Questioning the Impact Theory: What Really Killed the Dinosaurs?

About sixty five and a half million years ago, the Earth suffered its largest known cosmic impact. An asteroid or comet nucleus about 10 km in diameter slammed into what is now the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. It gouged out a crater 180 to 200 km in diameter: nearly twice as large as the prominent crater Copernicus on Earth’s moon. But did this impact really cause the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other forms of life? Many earth scientists are convinced that it did, but some harbor nagging doubts. The doubters have marshaled a growing body of evidence for another culprit; the enormous volcanic eruptions that produced the Deccan Traps formation in India. The skeptics recently presented their case at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Vancouver, Canada, on October 19.

The dinosaurs are the most well-known victims of the mass extinction event that ended the Cretaceous period. The extinction claimed almost all large vertebrates on land, at sea, or in the air, as well as numerous species of insects, plants, and aquatic invertebrates. At least 75% of all species then existing on Earth vanished in a short span in relation to the geological timescale of millions of years. The disaster is one of five global mass extinction events that paleontologists have identified over the tenure of complex life on Earth.

The hypothesis that the terminal Cretaceous extinction was caused by a cosmic impact has been the most popular explanation of this catastrophe among earth scientists and the public for several decades. It was proposed in 1980 by the father and son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez and their collaborators. The Alvarez team’s main line of evidence that an impact happened was an enrichment of the metal iridium in sediments dating roughly to the end of the Cretaceous. Iridium is rare in Earth’s crust, but common in meteorites. The link between iridium and impacts was first established by studies of the samples returned by the Apollo astronauts from the Moon.

Over the ensuing decades, evidence of an impact accumulated. In 1991, a team of scientists led by Dr. Alan Hildebrand of the Department of Planetary Sciences at Arizona University, published evidence of a gigantic buried impact crater, called Chicxulub, in Mexico. Other investigators found evidence of materials ejected by the impact, including glass spherules in Haiti and Mexico. Supporters of the impact hypothesis believe that vast amounts of dust hurtled into the stratosphere would have plunged the surface of the planet into the darkness and bitter cold of an “impact winter” lasting for at least months, and perhaps decades. Global ecosystems would have collapsed and mass extinction ensued. But, they’ve had a harder time finding evidence for these consequences than for the impact itself.

Doubters of the Alvarez hypothesis don’t question the ‘smoking gun’ evidence that an impact happened near the end of the Cretaceous, but they don’t think it was the main cause of the extinctions. For one thing, inferring the exact time of the impact from its putative geological traces has proved difficult. Dr. Gerta Keller of the Department of Geosciences of Princeton University, a prominent skeptic of the Alvarez hypothesis, has questioned estimates that make the impact and the extinctions simultaneous. Analyzing core samples taken from the Chicxulub crater, and glass spherule containing deposits in northeastern Mexico, she concludes that the Chicxulub impact preceded the mass extinction by 120,000 years and had little consequence for the fossil record of life in the geological formations which she studied. Of the five major mass extinction events in Earth’s history, she noted in a 2011 paper, none other than the terminal Cretaceous event has ever been even approximately associated with an impact. Several other large impact craters besides Chicxulub have been well studied by geologists and none is associated with fossil evidence of extinctions. On the other hand, four of the five major mass extinctions appear to have some connection with volcanic eruptions.

Keller and other Alvarez skeptics look to a major volcanic event that occurred towards the end of the Cretaceous as an alternate primary cause of the extinction. The Deccan Traps formation in central India is a plateau consisting of multiple layers of solidified lava 3500 m thick. Today, it extends over an area larger than all of France. It was once three times that large. It was formed in a series of three volcanic outbursts that may have been among the largest in Earth’s history. At the October conference, Dr. Theirry Adatte of the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Lausanne in France presented evidence that the second of these outbursts was by far the largest, and occurred over a period of 250,000 years prior to the end of the Cretaceous. During this period, 80% of the total lava thickness of the Deccan formation was deposited. The eruptions produced lava flows that may be the longest on Earth, extending more than 1500 km.

The blue area indicates the Deccan Traps, a massive remnant of immense volcanic eruptions at the end of the Cretaceous period that may have contributed to the terminal Cretaceous extinction. Credit: CamArchGrad, English Wikipedia Project
The blue area indicates the Deccan Traps, a massive remnant of immense volcanic eruptions at the end of the Cretaceous period that may have contributed to the terminal Cretaceous extinction. Credit: CamArchGrad, English Wikipedia Project

To illustrate the likely environmental consequences of such a super-eruption, Adatte invoked the worst volcanic catastrophe in human history. Over eight months from 1783-84 a major eruption in Laki, Iceland, deposited 14.3 square kilometers of lava and emitted an estimated 122 megatons of toxic sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. About a quarter of the people and half of the livestock in Iceland died. Across Europe the sky was darkened by a pall of haze, and acid rain fell. Europe and America experienced the most severe winter in history and global climate was disrupted for a decade. Millions of people died from the resulting drought and famine. The Laki incident was nonetheless miniscule by comparison with the second Deccan Traps outburst, which produced 1.5 million square kilometers of lava and an estimated 6,500- 17,000 gigatons of sulfur dioxide.

