How Water Protected Our Molecules

One would think that crafting a shield out of water wouldn’t do much good (not in medieval combat re-enactments, anyways). But that’s precisely what the molecules in the early Solar System – some of the same ones that you are made out of today, perhaps – may have done. In their case, protection from broadswords wasn’t as much of a concern as the effects of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.

UV light is pretty hard on molecules because it readily breaks them up into their constituent parts. Larger organic molecules that coalesced in the dusty disk out of which our planets formed billions of years ago would have been broken apart by the Sun’s rays, but calculations by two astronomers at the University of Michigan show that thousands of oceans worth of water present in a protoplanetary disk can shield other molecules from being broken up.

Edwin (Ted) Bergin and Thomas Bethell, both of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Michigan, calculated that in Sun-like systems the abundance of water early on can absorb much of the ultraviolet light from the central star. By shielding other molecules from being broken up, they continue to persist in the later stages of the disk’s development. In other words, these molecules hang around until the formation of planetesimals and planets, and this mechanism could have been guarded the constituents of life from the ravages of the Sun in our own Solar System.

Circumstellar disks modeled by Bergin and Bethell in their paper include DR Tau, AS 205A and AA Tau.

Bergin told Universe Today, “At present there have been upwards of 4 systems with water vapor observed.  All are consistent with our model. I understand that there are numerous other detections of water vapor by Spitzer but these have yet to be published. The water vapor that we see is continually replenished by high temperature chemistry in these systems, so you would not see any degradation.”

In systems like the Solar System, planets form out of a disk of dust and gas that surrounds the young star. This large, flat disk later solidifies into planets, comets and asteroids. Near the center of the disk, between 1 and 5 astronomical units, warm water vapor in the disk could “protect” molecules inside this layer from being broken apart by UV light.

H2O breaks down when exposed to UV light into hydrogen and hydroxide. The hydroxide can be further broken down into oxygen and hydrogen atoms. But water, unlike other molecules, reforms at a quick pace, replenishing the shield of water vapor.

Smaller dust grains within the disk capture some of the UV radiation in the early formation periods of a protoplanetary disk. Once these dust grains start to snowball into bigger pieces, though, the UV light filters through and breaks apart molecules in the inner portions of the disk, where planets are in their early stages of formation.

The previous model for how organic molecules persisted past this point suggested that comets from the outer portion of the disk somehow fall into the center, releasing water to absorb the harmful radiation. But this model didn’t explain the hydroxide measurements for the disks so far observed.

If enough water is present, which seems to be the case in a handful of disks observed by the Spitzer Space Telescope, these other molecules remain intact, and as a bonus the water present in the interior portions of the disk also sticks around.

Bergin told Universe Today, “There are other molecules that can shield themselves – CO and H2 – but these cannot shield other molecules as well (because they capture only a fraction of the spectrum of light). Water is the only one with a strong formation that can compensate for destruction. It then provides the full shielding for other species. It is unlikely that another molecule will do this.”

This mechanism would only protect water vapor and other molecules in the inner part of the disk, closest to the star.

“This will likely be active in the inner few AU — at some point say between 5-10 AU it will become inactive and things will be inhospitable for various species [of molecule],” Bergin said.

So, where does all of the water go once the planets form? The vapor closest to the star – within about 1 AU – eventually gets broken down by the starlight into hydrogen and oxygen. At about 3 AU from the star, the water could constitute part of the planets and asteroids that form in that region. It may have been such asteroids that carried water to the surface of the Earth during its early formation, filling up our oceans. Outside of this region, H2O is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen and blown into space, said Bergin.

When asked whether this protective shield of water was present in our own Solar System, Bergin answered, “When we say that there were thousands of oceans of water vapor in the habitable zone, we mean around Sun-like stars.  Presumably this was present around our Sun as well.”

Source: Physorg, Science, email interview with Ted Bergin

Nicholos Wethington

I started writing for Universe Today in September 2007, and have loved every second of it since! Astronomy and science are fascinating for me to learn and write about, and it makes me happy to share my passion for science with others. In addition to the science writing, I'm a full-time bicycle mechanic and the two balance nicely, as I get to work with my hands for part of the day, and my head the other part (some of the topics are a stretch for me to wrap my head around, too!).

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