Group: Andrew Wileniec, Brianna Smith, Kris Delaney, Jordan Scheirich, Wendy Corden

Theories Through the Ages: How Old is The Solar System?





Figure 1: Illustration of the Solar System

The age of the Solar System has been studied throughout the world for hundreds of years and is a question that will likely never have an answer with complete certainty. Existence as we know it, did not develop from a timeline. Mankind has had an intrinsic motivation to know how we came to be, where we came from, and why we are here existing. Attempts have been made throughout the course of history into how the solar system formed, specifically how long formation would have occurred. Without the use of something convenient such as time travel, academics were restricted to the information available to them. This article will touch on some of the more prevalent theories pertaining to the age of the solar system, and divulge into their utility over the course of human history. Solar System theories will be divided pertaining to age and formation into two categories, early attempts and recent theories. The early attempts such as those from biblical eras, will briefly discuss theories that have been disproven. While more recent theories developed in the latter portion of human existence, will reflect those that are still relevant today. Five main theories presented are; Vortex, Nebular, Patterson, Apollo Missions, and Late Heavy Bombardment. Our team chose to focus on those five because, they each contribute aspects into the general question of the age of the solar system – as well as providing insight into the ever large daunting task of establishing a definitive age with limited resources. Through these theoretical advances, theories are able to be evaluated and reconsidered, allowing progressive understanding in regards to the age of the Solar System.

Vortex Theory

Vortex Theory was a theory developed by Rene Descartes in 1644 and was later expanded upon by Christiaan Huygens between 1669 and 1690. 1  The theory stated that the universe was made up of a network of swirling vortices. This assertion was based on Descartes belief that the universe was filled with ether and matter. The concept of vortices intended to explain some forms of motion in space.2 Namely, an object in space will travel in a straight line unless influenced by another force. That is, a collision between two objects may result in a circular influence on either of the objects. 3 This theory was applied on a universal scale; however, it also could explain why circular motion occurs in the Solar System.  For example, a planet may be pushed in a circular motion due to the pressure of smaller condensed matter on the outside of the vortex. According to the Vortex theory, the solar system was also formed as a result of these vortices. It was speculated that matter circling the vortex would move towards the center and eventually condense to form the Sun. The additional matter would also condense and form the planets we know today.

Figure 2: An illustration of Descartes network of swirling vortices

Descartes theory was harshly criticized and was later disproved by Isaac Newton.  While this theory did not necessarily estimate the age of the solar system, it did endorse the heliocentric model.  The heliocentric model is what would influence later solar system models which may provide an insight into the age of the solar system.


The Nebular Hypothesis

Currently, the most commonly accepted theory is the Nebular Hypothesis. This theory states that the objects in our Solar System, like the stars and the planets, were formed from nebulous material over 4.5 billion years ago. 6 The theory of the Solar System emerging from a nebula was originally proposed by Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg in 1734. Soon after, Immanuel Kant built off of Swedenborg’s work to develop the theory further and published the Nebular Hypothesis in his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755).6 In his disquisition, Kant argued that gaseous clouds rotate slowly, eventually collapsing and flattening due to both gravity and the forming stars and planets. Despite this theory being published in the mid seventeen hundreds, the theory is still considered the most widely accepted, even today.

Figure 3: An illustration of the process of the solar system formation process according to The Nebular Hypothesis

An In-Depth Look at the Nebular Hypothesis

The Nebular Hypothesis is currently the most commonly accepted theory for the origin of the Solar System.7 According to the Nebular Hypothesis, the sun and planets in our Solar System started out as a giant, dense cloud of molecular hydrogen. These clouds are gravitationally unstable and as a result, they collapse easily. Approximately 4.57 billion years ago, something occurred that caused this cloud to collapse.7 It’s possible this collapse could have been triggered by a passing star, or even shock waves from a Supernova. Nevertheless, the result was the same: a gravitational collapse at the cloud’s center. After this collapse, clusters of dust and gas began collecting in denser areas. These denser regions pulled in more matter and the conservation of momentum caused this matter to rotate. In addition to this, increasing pressure causes the matter to heat up.6, 7

The majority of material ended up in the center, while the remaining matter flattened out and circled around it. The matter in the middle would eventually turn into the Sun, while the material surrounding the Sun would form into the protoplanetary disc. The planets of our Solar System would later form through dust and gas accretion.7

As a result of high boiling points, only materials such as metal and rock could exist as a solid near the Sun. Hence, the planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars reside closest to the Sun. In contrast, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune form beyond the Frost Line, a location cool enough for frozen, volatile compounds to remain solid. In a nutshell, this is the Nebular Hypothesis.7

Clair Cameron Patterson

Clair Cameron Patterson was responsible for determining the current estimated age of the Solar System. For hundreds of years, the age of the solar system was always being debated and changed. These dates were all incorrect but they stood the test of time until Clair Cameron Patterson showed up on the scene.