The Deccan Traps eruptions would also have emitted immense quantities of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a heat trapping greenhouse gas responsible for the oven-like temperatures of the planet Venus. It is released by the burning of fossil fuels and plays a major role in human-caused global warming on Earth. Thus Geller surmised that the Deccan Traps eruptions could have produced both periods of intense cold due to sulfur dioxide haze, and intense heat due to carbon dioxide induced global warming.

At the October conference she presented the results of her studies of geological formations in Tunisia that preserved a high resolution record of climate change during the time of the main pulse of Deccan Traps volcanic activity. Her evidence shows that near the onset of the 250,000 year pulse, there was a ‘hyperthermal’ period of rapid warming that increased ocean temperatures by 3-4 degrees Celsius. She claimed that temperatures remained elevated through the pulse culminating with a second ‘hyperthermal’ warming of the oceans by an additional 4-5 degrees Celsius. This second hyperthermal warming occurred within a 10,000 year period of mega-eruptions, which corresponded with the terminal Cretaceous extinction. The Chicxulub impact occurred during the 250,000 year pulse, but well prior to the extinctions and the hyperthermal event.

The debate over the relative importance of the Chicxulub impact and the Deccan Trap volcanoes in producing the terminal Cretaceous extinction isn’t over. In May of this year, a team headed by Dr. Johan Vellekoop at the Department of Earth Sciences at Ulrecht University in the Netherlands published evidence of a geologically brief episode of cooling which they claim as the first direct evidence of an “impact winter”. Whatever the outcome of the debate, it seems clear that the end of the Cretaceous, with its super-volcanoes and giant impacts, was not a good time for life on Earth.

References and Further Reading:
J. Coffey (2009) The Asteroid that Killed the Dinosaurs, Universe Today.

I. O’Neill (2009) (Were the Dinosaurs Really Wiped Out by an Asteroid? Possibly Not (Update), Universe Today.

G. Keller (2012), The Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass Extinction, Chicxulub Impact, and Deccan Volcanism, Earth and Life, J.A. Talent, Editor, Springer Science and Business media.

E. Klemetti (2013) Local and global impacts of the 1783-84 Laki eruption in Iceland, Wired Science Blogs/Eruptions

J. Vellekoop et al. (2014) Rapid short-term cooling following the Chicxulub impact at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 111(2) p. 7537-7541.

Asteroid That Dwarfed Dinosaur-Killer Punched Earth 3 Billion Years Ago, Study Says

Early in Earth’s history, a killer asteroid smashed a hole in our planet about 300 miles (500 kilometers) wide, which is greater than the driving distance between Washington and New York City, a new study says. The space rock set off a cycle of destruction that sounds like your worst nightmares.

That one reported collision 3.26 billion years ago made the Earth tremble, created earthquakes and set off tsunamis that were thousands of meters deep, according to a new research team. The size of this estimated destructor? About 37 kilometers (23 miles) wide, or about three times as wide as the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

“We knew it was big, but we didn’t know how big,” stated co-author Donald Lowe, a geologist at Stanford University and a co-author of the study, of the asteroid.

Evidence of the huge impact — the first one mapped from so long ago — comes from an examination of the Barberton Greenstone Belt in South Africa, which shows rocks and “crustal fractures” that are consistent with the idea of a giant impact, the scientists said. (The asteroid struck the Earth thousands of miles away, but where isn’t known.)

An satellite view of Barberton greenstone around the town of Barberton, South Africa. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat/U.S. Geological Survey/Jesse Allen
An satellite view of Barberton greenstone around the town of Barberton, South Africa. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landsat/U.S. Geological Survey/Jesse Allen

If confirmed, the asteroid could have been one of many that smacked Earth during what is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment period, which pummeled the solar system with debris between 3 billion and 4 billion years ago.

This one event could even have changed the way the Earth formed, the scientists added. For example, it could have been broken up our planet’s crust and tectonics, creating the plate tectonics we are familiar with today.

You can read more about the research in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems. It was led by Norman Sleep, a geophysicist at Stanford University.

Source: American Geophysical Union

Did Life On Earth As We Know It Come From ‘Geological Life’?

When it comes to life on Earth, we’re not sure if it came from the outside (transported by comets) or on the inside. A new theory focuses on the “interior ” theory, saying that microbes could have evolved from non-living matter such as chemical compounds in minerals and gases.

“Before biological life, one could say the early Earth had ‘geological life’. It may seem unusual to consider geology, involving inanimate rocks and minerals, as being alive. But what is life?” stated Terry Kee, a biochemist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom who participated in the research.

