New Research Casts Doubt on the Late Heavy Bombardment

Map of the Serenitatis basin area of the Moon

[/caption]

Was the early solar system bombarded with lots of big impacts? This is a question that has puzzled scientists for over 35 years. And it’s not just an academic one. We know from rocks on Earth that life began to evolve very early on, at least 3.8 billion years ago. If the Earth was being pummeled by large impacts at this time, this would certainly have affected the evolution of life. So, did the solar system go through what is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB)? Exciting new research, using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) may cast some doubt on the popular LHB theory.

It’s actually quite a heated debate, one that has polarized the science community for quite some time. In one camp are those that believe the solar system experienced a cataclysm of large impacts about 3.8 billion years ago. In the other camp are those that think such impacts were spread more evenly over the time of the early solar system from approximately 4.3 to 3.8 billion years ago.

The controversy revolves around two large impact basins, which are found fairly close to each other on the Moon. The Imbrium basin is one of the youngest basins on the near side of the Moon, while the Serenetatis basin is thought to be one of the oldest. Both are flooded with volcanic basalts and are big enough to be seen from Earth with the naked eye.


Map of the Serenitatis basin area of the Moon

What if the Apollo 17 samples didn't come from the Serenitatis basin, where the astronauts collected them, but rather from the Imbrium basin, located some 600 km away? Studies from the new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera suggest this may be the case. If true, this means Serenitatis is much older than the Imbrium basin and a solar system-wide impact catastrophe is not needed to explain the uncannily close ages of the Imbrium and Serenitatis basins.

Image credit: NASA
 Click on the image to download the full map and explore it in more detail.

Scientists know the relative ages of such lunar basins because of a concept called superposition. Basically, superposition states that what is on top must be younger than what is beneath. Using such relationships, scientists can determine which basins are older and which are younger.

To get an absolute age, though, scientists need actual bits of rock, so they can use radiometric dating techniques. The lunar samples returned by the Apollo program provided exactly that.  But, the Apollo samples suggest that the Imbrium and Serenitatis basins are barely 50 million years apart.

Relative age dating tells us there are over 30 other basins that formed within that time frame.  This means that roughly one major impact occurred every 1.5 million years! Now, 1.5 million years may sound like a long time. But consider the last large impact that happened on Earth, the Chicxulub event 65 million years ago, which is thought to have exterminated the dinosaurs. Imagine another 40 dinosaur-killing impacts occurring since then. It would be surprising if any life survived such a barrage!

This is why a team of researchers, led by Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, is looking very carefully at this question. Their research is using the principle of superposition to show that several of the areas visited by the Apollo program were blanketed by material from the Imbrium impact. This could mean that many of the collected Apollo materials may be sampling the same event.

Dr. Spudis’s research focuses on the Montes Taurus area, between the Serenitatis and Crisium basins, not far from the Apollo 17 landing site. This is a region dominated by sculpted hills that have been interpreted to be ejected material from the adjacent Serenitatis basin impact. But, Dr. Spudis and his team have found that, instead, this sculpted material comes from the Imbrium basin some 600 kilometers away.

Previous data of this area, from the Lunar Orbiter IV camera, hadn’t shown this because a fog on the camera lens made the details difficult to see (this fog problem was eventually resolved, and Lunar Orbiter IV provided a lot of useful data on other parts of the Moon).The new LROC data, however, shows that the sculpted terrain seen at Apollo 17 is very widespread, extending far beyond the Montes Taurus region. Furthermore, the grooves and lineated features of this terrain point to the Imbrium basin, not the Serenitatis basin, and line up with similar features in the Alpes and Fra Mauro Formations, which are known to be ejecta from the Imbrium impact. In the north of Serenitatis, these Imbrium formations even seem to transform into the Montes Taurus, confirming that the sculpted hills do, in fact, originate from the Imbrium impact.

LROC Data of Serenitatis basin area on the Moon
Recent high quality data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera shows that the sculpted terrain, which is present at the Apollo 17 landing site, is related to material that is known to be from the Imbruim impact. This means that Apollo 17 may have sampled Imbrium and not Serenitatis material. This could explain the unusually close ages of these two basins, suggested by the Apollo samples. If so, the Serenitatis impact may have occurred much earlier than previously thought, meaning that a barrage of frequent bombardments did not occur, and life on Earth could have evolved without being molested by too many impact events.

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
 Click on the image to explore the LROC data in greater detail.

