New Study Says Earth Avoided a “Carbon Overdose” During Formation

According to the Nebular Hypothesis, the Sun and planets formed 4.6 billion years ago from a giant cloud of dust and gas. This began with the Sun forming in the center, and the remaining material forming a protoplanetary disc, from which the planets formed. Whereas the planets in the outer Solar System were largely made up of gases (i.e. the Gas Giants), those closer to the Sun formed from silicate minerals and metals (i.e. the terrestrial planets).

Despite having a pretty good idea of how this all came about, the question of exactly how the planets of the Solar System formed and evolved over the course of billions of year is still subject to debate. In a new study, two researchers from the University of Heidelberg considered the role played by carbon in both the formation of Earth and the emergence and evolution of life.

Their study, “Spatial Distribution of Carbon Dust in the Early Solar Nebula and the Carbon Content of Planetesimals“, recently appeared in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. The study was conducted by Hans-Peter Gail, from the Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Heidelberg, and Mario Trieloff – from Heidelberg’s Institute of Earth Sciences and the Klaus-Tschira-Laboratory for Cosmochemistry.

A slice of the Allende meteorite with silicate globules of the size of a millimetre. Credit: Institute of Earth Science

For the sake of their study, the pair considered what role the element carbon – which is essential to life here on Earth – played in planetary formation. Essentially, scientists are of the opinion that during the earliest days of the Solar System – when it was still a giant cloud of dust and gas – carbon-rich materials were distributed to the inner Solar System from the outer Solar System.

Out beyond the “Frost Line” – where volatiles like water, ammonia and methane and are able to condense into ice – bodies containing frozen carbon compounds formed. Much like how water was distributed throughout the Solar System, that these bodies were supposedly kicked out of their orbits and sent towards the Sun, distributing volatile materials to the planetesimals that would eventually grow to become the terrestrial planets.

However, when one compares the kinds of meteors that distributed primordial material to Earth – aka. chondrite meteorites –  one notices a certain discrepancy. Basically, carbon is comparatively rare on Earth compared to these ancient rocks, the reason for which has remained a mystery. As Prof. Trieloff, who was the co-author on the study, explained in a University of Heidelberg press release:

“On Earth, carbon is a relatively rare element. It is enriched close to the Earth´s surface, but as a fraction of the total matter on Earth it is a mere one-half of 1/1000th. In primitive comets, however, the proportion of carbon can be ten percent or more.”

Artist’s conception of a solar system in formation. Credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook

“A substantial portion of the carbon in asteroids and comets is in long-chain and branched molecules that evaporate only at very high temperatures,” added Dr. Grail, the study’s lead author. “Based on the standard models that simulate carbon reactions in the solar nebula where the sun and planets originated, the Earth and the other terrestrial planets should have up to 100 times more carbon.”

To address this, the two researches constructed a model that assumed that short-duration flash-heating events – where the Sun heated the protoplanetary disc – were responsible for this discrepancy. They also assumed that all matter in the inner Solar System was heated to temperatures of between 1,300 and 1,800 °C (2372 to 3272 °F) before small planetesimals and terrestrial planets eventually formed.

Dr. Grail and Trieloff believe the evidence for this lies in the round grains in meteorites that form from molten droplets – known as chondrules. Unlike chondrite meteorites, which can be composed of up to a few percent carbon, chondrules are largely depleted of this element. This, they claim, was the a result of the same flash-heating events that took place before the chondrules could accrete to form meteorites. As Dr. Gail indicated:

“Only the spikes in temperature derived from the chondrule formation models can explain today’s low amount of carbon on the inner planets. Previous models did not take this process into account, but we apparently have it to thank for the correct amount of carbon that allowed the evolution of the Earth’s biosphere as we know it.”

Artist impression of the Late Heavy Bombardment period. Credit: NASA

In short, the discrepancy between the amount of carbon found in chondritic-rock material and that found on Earth can be explained by intense heating in the primordial Solar System. As Earth formed from chrondritic material, the extreme heat caused it to be depleted of its natural carbon. In addition to shedding light on what has been an ongoing mystery in astronomy, this study also offers new insight into how life in the Solar System began.

Basically, the researchers speculate that the flash-heating events in the inner Solar System may have been necessary for life here on Earth. Had there been too much carbon in the primordial material that coalesced into our planet, the result could have been a “carbon overdose”. This is because when carbon becomes oxidized, it forms carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas that can lead to a runaway heating effect.

This is what planetary scientists believe happened to Venus, where the presence of abundant CO2 – combined with its increased exposure to Solar radiation – led to the hellish environment that is there today. But on Earth, CO2 was removed from the atmosphere by the silicate-carbonate cycle, which allowed for Earth to achieve a balanced and life-sustaining environment.