“Many people have failed to come up with a satisfactory answer to this question. So what we have done instead is to look at what life does, and all life forms use the same chemical processes that occur in a fuel cell to generate their energy.”

When thinking of a car, the research team says, they point out that fuel cells create electrical energy through the reaction of fuels and oxidants. This is called a “redox reaction”, which takes place when a molecule loses electrons and another molecule gains them.

In plants, photosynthesis creates electrical energy when carbon dioxide breaks down into sugars, and water is oxidized into molecular oxygen. (By contrast, humans oxidize sugars into carbon dioxide and break down the oxygen into water  — another electrical energy process.)

Now, let’s go a step further. Hydrothermal vents are hot geysers on the sea floor that are often considered an interesting spot for life studies. They host “extremophiles”, or forms of life that exist (“thrive” is the better word) despite a harsh environment. The researchers say these vents are a sort of “environmental fuel cell” because electrical energy is generated from redox reactions between seawater oxidants and hydrothermal vents.

And this is where the new research comes in. At the University of Leeds and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the researchers put iron and nickel in the place of the usual “platinum catalysts” found in fuel cells and electrical experiments.

Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa's south pole.
Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa’s south pole.

While the power was reduced, electricity did indeed flow. And while researchers still don’t know how non-life could have transformed into life, they say this is another step to understanding what happened. What’s more, it could be useful for future trips to other planets.

“These experiments simulate the electrical energy produced in geological systems, so we can also use this to simulate other planetary environments with liquid water, like Jupiter’s moon Europa or early Mars,” stated Laura Barge, a researcher from the NASA Astrobiology Institute* who led the research.

“With these techniques we could actually test whether any given hydrothermal system could produce enough energy to start life, or even, provide energetic habitats where life might still exist and could be detected by future missions.”

You can read about the research in the journal Astrobiology.

Source: University of Leeds

Disclosure: The author of this article is also a freelancer for the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Astronomers See Snow … In Space!

There’s an excellent chance of frost in this corner of the universe: astronomers have spotted a “snow line” in a baby solar system about 175 light-years away from Earth. The find is cool (literally and figuratively) in itself. More importantly, however, it could give us clues about how our own planet formed billions of years ago.

“[This] is extremely exciting because of what it tells us about the very early period in the history of our own solar system,” stated Chunhua Qi, a researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who led the research.

“We can now see previously hidden details about the frozen outer reaches of another solar system, one that has much in common with our own when it was less than 10 million years old,” he added.

The real deal enhanced-color picture of TW Hydrae is below, courtesy of a newly completed telescope: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile. It is designed to look at grains and other debris around forming solar systems. This snow line is huge, stretching far beyond the equivalent orbit of Neptune in our own solar system. See the circle? That’s Neptune’s orbit. The green stuff is the snow line. Look just how far the green goes past the orbit.

The carbon monoxide line as seen by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. The circle represents the equivalent orbit of Neptune when comparing it to our own solar system. Credit: Karin Oberg, Harvard University/University of Virginia
The carbon monoxide line on TW Hydrae as seen by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. The circle represents the equivalent orbit of Neptune when comparing it to our own solar system. Credit: Karin Oberg, Harvard University/University of Virginia

Young stars are typically surrounded by a cloud of gas and debris that, astronomers believe, can in many cases form into planets given enough time. Snow lines form in young solar systems in areas where the heat of the star isn’t enough to melt the substance. Water is the first substance to freeze around dust grains, followed by carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide.

It’s hard to spot them: “Snow lines form exclusively in the relatively narrow central plane of a protoplanetary disk. Above and below this region, stellar radiation keeps the gases warm, preventing them from forming ice,” the astronomers stated. In areas where dust and gas are more dense, the substances are insulated and can freeze — but it’s difficult to see the snow through the gas.

In this case, astronomers were able to spot the carbon monoxide snow because they looked for diazenylium, a molecule that is broken up in areas of carbon monoxide gas. Spotting it is a “proxy” for spots where the CO froze out, the astronomers said.

Here are some more of the many reasons this is exciting to astronomers:

  • Snow could help dust grains form faster into rocks and eventually, planets because it coats the grain surface into something more stickable;
  • Carbon monoxide is a requirement to create methanol, considered a building block of complex molecules and life;
  • The snow was actually spotted with only a small portion of ALMA’s 66 antennas while it was still under construction. Now that ALMA is complete, scientists are already eager to see what the telescope will turn up the next time it gazes at the system.

Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory

 

Russian Asteroid Explosion and Past Impactors Paint a Potentially Grim Future for Earth

The recent meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk brought to the forefront a topic that has worried astronomers for years, namely that an impactor from space could cause widespread human fatalities.  Indeed, the thousand+ injured recently in Russia was a wake-up call. Should humanity be worried about impactors? “Hell yes!” replied astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson to CNN’s F. Zakharia .

