How Do Planets Form? Semarkona Meteorite Shows Some Clues

It may seem all but impossible to determine how the Solar System formed, given that it happened roughly 4.5 billion years ago. Luckily, much of the debris that was left over from the formation process is still available today for study, circling our Solar System in the form of rocks and debris that sometimes make their way to Earth.

Among the most useful pieces of debris are the oldest and least altered type of meteorites, which are known as chondrites. They are built mostly of small stony grains, called chondrules, that are barely a millimeter in diameter.

And now, scientists are being provided with important clues as to how the early Solar System evolved, thanks to new research based on the the most accurate laboratory measurements ever made of the magnetic fields trapped within these tiny grains.

To break it down, chondrite meteorites are pieces of asteroids — broken off by collisions — that have remained relatively unmodified since they formed during the birth of the Solar System. The chondrules they contain were formed when patches of solar nebula – dust clouds that surround young suns – was heated above the melting point of rock for hours or even days.

The dust caught in these “melting events” was melted down into droplets of molten rock, which then cooled and crystallized into chondrules. As chondrules cooled, iron-bearing minerals within them became magnetized by the local magnetic field in the gas cloud. These magnetic fields are preserved in the chondrules right on up to the present day.

A slice of the NWA 5205 meteorite from the Sahara Desert displays wall-to-wall chondrules. Credit: Bob King
A slice of the NWA 5205 meteorite from the Sahara Desert displays wall-to-wall chondrules. Credit: Bob King

The chondrule grains whose magnetic fields were mapped in the new study came from a meteorite named Semarkona – named after the town in India where it fell in 1940.

Roger Fu of MIT – working under Benjamin Weiss – was the chief author of the study; with Steve Desch of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration attached as co-author.

According to the study, which was published this week in Science, the measurements they collected point to shock waves traveling through the cloud of dusty gas around the newborn sun as a major factor in solar system formation.

“The measurements made by Fu and Weiss are astounding and unprecedented,” says Steve Desch. “Not only have they measured tiny magnetic fields thousands of times weaker than a compass feels, they have mapped the magnetic fields’ variation recorded by the meteorite, millimeter by millimeter.”

The scientists focused specifically on the embedded magnetic fields captured by “dusty” olivine grains that contain abundant iron-bearing minerals. These had a magnetic field of about 54 microtesla, similar to the magnetic field at Earth’s surface (which ranges from 25 to 65 microtesla).

Coincidentally, many previous measurements of meteorites also implied similar field strengths. But it is now understood that those measurements detected magnetic minerals that were contaminated by the Earth’s own magnetic field, or even from the hand magnets used by the meteorite collectors.

Artist depiction of a protoplanetary disk permeated by magnetic fields. Objects in the foregrounds are millimeter-sized rock pellets known as chondrules.  Credit: Hernán Cañellas
Artist depiction of a protoplanetary disk permeated by magnetic fields. Objects in the foregrounds are millimeter-sized rock pellets known as chondrules.
Credit: Hernán Cañellas

“The new experiments,” Desch says, “probe magnetic minerals in chondrules never measured before. They also show that each chondrule is magnetized like a little bar magnet, but with ‘north’ pointing in random directions.”

This shows, he says, that they became magnetized before they were built into the meteorite, and not while sitting on Earth’s surface. This observation, combined with the presence of shock waves during early solar formation, paints an interesting picture of the early history of our Solar System.

“My modeling for the heating events shows that shock waves passing through the solar nebula is what melted most chondrules,” Desch explains. Depending on the strength and size of the shock wave, the background magnetic field could be amplified by up to 30 times. “Given the measured magnetic field strength of about 54 microtesla,” he added, “this shows the background field in the nebula was probably in the range of 5 to 50 microtesla.”

There are other ideas for how chondrules might have formed, some involving magnetic flares above the solar nebula, or passage through the sun’s magnetic field. But those mechanisms require stronger magnetic fields than what has been measured in the Semarkona samples.

This reinforces the idea that shocks melted the chondrules in the solar nebula at about the location of today’s asteroid belt, which lies some two to four times farther from the sun than the Earth’s orbits.

Desch says, “This is the first really accurate and reliable measurement of the magnetic field in the gas from which our planets formed.”

Further Reading: ASU

Where Did Earth’s Water Come From?

Anyone who’s ever seen a map or a globe easily knows that the surface of our planet is mostly covered by liquid water — about 71%, by most estimates* — and so it’s not surprising that all Earthly life as we know it depends, in some form or another, on water. (Our own bodies are composed of about 55-60% of the stuff.) But how did it get here in the first place? Based on current understanding of how the Solar System formed, primordial Earth couldn’t have developed with its own water supply; this close to the Sun there just wouldn’t have been enough water knocking about. Left to its own devices Earth should be a dry world, yet it’s not (thankfully for us and pretty much everything else living here.) So where did all the wet stuff come from?

As it turns out, Earth’s water probably wasn’t made, it was delivered. Check out the video above from MinuteEarth to learn more.

*71% of Earth’s surface, yes, but actually less total than you might think. Read more.

MinuteEarth (and MinutePhysics) is created by Henry Reich, with Alex Reich, Peter Reich, Emily Elert, and Ever Salazar. Music by Nathaniel Schroeder.

UPDATE March 2, 2014: recent studies support an “alien” origin of Earth’s water from meteorites, but perhaps much earlier in its formation rather than later. Read more from the Harvard Gazette 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.