Rosetta’s Instruments Direct Scientists to Look Elsewhere for the Source of Earth’s Water

Illustration of a rocky planet being bombarded by comets. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Where did all of our water come from? What might seem like a simple question has challenged and intrigued planetary scientists for decades. So results just released by Rosetta mission scientists have been much anticipated and the observations of the Rosetta spacecraft instruments are telling us to look elsewhere. The water of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko does not resemble Earth’s water.

Because the Earth was extremely hot early in its formation, scientists believe that Earth’s original water should have boiled away like that from a boiling kettle. Prevailing theories have considered two sources for a later delivery of water to the surface of the Earth once conditions had cooled. One is comets and the other is asteroids. Surely some water arrived from both sources, but the question has been which one is the predominant source.

There are two areas of our Solar System in which comets formed about 4.6 billion years ago. One is the Oort cloud far beyond Pluto. Everything points to Comet 67P’s origins being the other birthplace of comets – the Kuiper Belt in the region of Neptune and Pluto. The Rosetta results are ruling out Kuiper Belt comets as a source of Earth’s water. Previous observations of Oort cloud comets, such as Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, have shown that they also do not have Earth-like water. So planetary scientists must reconsider their models with weight being given to the other possible source – asteroids.

The question of the source of Earth’s water has been tackled by Earth-based instruments and several probes which rendezvous with comets. In 1986, the first flyby of a comet – Comet 1P/Halley, an Oort cloud comet – revealed that its water was not like the water on Earth. How the water from these comets –Halley’s and now 67P – differs from Earth’s is in the ratio of the two types of hydrogen atoms that make up the water molecule.

Illustration of the Rosetta spacecraft showing the location of the ROSINA mass spectrometer instrument, DFMS. The difference between a Deuterium and Hydrogen atom are also illustrated. A water molecule with Deuterium is known as heavy water due to the additional mass of D vs. H (an extra neutron). (Credit: ESA/Rosetta)
Illustration of the Rosetta spacecraft showing the location of the ROSINA mass spectrometer instrument, DFMS. The difference between a Deuterium and Hydrogen atom is also illustrated. A water molecule with Deuterium is known as heavy water due to the additional mass of Dueterium vs. Hydrogen (i.e., an extra neutron). (Credit: ESA/Rosetta)

Measurements by spectrometers revealed how much Deuterium  – a heavier form of the Hydrogen atom – existed in relation to the most common type of Hydrogen in these comets. This ratio, designated as D/H, is about 1 in 6000 in Earth’s ocean water. For the vast majority of comets, remote or in-situ measurements have found a ratio that is higher which does not support the assertion that comets delivered water to the early Earth surface, at least not much of it.

Most recently, Hershel space telescope observations of comet Hartley 2 (103P/Hartley) caused a stir in the debate of the source of Earth’s water. The spectral measurements of the comet’s light revealed a D/H ratio just like Earth’s water. But now the Hershel observation has become more of an exception because of Rosetta’s latest measurements.

A plot displaying the Deuterium/Hydrogen (D/H) ratio of Solar System objects. Only asteroids have a D/H ratio that matches the Earths and comets with the exception of two so far measured have higher ratios. Objects are grouped by color. Planets & moons (blue), chrondritic meteorites from the asteroid belt (grey), Oort cloud comets(purple), Jupiter family comets(pink). Diamond markers = In Situ measurements, Circles = remote astronomical measurements(Credit: Altwegg et al. 2014)
A plot displaying the Deuterium/Hydrogen (D/H) ratio of Solar System objects. Asteroids have a D/H ratio that matches that of the Earth, while comets – except for two measured to date – have higher ratios. Objects are grouped by color: planets & moons (blue), chrondritic meteorites from the asteroid belt (grey), Oort cloud comets (purple), and Jupiter family comets (pink). Diamond markers = In Situ measurements; circles = remote astronomical measurements. (Credit: Altwegg, et al. 2014)

The new measurements of 67P were made by the ROSINA Double Focusing Mass Spectrometer (DFMS) on board Rosetta. Unlike remote observations using light which are less accurate, Rosetta was able to accurately measure the quantities of Deuterium and common Hydrogen surrounding the comet. Scientists could then simply determine a ratio. The results are reported in the paper “67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a Jupiter Family Comet with a high D/H ratio” by K. Altwegg, et al., published in the 10 December 2014 issue of Science.

New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth's crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)
New Rosetta mission findings do not exclude comets as a source of water in and on the Earth’s crust but does indicate comets were a minor contribution. A four-image mosaic comprises images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 7 December from a distance of 19.7 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam Imager)

The ROSINA instrument observations determined a ratio of 5.3 ± 0.7 × 10-4, which is approximately 3 times the ratio of D/H for Earth’s water. These results do not exclude comets as a source of terrestrial water but they do redirect scientists to consider asteroids as the predominant source. While asteroids have much lower water content compared with comets, asteroids, and their smaller versions, meteoroids, are more numerous than comets. Every meteor/falling star that we see burning up in our atmosphere delivers a myriad of compounds, including water, to Earth. Early on, the onslaught of meteoroids and asteroids impacting Earth was far greater. Consequently, the small quantities of water added delivered by each could add up to what now lies in the oceans, lakes, streams, and even our bodies.