The geological and biological records attest to the fact that some impactors have played a major role in altering the evolution of life on Earth, particularly when the underlying terrestrial material at the impact site contains large amounts of carbonates and sulphates. The dating of certain large impact craters (50 km and greater) found on Earth have matched events such as the extinction of the Dinosaurs (Hildebrand 1993, however see also G. Keller’s alternative hypothesis).  Ironically, one could argue that humanity owes its emergence in part to the impactor that killed the Dinosaurs.

The Manicouagan impact crater in Quebec, Canada (image credit: NASA)
More than a dozen known impactors created 50 km sized craters (and larger) on Earth. One such example is the Manicouagan crater in Quebec, Canada.  The crater is 215 million years old, and exhibits an 85 km diameter (image credit: NASA).

Only rather recently did scientists begin to widely acknowledge that sizable impactors from space strike Earth.

“It was extremely important in that first intellectual step to recognize that, yes, indeed, very large objects do fall out of the sky and make holes in the ground,” said Eugene Shoemaker. Shoemaker was a co-discoverer of Shoemaker-Levy 9, which was a fragmented comet that hit Jupiter in 1994 (see video below).

Hildebrand 1993 likewise noted that, “the hypothesis that catastrophic impacts cause mass extinctions has been unpopular with many geologists … some geologists still regard the existence of ~140 known impact craters on the Earth as unproven despite compelling evidence to the contrary.”

Beyond the asteroid that struck Mexico 65 million years ago and helped end the reign of the dinosaurs, there are numerous lesser-known terrestrial impactors that also appear destructive given their size. For example, at least three sizable impactors struck Earth ~35 million years ago, one of which left a 90 km crater in Siberia (Popigai). At least two large impactors occurred near the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary (Morokweng and Mjolnir), and the latter may have been the catalyst for a tsunami that dwarfed the recent event in Japan (see also the simulation for the tsunami generated by the Chicxulub impactor below).

Glimsdal et al. 2007 note, “it is clear that both the geological consequences and the tsunami of an impact of a large asteroid are orders off magnitude larger than those of even the largest earthquakes recorded.”

However, in the CNN interview Neil deGrasse Tyson remarked that we’ll presumably identify the larger impactors ahead of time, giving humanity the opportunity to enact a plan to (hopefully) deal with the matter.   Yet he added that often we’re unable to identify smaller objects in advance, and that is problematic.  The meteor that exploded over the Urals a few weeks ago is an example.

Sketch of the ensuing Tsunami caused by an impactor from Space (image credit: binouse49/devianart).
An artist’s sketch of a tsunami which can be potentially generated by an asteroid/comet impactor (image credit: binouse49/deviantart).

In recent human history the Tunguska event, and the asteroid that recently exploded over Chelyabinsk, are reminders of the havoc that even smaller-sized objects can cause. The Tunguska event is presumed to be a meteor that exploded in 1908 over a remote forested area in Siberia, and was sufficiently powerful to topple millions of trees (see image below).  Had the event occurred over a city it may have caused numerous fatalities.

Mark Boslough, a scientist who studied Tunguska noted, “That such a small object can do this kind of destruction suggests that smaller asteroids are something to consider … such collisions are not as improbable as we believed. We should be making more efforts at detecting the smaller ones than we have till now.” 

Neil deGrasse Tyson hinted that humanity was rather lucky that the recent Russian fireball exploded about 20 miles up in the atmosphere, as its energy content was about 30 times larger than the Hiroshima explosion.  It should be noted that the potential negative outcome from smaller impactors increases in concert with an increasing human population.

The Tungunska impactor is thought to have felled millions of trees in Siberia in 1908 (image credit: Kulik).
In 1908 the Tunguska impactor toppled millions of trees in a rather remote part of Siberia (image credit: Kulik).  Had the object exploded over a city, the effects may have been catastrophic.

So how often do large bodies strike Earth, and is the next catastrophic impactor eminent? Do such events happen on a periodic basis? Scientists have been debating those questions and no consensus has emerged. Certain researchers advocate that large impactors (leaving craters greater than 35 km) strike Earth with a period of approximately 26-35 million years.

The putative periodicity  (i.e., the Shiva hypothesis) is often linked to the Sun’s vertical oscillations through the plane of the Milky Way as it revolves around the Galaxy, although that scenario is likewise debated (as is many of the assertions put forth in this article). The Sun’s motion through the denser part of the Galactic plane is believed to trigger a comet shower from the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is theorized to be a halo of loosely-bound comets that encompasses the periphery of the Solar System. Essentially, there exists a main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, a belt of comets and icy bodies located beyond Neptune called the Kuiper belt, and then the Oort Cloud.  A lower-mass companion to the Sun was likewise considered as a perturbing source of Oort Cloud comets (“The Nemesis Affair” by D. Raup).

