Limestones dated at around 470 Ma in Sweden contain highly altered chondritic meteorites, ranging in mass up to 3.4 kg and up to 20 cm across, along with chromite grains and high iridium. There are so many that investigators have estimated a flux of extraterrestrial debris that was a hundred times greater than at present. The remarkable repository is matched in age by sediments rich in chromites in central China. The Darriwilian Stage (460-470 Ma) of the Ordovician is also notable for evidence of powerful downslope sediment movement in many continental margin sequences. John Parnell of Aberdeen University reviews the many megabreccias or olistostromes of this geologically short time span (Parnell, J. 2009. Global mass wasting at continental margins during Ordovician high meteorite influx. Nature Geoscience, v. 2, p. 57-61). Most seem to be associated with continental margins of the mid-Ordovician Southern Hemisphere. While some occur at what were probably seismically unstable volcanic arcs, most are associated with stable carbonate platforms. Together with the link in time to evidence for enhanced meteorite flux, this association suggests slope failure associated with large impacts. However, the megabreccias are so widespread that they are unlikely to have been formed by a single tsunami resulting from one giant impact. Indeed there is no evidence for a catastrophic event, either as a large crater or evidence for mass extinction: the mid Ordovician was a time of rising faunal diversity (see The Great Ordovician Diversification in September 2008 issue of EPN). Parnell calculates that there may have been as many as 10 Chicxulub-sized impactors per million years during the Darriwilian, but the lack of catastrophic consequences suggests that the megabreccias may have resulted from a great many smaller events, probably of bodies less than 300 m across. That would also explain the lack of global evidence traditional sought to identify impacts, such as iridium, glass spherules and shocked mineral grains. If he is correct, then other olistostromes of different ages in aseismic settings could point to extraterrestrial causes.
Experiments on formation of organic compounds by impacts
Many mechanisms have been speculatively proposed for the origin of complex organic chemicals from which life may have originated on Earth. The best known of these is the 1929 Oparin-Haldane hypothesis that life began with simple organic compounds formed from methane and ammonia in the early atmosphere, followed by more complex compounds formed in the seas through a variety of reactions. This was tested by Miller and Urey in the 1950s, using electrical discharges through a simulation of such a reducing atmosphere, but current views are that the early atmosphere was rich in CO2 and nitrogen rather than reduced methane and ammonia. Another possibility is synthesis of organic compounds as a result of impact energy; very abundant early in Earth’s history. This idea has been tested experimentally using a propellant gun to create high-velocity impacts into a mixture of solid carbon, iron, nickel, water and nitrogen: a highly simplified scenario of ordinary chondrites bombarding atmosphere and ocean (Furukawa,Y. et al. 2009. Biomolecule formation by oceanic impacts on early Earth. Nature Geoscience, v. 2, p. 62-66). The experiments were performed under conditions that excluded possible contamination. Yet they yielded a wealth of organic molecules, including fatty acids, amines and an amino acid (glycene) found in DNA. Scaling up the experimental yields to the mass of meteoritic material accreted to the Earth during the Hadean Eon (of the order of 10 24 g), the authors estimate that at least 1017 g of organic material would have been present in the surface environment by the time life eventually emerged. Furukawa et al. rule out the delivery of ready-made organics by carbonaceous chondrites, in which a great variety has been found. As well as their decomposition by the heat of entry, the lack of metallic iron in carbonaceous chondrites would promote oxidation rather than reduction of organic compounds preformed in early evolution of the Solar System.
Moon-forming impact dated
One of the major discoveries that arose from the lunar samples returned by the Apollo astronauts was that the pale-coloured lunar highlands were made almost entirely of calcium-rich plagioclase feldspar: they are made of anorthosite. In the early 1970s Joe Smith of the University of Chicago realised that the only way vast amounts of such single-mineral igneous rocks could have formed was by massive fractional crystallisation. Low-density feldspar must have floated on top of what had been literally a magma ocean. Although Smith did not put forward the idea that a molten moon had formed through a giant collision between the Earth and a passing Mars-sized planet, it was his concept that pointed strongly in that direction. Inevitably, much of the Earth would also have been melted by such a monstrous catastrophe – material that eventually became the Moon had probably been vaporised before condensing to form our satellite.
The Apollo samples are still objects of research, especially as new analytical methods develop. One such new method is the dating of single, tiny zircons; even of their individual zones. Later impacts on the Moon formed a variety of breccias, samples of which are handy as they include fragments of many rock types in one specimen. One of these has helped zero-in on just when the magma ocean began to crystallise (Nemchin, A. et al. 2009. Timing of crystallization of the lunar magma ocean constrained by the oldest zircon. Nature Geosciences, v. 2, p. 133-136). In fact advanced mass spectrometry dated 41 tiny spots in a single half-millimetre zircon grain, revealing a spectrum of ages between <4.35 Ga and a maximum of 4.417 ± 0.006 Ga. The oldest marks the minimum age for the start of crystallisation of the molten Moon and thus for the impact that formed the Moon. For comparison, the earliest material found on Earth – also a zircon but one transported in sediment to become part of a much younger sandstone – is 4.404 Ga old. The authors suggest that the bulk of the lunar highland crust had solidified within 100 Ma of the collision