If the sculpted hills are Imbruim ejecta, then it is possible that Apollo 17 sampled Imbrium and not Serenitatis materials.  That casts suspicion on the very close radiometric ages of these two basins. Perhaps these ages are so close because we effectively measured the same material. In that case, the age of Serenitatis could be much older than the 3.87 billion years the Apollo 17 samples suggest.  If true, this would mean that there was no Late Heavy Bombardment at the time life was forming on the early Earth, leaving life to evolve with relatively few impact-related interruptions.

Source:
Spudis et al., 2011, Journal of Geophysical Research, V116, E00H03

A Cometary Case for Titan’s Atmosphere

[/caption]

Titan is a fascinating world to planetary scientists. Although it’s a moon of Saturn it boasts an opaque atmosphere ten times thicker than Earth’s and a hydrologic cycle similar to our own – except with frigid liquid methane as the key component instead of water. Titan has even been called a living model of early Earth, even insofar as containing large amounts of nitrogen in its atmosphere much like our own. Scientists have wondered at the source of Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and now a team at the University of Tokyo has offered up an intriguing answer: it may have come from comets.

Traditional models have assumed that Titan’s atmosphere was created by volcanic activity or the effect of solar UV radiation. But these rely on Titan having been much warmer in the past than it is now…a scenario that Cassini mission scientists don’t think is the case.

New research suggests that comet impacts during a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment – a time nearly 4 billion years ago when collisions by large bodies such as comets and asteroids were occurring regularly among worlds in our solar system – may have generated Titan’s nitrogen atmosphere. By firing lasers into ammonia-and-water-ice material similar to what would have been found on primordial Titan, researchers saw that nitrogen was a typical result. Over the millennia these impacts could have created enough nitrogen to cover the moon in a dense haze, forming the thick atmosphere we see today.

“We propose that Titan’s nitrogen atmosphere formed after accretion, by the conversion from ammonia that was already present on Titan during the period of late heavy bombardment about four billion years ago.”

– Yasuhito Sekine et al., University of Tokyo, Japan

This model, if true, would also mean that the source of Titan’s nitrogen would be different than that of other outer worlds, like Pluto, and even inner planets like our own.

See the published results in the journal Nature, or read more on NewScientist.com.

Top image is a combination of a color-composite of Titan made from raw Cassini data taken on October 12, 2010 and a recolored infrared image of the comet Siding Spring, taken by NASA’s WISE observatory on January 10, 2010. The background stars were also taken by the Cassini orbiter. NASA / JPL / SSI and Caltech/UCLA. Edited by J. Major.

Note: the image at top is not scientifically accurate…the comet’s tail would be, based on the lighting of Titan, pointing more to the ten o’clock position as well as forward toward the viewer’s left shoulder. This would make it ‘look’ as if it were going the opposite direction though, away from Titan, and so I went with the more immediately decipherable version seen here. To see a more “realistic” version, click here.

“Marstinis” Could Help Explain Why the Red Planet is So Small

Proof of Life on Mars

[/caption]

Mars is a small planet. In fact, for scientists who do solar system modeling, the planet is too small. “This is an outstanding problem in terrestrial planet formation,” said Dr. David Minton from the Southwest Research Institute. “Everyone who does simulations of how you form terrestrial planets always ends up with a Mars that is 5-10 times bigger than it is in real life.” Minton has been working alongside colleague Dr. Hal Levison to create new simulations that explain the small size of Mars by including the effect of what is known as planetesimal-driven migration, and additionally, small objects that Minton calls “Marstinis” could stir or shake up our ideas about the early solar system and the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Planetary scientists agree that the terrestrial planets formed very quickly within the first 50-100 million years of the solar system’s history and our Moon formed from an impact between a Mars-sized object and the proto-Earth at some point during that time. Much later was the Late Heavy Bombardment, the time period where a large number of impact craters formed on the Moon within a time span of only seventy million years — and by inference Earth, Mercury, Venus, and Mars were likely pummeled as well.

Most planetary formation theories can’t account for this intense period of bombardment so late in the solar system’s history, but Levison was part of a team that in 2005 proposed the Nice Model, which suggested how the Late Heavy Bombardment was triggered when the giant planets — which formed in a more compact configuration – rapidly migrated away from each other (and their orbital separations all increased), and a disk of small “planetesimals” that lay outside the orbits of the planets was destabilized, causing a sudden massive delivery of these planetesimals – asteroids and comets — to the inner solar system.

But, according to the model, planetesimals likely also caused the migration of the planets, too. The planets formed from a giant disk of gas, dust, rocky debris and ice surrounding the early Sun. Debris coalesced to form bigger planet-sized objects, and simulations shows that bigger planet-sized object embedded in a disk of smaller objects will migrate as a result of angular momentum and energy conservation as the planets scatter the planetesimals they encounter.