A belt of comets called the Oort Cloud is theorized to encircle the Solar system  (image credit: NASA/JPL).
A halo of comets designated the Oort Cloud is theorized to encircle the periphery of the Solar System, and reputedly acts as a reservoir for objects that may become terrestrial impactors (image credit: NASA/JPL).

The aforementioned theory pertains principally to periodic comets showers, however, what mechanism can explain how asteroids exit their otherwise benign orbits in the belt and enter the inner solar system as Earth-crossers? One potential (stochastic) scenario is that asteroids are ejected from the belt via interactions with the planets through orbital resonances.  Evidence for that scenario is present in the image below, which shows that regions in the belt coincident with certain resonances are nearly depleted of asteroids.  A similar trend is seen in the distribution of icy bodies in the Kuiper belt, where Neptune (rather than say Mars or Jupiter) may be the principal scattering body.  Note that even asteroids/comets not initially near a resonance can migrate into one by various means (e.g., the Yarkovsky effect).

Indeed, if an asteroid in the belt were to breakup (e.g., collision) near a resonance, it would send numerous projectiles streaming into the inner solar system.  That may help partly explain the potential presence of asteroid showers (e.g., the Boltysh and Chicxulub craters both date to near 65 million years ago).   In 2007, a team argued that the asteroid which helped end the reign of the Dinosaurs 65 million years ago entered an Earth-crossing orbit via resonances. Furthermore, they noted that asteroid 298 Baptistina is a fragment of that Dinosaur exterminator, and it can be viewed in the present orbiting ~2 AU from the Sun.  The team’s specific assertions are being debated, however perhaps more importantly: the underlying transport mechanism that delivers asteroids from the belt into Earth-crossing orbits appears well-supported by the evidence.

Kirkwood Gaps, histogram of asteroids as a function of their average distance from the Sun.  Regions deplete of asteroids are called Kirkwood Gaps, and those bodies may have been escavated from the main belt owing to orbital resonances (image credit: Alan Chamberlain, JPL/Caltech).
A histogram featuring the number of asteroids as a function of their average distance from the Sun. Regions depleted of asteroids are often coincident with orbital resonances, the latter being a mechanism by which objects in the belt can be scattered into enter Earth-crossing orbits (image credit: Alan Chamberlain, JPL/Caltech).

Thus it appears that the terrestrial impact record may be tied to periodic and random phenomena, and comet/asteroid showers can stem from both.  However, reconstructing that terrestrial impact record is rather difficult as Earth is geologically active (by comparison to the present Moon where craters from the past are typically well preserved).  Thus smaller and older impactors are undersampled.  The impact record is also incomplete since a sizable fraction of impactors strike the ocean.  Nevertheless, an estimated frequency curve for terrestrial impacts as deduced by Rampino and Haggerty 1996 is reproduced below.  Note that there is considerable uncertainty in such determinations, and the y-axis in the figure highlights the “Typical Impact Interval”.

Estimated frequency of impacts as a function of age, diameter, and energy yield.  Results assume an impact speed of 20 km/s and density of 3 g/cm^3 (image credit: Fig. 2 from Rampino & Haggerty 1996, NASA ADS/Springer).
Estimated frequency of impactors as a function of diameter, energy yield, and typical impact interval. Results assume an impact speed of 20 km/s and density of 3 g/cm^3 (image credit: Fig. 2 from Rampino and Haggerty 1996, NASA ADS/Springer).

In sum, as noted by Eugene Shoemaker, large objects do indeed fall out of the sky and cause damage. It is unclear when in the near or distant future humanity will be forced to rise to the challenge and counter an incoming larger impactor, or again deal with the consequences of a smaller impactor that went undetected and caused human injuries (the estimated probabilities aren’t reassuring given their uncertainty and what’s in jeopardy).  Humanity’s technological progress and scientific research must continue unabated (and even accelerated), thereby affording us the tools to better tackle the described situation when it arises.

Is discussion of this topic fear mongering and alarmist in nature? The answer should be obvious given the fireball explosion that happened recently over the Ural mountains, the Tunguska event, and past impactors.  Given the stakes excessive vigilance is warranted.

Fareed Zakharia’s discussion with Neil deGrasse Tyson is below.

The interested reader desiring additional information will find the following pertinent: the Earth Impact Database, Hildebrand 1993Rampino and Haggerty 1996Stothers et al. 2006, Glimsdal et al. 2007Bottke et al. 2007Jetsu 2011, G. Keller’s discussion concerning the end of the Dinosaurs, “T. rex and the Crater of Doom” by W. Alvarez, “The Nemesis Affair” by D. Raup, “Collision Earth! The Threat from Outer Space” by P. Grego.  **Note that there is a diverse spectrum of opinions on nearly all the topics discussed here, and our understanding is constantly evolving.  There is much research to be done.

