crust. Prior to 4 billion years ago, its atmosphere was likely much thicker, and conditions on its surface may have been conducive for life.
Mars is the focus of much planetary exploration with orbiting satellites and surface landers and rovers revealing fascinating landscapes. We study samples of Mars that have fallen to Earth as meteorites in our laboratories using a variety of techniques to understand Mars’s past magmatic and atmospheric history. We also study images of the Martian surface to understand past fluvial processes and help develop advanced computer vision pattern recognition programs. This work is done in collaboration with the Image Analysis group in the School of Medicine.
Volatile evolution of terrestrial planets
Identifying the mechanisms by which the terrestrial planets acquired, retained and redistributed volatiles and highly incompatible elements remains a fundamental challenge in the Earth and planetary sciences. Our group is helping to uncover the divergent histories of the planets Mars and Earth through the evolution of their noble gases and halogen elements. We also investigate the water and halogen inventory of the Moon’s interior through sample studies to assess the amount and origin of volatile elements trapped deep inside our natural satellite.
Understanding the origin and processing of the material that formed the Earth, including the evolution and structure of the mantle, the role of fluids and volatiles, and the record of past climate change is the focus of our work on Earth systems.
We take a closer look at climate change through investigating the record of Earth’s past climatic changes and the potential to sequester CO2 in geological structures. We also study the origins and behaviour of modern crustal fluids and the record of ancient crustal fluids preserved in mineral deposits. This is combined with research into the geochemistry of the mantle to further our understanding of the formation of the materials that make up the Earth and the evolution of its structure.
Earth and Solar System
Find out more about our group on our ‘Earth and Solar System’ public engagement webpages.
Our research outputs
We regularly have our work published in world-leading journals. See our collated list.