“Whether 100 times more carbon would permit effective removal of the greenhouse gas is questionable at the very least,” said Dr. Trieloff. “The carbon could no longer be stored in carbonates, where most of the Earth’s CO2 is stored today. This much CO2 in the atmosphere would cause such a severe and irreversible greenhouse effect that the oceans would evaporate and disappear.”

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet in a nearby star system. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

It is a well-known fact that life here on Earth is carbon-based. However, knowing that conditions during the early Solar System prevented an overdose of carbon that could have turned Earth into a second Venus is certainly interesting. While carbon may be essential to life as we know it, too much can mean the death of it. This study could also come in handy when it comes to the search for life in extra-solar systems.

When examining distant stars, astronomers could ask, “were primordial conditions hot enough in the inner system to prevent a carbon overdose?” The answer to that question could be the difference between finding an Earth 2.0, or another Venus-like world!

Further Reading: University of Heidelberg, Astronomy and Astrophysics

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

A New Look at Apollo Samples Supports Ancient Impact Theory

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New investigations of lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions have revealed origins from beyond the Earth-Moon system, supporting a hypothesis of ancient cataclysmic bombardment for both worlds.

Samples of Apollo 16 breccia that contain chondritic material (JSC)

Using scanning electron microscopes, researchers at the Lunar-Planetary Institute and Johnson Space Center have re-examined breccia regolith samples returned from the Moon, chemically mapping the lunar rocks to discern more compositional detail than ever before.

What they discovered was that many of the rocks contain bits of material that is chondritic in origin — that is, it came from asteroids, and not from elsewhere on the Moon or Earth.

Chondrites are meteorites that originate from the oldest asteroids, formed during the development of the Solar System. They are composed of the initial material that made up the stellar disk, compressed into spherical chondrules. Chondrites are some of the rarest types of meteorites found on Earth today but it’s thought that at one time they rained down onto our planet… as well as our moon.

The Lunar Cataclysm Hypothesis suggests that there was a period of extremely active bombardment of the Moon’s surface by meteorite impacts around 3.9 billion years ago. Because very few large impact events — based on melt rock samples — seem to have taken place more than 3.85 billion years ago, scientists suspect such an event heated the Moon’s surface enough prior to that period to eradicate any older impact features — a literal resurfacing of the young Moon.

There’s also evidence that there was a common source for the impactors, based on composition of the chondrites. What event took place in the Solar System that sent so much material hurtling our way? Was there a massive collision between asteroids? Did a slew of comets come streaking into the inner solar system? Were we paid a brief, gravitationally-disruptive visit by some other rogue interstellar object? Whatever it was that occurred, it changed the face of our Moon forever.

Curiously enough, it was at just about that time that we find the first fossil evidence of life on Earth. If there’s indeed a correlation, then whatever happened to wipe out the Moon’s oldest craters may also have cleared the slate for life here — either by removing any initial biological development that may have occurred or by delivering organic materials necessary for life in large amounts… or perhaps a combination of both.

Timeline for the Lunar Cataclysm Hypothesis (LPI)

The new findings from the Apollo samples provide unambiguous evidence that a large-scale impact event was taking place during this period  on the Moon — and most likely on Earth too. Since the Moon lacks atmospheric weathering or water erosion processes it serves as a sort of “time capsule”, recording the evidence of cosmic events that take place around the Earth-Moon neighborhood. While evidence for any such impacts would have long been erased from Earth’s surface, on the Moon it’s just a matter of locating it.

In fact, due to the difference in surface area, Earth may have received up to ten times more impacts than the Moon during such a cosmic cataclysm. With over 1,700 craters over 20 km identified on the Moon dating to a period around 3.9 billion years ago, Earth should have  17,000 craters over 20 km… with some ranging over 1,000 km! Of course, that’s if the craters could had survived 3.9 billion years of erosion and tectonic activity, which they didn’t. Still, it would have been a major event for our planet and anything that may have managed to start eking out an existence on it. We might never know if life had gained a foothold on Earth prior to such a cataclysmic bombardment, but thanks to the Moon (and the Apollo missions!) we do have some evidence of the events that took place.

Sample of lunar impact melt breccia, showing exterior and chondrule-filled interior. (Click for sample report.) Source: JSC

The LPI-JSC team’s paper was submitted to the journal Science and accepted for publication on May 2. See the abstract here, and read more on the Lunar Science Institute’s website here.

And if you want to browse through the Apollo lunar samples you can do so in depth on the JSC Lunar Sample Compendum site.