What Craters on the Moon Teach Us About Earth

When the Moon was receiving its highest number of impacts, so was Earth. Credit: Dan Durda

Some questions about our own planet are best answered by looking someplace else entirely… in the case of impact craters and when, how and how often they were formed, that someplace can be found shining down on us nearly every night: our own companion in space, the Moon.

By studying lunar impact craters both young and old scientists can piece together the physical processes that took place during the violent moments of their creation, as well as determine how often Earth — a considerably bigger target — was experiencing similar events (and likely in much larger numbers as well.)

With no substantial atmosphere, no weather and no tectonic activity, the surface of the Moon is a veritable time capsule for events taking place in our region of the Solar System. While our constantly-evolving Earth tends to hide its past, the Moon gives up its secrets much more readily… which is why present and future lunar missions are so important to science.

linne_shade_scalebTake the crater Linné, for example. A young, pristine lunar crater, the 2.2-km-wide Linné was formed less than 10 million years ago… much longer than humans have walked the Earth, yes, but very recently on lunar geologic terms.

It was once thought that the circular Linné (as well as other craters) is bowl-shaped, thus setting a precedent for the morphology of craters on the Moon and on Earth. But laser-mapping observations by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (at right) determined in early 2012 that that’s not the case; Linné is actually more of a truncated inverted cone, with a flattened interior floor surrounded by sloping walls that rise up over half a kilometer to its rim.

On our planet the erosive processes of wind, water, and earth soon distort the shapes of craters like Linné, wearing them down, filling them in and eventually hiding them from plain sight completely. But in the Moon’s airless environment where the only weathering comes from more impacts they retain their shape for much longer lengths of time, looking brand-new for many millions of years. By studying young craters in greater detail scientists are now able to better figure out just what happens when large objects strike the surface of worlds — events that can and do occur quite regularly in the Solar System, and which may have even allowed life to gain a foothold on Earth.

Most of the craters visible on the Moon today — Linné excluded, of course — are thought to have formed within a narrow period of time between 3.8 and 3.9 billion years ago. This period, called the Late Heavy Bombardment, saw a high rate of impact events throughout the inner Solar System, not only on the Moon but also on Mars, Mercury, presumably Venus and Earth as well. In fact, since at 4 times its diameter the Earth is a much larger target than the Moon, it stands to reason that Earth was impacted many more times than the Moon as well. Such large amounts of impacts introduced material from the outer Solar System to the early Earth as well as melted areas of the surface, releasing compounds like water that had been locked up in the crust… and even creating the sorts of environments where life could have begun to develop and thrive.

(It’s been suggested that there was even a longer period of heavy impact rates nicknamed the “late late heavy bombardment” that lingered up until about 2.5 billion years ago. Read more here.)

In the video below lunar geologist David Kring discusses the importance of impacts on the evolution of the Moon, Earth and eventually life as we know it today:

“Impact cratering in Earth’s past has affected not only the geologic but the biologic evolution of our planet, and we were able to deduce that in part by the lessons we learned by studying the Moon… and you just have to wonder what other things we can learn by going back to the Moon and studying that planetary body further.”

– David Kring

David is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, TX.

It’s these sorts of connections that make lunar exploration so valuable. Keys to our planet’s past are literally sitting on the surface of the Moon, a mere 385,000 km away, waiting for us to just scoop them up and bring them back. While the hunt for a biological history on Mars or resource-mining an asteroid are definitely important goals in their own right, only the Moon holds such direct references to Earth. It’s like an orbiting index to the ongoing story of our planet — all we have to do is make the connections.

 

Learn more about lunar research at the LPI site here, and see the latest news and images from LRO here.

In an Isolated, Ice-Covered Antarctic Lake Far Below Freezing, Life is Found

Lake Vida lies within one of Antarctica’s cold, arid McMurdo Dry Valleys (Photo: Desert Research Institute)

Even inside an almost completely frozen lake within Antarctica’s inland dry valleys, in dark, salt-laden and sub-freezing water full of nitrous oxide, life thrives… offering a clue at what might one day be found in similar environments elsewhere in the Solar System.


Researchers from NASA, the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the University of Illinois at Chicago and nine other institutions have discovered colonies of bacteria living in one of the most isolated places on Earth: Antarctica’s Lake Vida, located in Victoria Valley — one of the southern continent’s incredibly arid McMurdo Dry Valleys.

These organisms seem to be thriving despite the harsh conditions. Covered by 20 meters (65 feet) of ice, the water in  Lake Vida is six times saltier than seawater and contains the highest levels of nitrous oxide ever found in a natural body of water. Sunlight doesn’t penetrate very far below the frozen surface, and due to the hypersaline conditions and pressure of the ice water temperatures can plunge to a frigid -13.5 ºC (8 ºF).