Artists concept of planetesimals and Jupiter.

“Perturbations from small rocky or icy objects surrounding a larger object can cause the larger object to ‘scoot’ along the disk,” Minton told Universe Today. “Every time these little planetesimals encounter the bigger object, they actually cause a little nudge in the position of the bigger object. It turns out if you work out the math, if there is any sort of slight imbalance to the number of objects encountering on the sunward side versus encountering on the anti-sunward side, you can actually cause a net movement of the big body, and it actually happens pretty quickly.”

Minton and Levison have been applying the same physics of planetesimal-driven migration to the formation of the terrestrial planets.

“In the case of Mars, imagine these planetary embryos located in the Earth-Venus zone,” Minton said. “Then you have a one little embryo growing to become Mars-sized, and it would start migrating because of planetesimal-driven migration, and it scoots away from the other guys. So it has left the pack, and as it moves through the disk, it gets stranded away from where all the action is going on.”

So Mars’ growth got stalled at its current size because it migrated away from the planet-building materials.

Minton said their simulations of this work really well.

“We’ve been doing a lot of math and the migration is pretty rapid,” he said, “and Mars could migrate through the disk before any other Mars-sized planet could form. In an early solar system where you have a Mars stranded off at the edge of the disk at 1.5 AU, which is where it is right now and all the other action going on in the Earth-Venus zone, then Earth and Venus were able to grow to the size they are now, where they are both roughly the same size and mass and Mars is stranded on its own.”

And with Mars there is a twist of Marstinis, which could offer an alternate explanation for the Late Heavy Bombardment.

The migrating Mars could have picked up planetesimals in its resonance, where two or more orbiting bodies exert a gravitational influence on each other.

“It is not at all obvious why that is,” Minton said, “but the same thing is thought to have happened in the outer solar system which is what gave Pluto its orbit. We think Pluto was actually picked up in the 3:2 resonance with Neptune when Neptune migrated out, and that’s why Pluto and the other “Plutinos” are living in these resonances with Neptune.”

The Plutinos are other Kuiper Belt objects near Pluto. That resonance means Pluto and the Plutinos go around the Sun three times for every 2 times Neptune does. There are also Two-tinos, which are caught in a 1:2 resonance with Neptune – and which are found towards the outer edge of the Kuiper belt. The new simulations show that these lines of resonances are almost like a snowplow, and as Neptune migrated out it picked up all these little icy bodies, Pluto and the Plutinos.

A graphic of the solar system in its current configuration; Mars is small. Credit: NASA

This also could have happened to Mars, and as Mars migrated through the disk it would have also picked up little objects.

“I’ve decided to calls these Marstinis, to keep in the Plutino and Two-tino, theme,” Minton said with a grin. “I don’t know if that will stick or not.”

But the interesting thing about the Marstinis, Minton said, is that a 3:2 resonance with Mars is actually a very unstable zone.

“There is actually a resonance there with Saturn that only existed in the time of the Late Heavy Bombardment,” he said, “so before that, Saturn — we think — was in a different position, so this particular resonance was in a different position. So it was only after the giant planets migrated to their current location that this resonance location became unstable. So we think that these Marstinis would have been stable and in that interim period between the end of planet formation and the Late Heavy Bombardment, all of a sudden this region became unstable when the planets shifted positions to their current locations.”

So could the Marstinis be responsible for the Late Heavy Bombardment?

“These Marstinis were pushed out from the planet forming regions out to the asteroid belt,” Minton said, “then all of a sudden the planets migrated and this whole region became unstable and so they all could have gone flinging into the inner solar system and end up hitting the Moon.”

Questions abound about the Late Heavy Bombardment.

There are a couple of other arguments, too where the Marstinis fit the profile of what hit the Moon during the Late Heavy Bombardment.

“We have reasons to think that the objects that hit the Moon during the Late Heavy Bombardment were sort of like asteroids but not exactly like the asteroids we have now,” Minton said. “So, there are some chemical arguments you can make, also you can make some arguments from the impact probabilities that may not have been enough mass in the asteroid belt to supply all the asteroids and impacts we see on the Moon.”
But there are other outstanding issues such as how long the Late Heavy Bombardment lasted, when it started, were comets ever important in the bombardment history of the Moon or was it all asteroids? Minton said further exploration of the Moon would answer many of these questions.

“These are all things that we really need to go to the Moon to find out and there is almost nowhere else you can go to do it. It really is one of the best places to go to understand all the solar system history.

Minton will present his findings at the upcoming Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March, 2011.

You can listen to an interview I did with Minton about planetesimal-driven migration for the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast (also available on the 365 Days of Astronomy.)