References:

D/H Ratio of Water on Earth Measured with DFMS

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a Jupiter family comet with a high D/H ratio

Rosetta fuels the debate on the Origin of Earth’s Water

The Provenances of Asteroids, and Their Contributions to the Volatile Inventories of the Terrestrial Planets

Recent Universe Today related article:

What Percent of Earth is Water?

What Percent of Earth is Water?

Earth - Western Hemisphere

The Earth is often compared to a majestic blue marble, especially by those privileged few who have gazed upon it from orbit. This is due to the prevalence of water on the planet’s surface. While water itself is not blue, water gives off blue light upon reflection.

For those of us confined to living on the surface, the fact that our world is mostly covered in water is a well known fact. But how much of our planet is made up of water, exactly? Like most facts pertaining to our world, the answer is a little more complicated than you might think, and takes into account a number of different qualifications.

Sources of Water:

In simplest terms, water makes up about 71% of the Earth’s surface, while the other 29% consists of continents and islands. To break the numbers down, 96.5% of all the Earth’s water is contained within the oceans as salt water, while the remaining 3.5% is freshwater lakes and frozen water locked up in glaciers and the polar ice caps.

Of that fresh water, almost all of it takes the form of ice: 69% of it, to be exact. If you could melt all that ice, and the Earth’s surface was perfectly smooth, the sea levels would rise to an altitude of 2.7 km.

Illustration showing all of Earth's water, liquid fresh water, and water in lakes and rivers. Credit: Howard Perlman/USGS/Jack Cook/WHOI
Illustration showing all of Earth’s water, liquid fresh water, and water in lakes and rivers. Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS/illustraion by Jack Cook, WHOI

Aside from the water that exists in ice form, there is also the staggering amount of water that exists beneath the Earth’s surface. If you were to gather all the Earth’s fresh water together as a single mass (as shown in the image above) it is estimated that it would measure some 1,386 million cubic kilometers (km3) in volume.

Meanwhile, the amount of water that exists as groundwater, rivers, lakes, and streams would constitute just over 10.6 million km3, which works out to a little over 0.7%. Seen in this context, the limited and precious nature of freshwater becomes truly clear.

Volume vs. Mass:

But how much of Earth is water – i.e. how much water contributes to the actual mass of the planet? This includes not just the surface of the Earth, but inside as well. In terms of volume, all of the water on Earth works out to about 1.386 billion cubic kilometers (km³) or 332.5 million cubic miles (mi³) of space.

But in terms of mas, scientists calculate that the oceans on Earth weight about 1.35 x 1018 metric tonnes (1.488 x 1018 US tons), which is the equivalent of 1.35 billion trillion kg, or 2976 trillion trillion pounds. This is just 1/4400 the total mass of the Earth, which means that while the oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, they only account for 0.02% of our planet’s total mass.

Many theories about the origins of water on Earth attribute it to collisions with comets and asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Many theories about the origins of water on Earth attribute it to collisions with comets and asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Source of Earth’s Water:

The origin of water on the Earth’s surface, as well as the fact that it has more water than any other rocky planet in the Solar System, are two of long-standing mysteries concerning our planet. Not that long ago, it was believed that our planet formed dry some 4.6 billion years ago, with high-energy impacts creating a molten surface on the infant Earth.

According to this theory, water was brought to the world’s oceans thanks to icy comets, trans-Neptunian objects or water-rich meteoroids (protoplanets) from the outer reaches of the main asteroid belt colliding with the Earth.

However, more recent research conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, has pushed the date of these origins back further. According to this new study, the world’s oceans also date back 4.6 billion years, when all the worlds of the inner Solar System were still forming.

This conclusion was reached by examining meteorites thought to have formed at different times in the history of the Solar System. Carbonaceous chondrite, the oldest meteorites that have been dated to the very earliest days of the Solar System, were found to have the same chemistry as those originating from protoplanets like Vesta. This includes a significance presence of water.

These meteorites are dated to the same epoch in which water was believed to have formed on Earth – some 11 million years after the formation of the Solar System. In short, it now appears that meteorites were depositing water on Earth in its earliest days.

While not ruling out the possibility that some of the water that covers 71 percent of Earth today may have arrived later, these findings suggest that there was enough already here for life to have begun earlier than thought.

We’ve written many articles about the oceans for Universe Today. Here’s How Many Oceans are there in the World?, Earth Has Less Water Than You Think, Where Did Earth’s Water Come From?, Why Doesn’t Earth Have More Water?, Rethinking the Source of Earth’s Water.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth and Episode 363: Where Did Earth’s Water Come From?

Sources:

How Do The Tides Work?