Flash forward to 1947. Clair Patterson is a chemist Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. He is being mentored by Harrison Brown (a nuclear chemist). Brown tasks Patterson with determining the age of the Earth by determining the ratio of uranium to lead in an old rock, such as a meteorite fragment. Brown had worked up a mathematical equation that could determine the age of the Earth but in order to do so, he would need to analyze rock samples 1000 times smaller than anyone had measured before. In order to do this, a mass spectrometer would need to be used.4 A mass spectrometer produces charged particles (ions) from the chemical substances that are to be analyzed; it then uses electric and magnetic fields to measure the mass (weight) of the charged particles. Brown gave this task to Patterson because he had experience using a mass spectrometer.4

Interesting Fact:

Patterson partnered with fellow Ph.D. student George Tilton to conduct these experiments. Patterson tested the lead and Tilton tested the uranium. They decided to do a test run first with known results to make sure that their methods and Brown’s calculation were correct. The numbers ended up askew because of outside contamination. Tilton moved to a lab that had never tested uranium and his numbers then emerged spotlessly. Patterson didn’t have much luck. After scrubbing glassware and using distilled water, his numbers were still askew. In an attempt to erase all contamination, Patterson ended up creating the world’s first Ultra Clean Lab. He was then able to get the same results for the test run that were originally given.4

In 1953, Patterson followed Brown to the California Institute of Technology where he then built the world’s cleanest laboratory. He was able to prepare the samples that would be put into the mass spectrometer. When the samples were ready, he took them to the Argonne National Laboratory to use the mass spectrometer to be tested. The machine divulged numbers that Patterson put into Brown’s calculation. He was then able to estimate that the age of the Earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old.4, 5

When we compare that age to the age of the universe and place them on a cosmic calendar8 (figure 4), we can see that while everything in the universe’s history happened somewhat far apart, our Sun and planets formed in quick succession. This, in turn, also proves that the Nebular Hypothesis is most likely the proper hypothesis that states how the Solar System was formed.

Figure 4: C. Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (Random House, Estados Unidos, 1977).8 This figure shows the respective ages of objects in the universe, when they were formed, and if they were to be condensed into one calendar year. The Big Bang happened on January 1st; the Milky Way Galaxy was formed in March; our Solar System wasn’t formed until August; single celled organisms appeared in September; multi-cellular organisms appeared in November; most of the Earth’s known history happens in December; our human ancestors didn’t walk upright until 9:24pm on December 31st; the majority of our own human history happens within the last few minutes of December 31st.

Apollo missions

Apollo 11 and 12

During the first two apollo missions set out by NASA in the late 1960’s and early 1970s, humanity had their first opportunity to collect samples from a foreign terrestrial body known as our satellite, the moon.9 This material was then brought back to Earth. Some of this debris was from impacts of asteroids colliding into the moon.  It was then tested for various reasons. Scientists first studied whether these rock specimens would be harmful to plants, bugs or animals before they were directly in contact with the specimens themselves. According to the second Apollo mission (Apollo 12), a rock called Rock 13, was carbon dated back to 4.6 million years of age providing insight that the solar system could at least be that old. This dates back to what is believed to be the formation of the Solar System when it was still a protoplanetary disk.

Apollo 15 and 16

During the fifth (1971)  and sixth (1972) manned apollo 15 and 16 NASA missions that landed on the the moon, debris was collected from many craters and basins.10, 11 Two of them, can be seen with the naked eye from here on Earth and are called Mare Imbrium and Mare Serenitatis. This debris was collected to later be examined for determining the age of these basins. Through carbon dating from material gathered, off the moon and some from Earth, scientists were able to determine that meteors hit the moon and the four inner terrestrial planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, during a certain time frame.12, 14 The moon has no atmosphere so these samples were easier to examine because no erosion occurred. On Earth, there is an active erosion cycle, and tectonic plate system as well as other natural phenomenon that has over time and continually deleted materials that would help in determining catastrophic events from the past.12 Scientists can not find any geological evidence dating past 3.5 billion years ago. The Earth does have some evidence but the moon is a fresh playing field for astronomers and scientists.