Yet even within such a seemingly inhospitable environment Lake Vida is host to a “surprisingly diverse and abundant assemblage of bacteria” existing within water channels branching through the ice, separated from the sun’s energy and isolated from exterior influences for an estimated 3,000 years.

Originally thought to be frozen solid, ground penetrating radar surveys in 1995 revealed a very salty liquid layer (a brine) underlying the lake’s year-round 20-meter-thick ice cover.

“This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth,” said Dr. Alison Murray, one of the lead authors of the team’s paper, a molecular microbial ecologist and polar researcher and a member of 14 expeditions to the Southern Ocean and Antarctic continent. “Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now. This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments.”

Sterile environments had to be set up within tents on Lake Vida’s surface so the researchers could be sure that the core samples they were drilling were pristine, and weren’t being contaminated with any introduced organisms.

According to a NASA press release, “geochemical analyses suggest chemical reactions between the brine and the underlying iron-rich sediments generate nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen. The latter, in part, may provide the energy needed to support the brine’s diverse microbial life.”

“This system is probably the best analog we have for possible ecosystems in the subsurface waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

– Chris McKay, co-author, NASA’s Ames Research Center

What’s particularly exciting is the similarity between conditions found in ice-covered Antarctic lakes and those that could be found on other worlds in our Solar System. If life could survive in Lake Vida, as harsh and isolated as it is, could it also be found beneath the icy surface of Europa, or within the (hypothesized) subsurface oceans of Enceladus? And what about the ice caps of Mars? Might there be similar channels of super-salty liquid water running through Mars’ ice, with microbes eking out an existence on iron sediments?

“It’s plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock,” explained Dr. Christian Fritsen, a systems microbial ecologist and Research Professor in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and co-author of the study.

“If that’s the case,” Murray added, “this gives us an entirely new framework for thinking of how life can be supported in cryoecosystems on earth and in other icy worlds of the universe.”

Read more: Europa’s Hidden Great Lakes May Harbor Life

More research is planned to study the chemical interactions between the sediment and the brine as well as the genetic makeup of the microbial communities themselves.

The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). Read more on the DRI press release here, and watch a video below showing highlights from the field research.

Funding for the research was supported jointly by NSF and NASA. Images courtesy the Desert Research Institute. Dry valley image credit: NASA/Landsat. Europa image: NASA/Ted Stryk.)

Hunting for High Life: What Lives in Earth’s Stratosphere?

The Moon photographed through the layers of the atmosphere from the ISS in December 2003 (NASA/JSC)

What lives at the edge of space? Other than high-flying jet aircraft pilots (and the occasional daredevil skydiver) you wouldn’t expect to find many living things over 10 kilometers up — yet this is exactly where one NASA researcher is hunting for evidence of life.

Earth’s stratosphere is not a place you’d typically think of when considering hospitable environments. High, dry, and cold, the stratosphere is the layer just above where most weather occurs, extending from about 10 km to 50 km (6 to 31 miles) above Earth’s surface. Temperatures in the lowest layers average -56 C (-68 F) with jet stream winds blowing at a steady 100 mph. Atmospheric density is less than 10% that found at sea level and oxygen is found in the form of ozone, which shields life on the surface from harmful UV radiation but leaves anything above 32 km openly exposed.

Sounds like a great place to look for life, right? Biologist David Smith of the University of Washington thinks so… he and his team have found “microbes from every major domain” traveling within upper-atmospheric winds.

Smith, principal investigator with Kennedy Space Center’s Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (MIST) project, is working to take a census of life tens of thousands of feet above the ground. Using high-altitude weather balloons and samples gathered from Mt. Bachelor Observatory in central Oregon, Smith aims to find out what kinds of microbes are found high in the atmosphere, how many there are and where they may have come from.

“Life surviving at high altitudes challenges our notion of the biosphere boundary.”

– David Smith, Biologist, University of Washington in Seattle

Although reports of microorganisms existing as high as 77 km have been around since the 1930s, Smith doubts the validity of some of the old data… the microbes could have been brought up by the research vehicles themselves.

“Almost no controls for sterilization are reported in the papers,” he said.

But while some researchers have suggested that the microbes could have come from outer space, Smith thinks they are terrestrial in origin. Most of the microbes discovered so far are bacterial spores — extremely hardy organisms that can form a protective shell around themselves and thus survive the low temperatures, dry conditions and high levels of radiation found in the stratosphere. Dust storms or hurricanes could presumably deliver the bacteria into the atmosphere where they form spores and are transported across the globe.

If they land in a suitable environment they have the ability to reanimate themselves, continuing to survive and multiply.

Although collecting these high-flying organisms is difficult, Smith is confident that this research will show how such basic life can travel long distances and survive even the harshest environments — not only on Earth but possibly on other worlds as well, such as the dessicated soil of  Mars.

“We still have no idea where to draw the altitude boundary of the biosphere,” said Smith. This research will “address how long life can potentially remain in the stratosphere and what sorts of mutations it may inherit while aloft.”