Anyone who lives close to ocean is familiar with the tides. And you probably know they have something to do with the Moon. But how do the tides work? Do other planets experience tides?

Just what the heck are tides? Some kind of orbit jiggle jello effect from the magic Etruscan space-whale song? Is it an unending slap-back of gravitometric Malthusian resonance originating from the core of the Sun’s crystalline liver-light organelles? Is it all the plankton agreeing to paddle in the same direction at their monthly oceanic conferences?

As certain as I am that you enjoy my word terminology salads, with apologies to Papa Bear, we both know tides are caused by the gravitational interaction with the Moon. You would think we’d have only one high tide and one low tide, with the Moon pulling the Earth’s water towards it. Moon goes one side, water rushes over to that side, moon goes to other side, water chases around to follow it. But the tides make the water levels appear to rise twice a day, and lower twice a day in 6 hour increments. So, it’s clearly more complicated than that.

The gravity from the Moon does pull the water towards it. That’s what gives you the highest tide of the day. It’s a bulge of water that follows the Moon around and around as the Earth rotates. This makes sense to us. But then Earth itself is pulled with a little less gravity than the water towards the Moon and, the water on the opposite side of the Earth is pulled with even less gravity, and so you wind up with another bulge on the opposite side of the Earth.

So from our perspective, you end up with a bulge of water towards the Moon, and a bulge away from it. The part of the Earth with the water getting pulled towards the Moon experiences a high tide, and same with the part on the opposite side of the Earth with the other bulge. Correspondingly, the parts of the Earth at right angles are experiencing low tides.

It would be hard enough to predict with a simple spherical Earth covered entirely by water, but we’ve got continents and coastlines, and that makes things even more complicated. The levels that the tides rise and fall depend quite a bit on how easily the water can move around in a region. That’s why you can get such big tides in places like the Bay of Fundy in Canada.

The Moon over Gulf Islands National Seashore near Navarre Beach, Florida. Credit: Mindi Meeks.
The Moon over Gulf Islands National Seashore near Navarre Beach, Florida. Credit: Mindi Meeks.

Our Sun also contributes to the tides. Surprisingly, it accounts for about 30% of the them. So when the Sun and the Moon are lined up in the sky, you get the highest high tides and the lowest low tides – these are Spring Tides. And then when the Sun and Moon are at right angles, you get the lowest high tides and the highest low tides. These are Neap Tides.

Tidal forces can be very powerful. They can tear galaxies apart and cause moons to get shredded into pieces. Perhaps the most dramatic example is how Jupiter’s enormous gravity pulls on Io so strongly that its surface rises and falls by 100 meters. This is 5 times greater than the Earth’s biggest water tides. This constant rise and fall heats up the moon, giving it non-stop volcanism.

What do you think? Share your favorite tidal science fact in the comments below. And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

50 Amazing Facts About Earth

Do you know how much material falls onto Earth from space every day? How many different species there are in the ocean? How far the continents move every year? In honor of Earth Day here’s a very cool infographic that answers those questions about our planet — and 47 more!

Check out the full version below:

50-facts-about-earth3 (1)

And for more interesting information about our planet, click here and here.

Infographic provided by Giraffe Childcare and Early Learning (Dublin, Ireland)

Earth’s Van Gogh Oceans

I was traveling the day this video was released, so missed posting it earlier. If you haven’t seen it yet, this animation of ocean surface currents is just mesmerizing. It shows ocean currents from June 2005 to December 2007, created with data from NASA satellites. In the video you can see how bigger currents like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean and the Kuroshio in the Pacific carry warm waters across thousands of kilometers at speeds greater than six kilometers per hour 4 mph), as well as seeing how thousands of other ocean create slow-moving, circular pools called eddies. The entire visualization is reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painting.
Continue reading “Earth’s Van Gogh Oceans”

Tsunami Pictures

Tsunamis are some of the most devastating natural disasters. The recent Boxing Day Tsunami was generated by an enormous earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on December 26, 2004. Coastlines in Asia were inundated with enormous tsunami surges, killing more than 200,000 people.

Here are some Tsunami pictures capture by satellite that show before and after images of the regions affected by the tsunami.

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This photograph shows the devastation that happened in Sri Lanka on December 26th. This picture was taken by the DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, and shows how the whole coastline was inundated with water.

Devastation in Indonesia
Devastation in Indonesia

Perhaps the most devastation from the tsunami occurred in Indonesia. This is an image of the town of Lhoknga, Indonesia. It was completely wiped off the map by the tsunami, except for the white mosque in the center of town.


Northern Sumatra
Northern Sumatra

This photograph, captured by NASA’s Terra satellite shows how the whole northwest coast of the island of Sumatra was hit hard by the tsunami. It looks like the vegetation was just scraped back from the edge of the island.

We have written many articles about the devastation from the 2004 tsunami. Here’s an article about how GPS could be used for a tsunami warning system.

You can get many more tsunami pictures from NASA from their Earth observation page.