Apollo 17

The seventh and last mission that NASA sent to the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972.13 It lasted twelve days, making it the longest of the Apollo missions and the largest sample of lunar rock was collected. This mission was set up to get more samples of the lunar basins material. Mare Imbrium is believed to be the youngest basin on the moon out of the two huge basins explored and it is believed that this impact may have covered the older impacts with new debris. Therefore, apparent ages of previous samples collected could have been “reset” by events occurring after them. The Mare Imbrium basin was formed from an asteroid that collided with the moon roughly 3.9 billion years ago but Mare Serenitatis may be an older basin.

Figure 5: Mare Imbrium is a huge basin on the moon and next to it is Mare Serenitatis. During the Apollo missions debris from each was collected and both were dated to the same time frame. However, there is controversy with this as it is believed that Serenitatis is older than Imbrium and Imbrium debris covered it.10, 11, 14, 15

Late Bombardment

According to other theories throughout time, the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago. The late heavy bombardment theory is estimated to have happened  3.8 to 4.1 billion years ago.12, 14 Due to specimens of rock retrieved during the Apollo Missions, scientists were able to study the debris from two of the biggest basins on the moon and conclude that at one point there was a huge asteroid shower that collided with the four inner terrestrial planets. This is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment or Lunar Cataclysm. Early history of the solar system was an aggressive battlefield among planets and other large protoplanets. This theory gives proof that the solar system was forming or already formed in that time era.

This event is believed to have occurred due to the four giant gaseous planets orbiting the outer portion of our solar system. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were still chaotic in the sense that they were changing their orbital path around the sun. This caused asteroids and comets from the asteroid and/or the Kuiper belt to propel inward towards the center of our solar system. The four terrestrial planets, as well as the Earth’s moon, became victims of this bombardment.

The moon provided evidence of Lunar Cataclysm. As outlined in the Apollo missions, the moon has many craters and basins but no atmosphere.9, 10, 11, 13 This allowed scientists and astronauts with many samples to outline how big, when space debris collided into it, and how old the basins were.

However, this theory has been under scrutiny due to various factors. It was believed that basins on the moon came from a large meteor shower but there is speculation that the youngest known basin, Imbrium, may have covered other basins upon impact (meteor impacting moon).15 This means that only Imbrium material was collected and analyzed. Older debris would be underneath Imbrium rubble. So the basin Serenitatis may be much older than originally thought and there may not have been a Late Heavy Bombardment theory. If this is true, meteors may have hit the moon over a period of time rather than all at once. Imbrium and Serenitatis may be 50 million years apart and throughout this time period thirty other basins have formed. Therefore, the basin Mare Serenitatis would be older than 4.1 billions years of age.

Protoplanetary Disks

A protoplanetary disk, also known as an accretion disk, is made up of dense gas and dust; this surrounds a newly formed star which is in the centre of the disk.6, 7, 16 Proto Planets and planetoids still existed a half a billion years after our solar system formed. These large bodies were believed to still have been colliding with the current planets that can be seen today. Saturn and Jupiter also still had a huge influence on these bodies before 4.1 billion years ago. Planetoids and protoplanets would still be colliding at this point in time. Therefore, some of the planet’s surfaces give evidence to how old the Solar System may be!

Figure 6 The gaps in question (Image credit: ESO). 17 A protoplanetary disc surrounding the HL Tauri. This image taken my ALMA reveals the substructures within the disc, while exhibiting the possible positions of the planets forming within the dark sections of the system.


Research is never stagnant, always progressing in order to fill the void of persistent discovery. In order for progressive research to enrich, many dedicate a lifetime pursuing a desire to establish a credible theory. That passion is what motivated Clair Patterson to determine the age of the earth from a ratio of uranium to lead using old rock samples. Utilizing rock samples to determine age is common practice. The Apollo missions used a process similar to the way in which Patterson determined the age of the earth. Samples of moon debris were returned to earth and evaluated (using carbon dating), for mineral content to determine the age of the moon. Nebular hypothesis, the most commonly accepted theory for the age of the solar system – was first theorized almost four-hundred years ago. It allowed for knowledge into protoplanetary disks, furthermore researchers believe planets in our solar system have further evidence on their surfaces relating to solar system age.  A discovery like this would not have been possible without the Nebular hypothesis. Vortex theory’s proposition is similar to that of Nebular, as both theories involved condensing matter into formation. From the theories within the article, theoretical advancement is displayed through disproving those which are mistaken and building on theories that are accurate. Allowing progressive understanding to flourish, through reevaluation and reconsideration. Technological advancement will become a vital component as we push the boundaries of our understanding into the age of the solar system.


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4. L. Reilly, Mental Floss (2017).

5. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey(Cosmos Studios, United States, 2014).

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8. C. Sagan, The dragons of Eden: speculations on the evolution of human intelligence, (Random House, Estados Unidos, 1977).

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