Read more on Michael Schirber’s article for Astrobiology Magazine here, and watch David Smith’s seminar “The High Life: Airborne Microbes on the Edge of Space” held May 2012 at the University of Washington below:

Inset images – Top: layers of the atmosphere, via the Smithsonian/NMNH. Bottom: Scanning electron microscope image of atmospheric bacterial spores collected from Mt. Bachelor Observatory (NASA/KSC)

When Everything On Earth Died

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Hey, remember that one time when 90% of all life on Earth got wiped out?

I don’t either. But it’s a good thing it happened because otherwise none of us would be here to… not remember it. Still, the end-Permian Extinction — a.k.a. the Great Dying — was very much a real crisis for life on Earth 252 million years ago. It makes the K-T extinction event of the dinosaurs look like a rather nice day by comparison, and is literally the most catastrophic event known to have ever befallen Earthly life. Luckily for us (and pretty much all of the species that have arisen since) the situation eventually sorted itself out. But how long did that take?

An alien Earth: what our planet looked like during the time of the Permian Extinction. (Via The Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo, NASA, Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc., and The PaleoMap Project)

The Permian Extinction was a perfect storm of geological events that resulted in the disappearance of over 90% of life on Earth — both on land and in the oceans. (Or ocean, as I should say, since at that time the land mass of Earth had gathered into one enormous continent — called Pangaea — and thus there was one ocean, referred to as Panthalassa.) A combination of increased volcanism, global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification and anoxia, and the loss of shallow sea habitats (due to the single large continent) set up a series of extinctions that nearly wiped our planet’s biological slate clean.

Exactly why the event occurred and how Earth returned to a state in which live could once again thrive is still debated by scientists, but it’s now been estimated that the recovery process took about 10 million years.

(Read: Recovering From a Mass Extinction is Slow Going)

Research by Dr. Zhong-Qiang Chen from the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, and Professor Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, UK, show that repeated setbacks in conditions on Earth continued for 5 to 6 million years after the initial wave of extinctions. It appears that every time life would begin to recover within an ecological niche, another wave of environmental calamities would break.

“Life seemed to be getting back to normal when another crisis hit and set it back again,” said Prof. Benton. “The carbon crises were repeated many times, and then finally conditions became normal again after five million years or so.”

“The causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”

– Michael Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol

It wasn’t until the severity of the crises abated that life could gradually begin reclaiming and rebuilding Earth’s ecosystems. New forms of life appeared, taking advantage of open niches to grab a foothold in a new world. It was then that many of the ecosystems we see today made their start, and opened the door for the rise of Earth’s most famous prehistoric critters: the dinosaurs.

“The event had re-set evolution,” said Benton. “However, the causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”

The team’s research was published in the May 27 issue of Nature Geoscience. Read more on the University of Bristol’s website here.

Shaking Up Theories Of Earth’s Formation

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Researchers from The Australian National University are suggesting that Earth didn’t form as previously thought, shaking up some long-standing hypotheses of our planet’s origins right down to the core — literally.

Ian Campbell and Hugh O’Neill, both professors at ANU’s Research School for Earth Sciences, have challenged the concept that Earth formed from the same material as the Sun — and thus has a “chondritic” composition — an idea that has been assumed accurate by planetary scientists for quite some time.

 

Chondrite meteorites are composed of spherical chondrules, which formed in the solar nebula before the asteroids. (NASA)

Chondrites are meteorites that were formed from the solar nebula that surrounded the Sun over 4.6 billion years ago. They are valuable to scientists because of their direct relationship with the early Solar System and the primordial material they contain.

“For decades it has been assumed that the Earth had the same composition as the Sun, as long the most volatile elements like hydrogen are excluded,” O’Neill said. “This theory is based on the idea that everything in the solar system in general has the same composition. Since the Sun comprises 99 per cent of the solar system, this composition is essentially that of the Sun.”

Instead, they propose that our planet was formed through the collision of larger planet-sized bodies, bodies that had already grown massive enough themselves to develop an outer shell.

This scenario is supported by over 20 years of research by Campbell on columns of hot rock that rise from Earth’s core, called mantle plumes. Campbell discovered no evidence for “hidden reservoirs” of heat-producing elements such as uranium and thorium that had been assumed to exist, had Earth actually formed from chondritic material.

“Mantle plumes simply don’t release enough heat for these reservoirs to exist. As a consequence the Earth simply does not have the same composition as chondrites or the Sun,” Campbell said.

The outer shell of early Earth, containing heat-producing elements obtained from the impacting smaller planets, would have been eroded away by all the collisions.

“This produced an Earth that has fewer heat producing elements than chondritic meteorites, which explains why the Earth doesn’t have the same chemical composition,” O’Neill said.

The team’s paper has been published in the journal Nature. Read the press release from The Australian National University here.