Category Archives: Planetary, extraterrestrial geology, and meteoritics

Steam-bath Earth

The Earth’s mantle probably contained a significant amount of water from the start. Its earliest history was one of intense bombardment, including the impact that formed the Moon. Together with the conversion of gravitational potential energy to heat while the core was settling out from the mantle, impacts would have kept its overall temperature high enough to prevent water vapour from condensing on the surface until such heat input ceased and heat loss by radiation allowed the surface rapidly to cool. The atmosphere would have been rich in water vapour. Evidence from zircons that are the earliest tangible materials yet recovered hint at the formation of Zr-rich magmas – probably granitic in the broad sense – about 100 Ma after the Moon-forming event (see EPN July 2001: Zircons’ window on the Hadean). Yet no trace of substantial granitic rocks that old have ever been found.

Don Baker and Kassandra Sofonio of McGill University in Montreal, Canada have considered processes other than partial melting or fractional crystallisation that may have been possible during the earliest Hadean. In particular they have looked at one thought once to be a contender in the genesis of granite and latterly sidelined (Baker, D.R. & Sofonio, K. 2017. A metasomatic mechanism for the formation of Earth’s earliest evolved crust. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 463, p. 48-55; ). They heated powdered artificial samples that chemically resembled the Earth’s original silicate mantle in sealed double capsules – an inner part containing the silicate powder and an outer one containing water. The capsules were held at around 727°C for a time and then quenched. The outer part of each capsule was found to be a glass of roughly granite composition. The experimental design ensured that superheated water diffused across the inner-outer capsule wall. So the ‘granite’ must have formed by a metasomatic process – essentially preferential solution of its component elements in supercritical water – the experimental temperature being insufficient to partially melt the ultramafic charge in the inner capsule.

Baker and Sofonio conclude that degassing of this metasomatic fluid – silicate-rich ‘steam’ – may have produced substantial masses of sialic crust on the Earth’s surface. Removal of material produced in such a manner would also have extracted trace elements with an affinity for granite from the early mantle – so-called incompatible elements. The subsequent recycling of such granitic blobs back into the mantle may explain geochemical signs in >500 Ma younger Archaean crust – produced by ‘normal’ igneous processes – of incompatible-element enriched reservoirs in the Early mantle.

A ‘recipe’ for Earth’s accretion, without water

The Earth continues to collect meteorites, the vast majority of which are about as old as our planet; indeed many are slightly older. So it has long been thought that Earth originally formed by gravitational accretion when the parental bodies of meteorites were much more abundant and evenly distributed. Meteorites fall in several classes, metallic (irons) and several kinds that contain silicate minerals, some with a metallic component (stony irons) others without, some with blebs or chondrules of once molten material (chondrites) and others that do not (achondrites), and more subtle divisions among these general groups. In the latter half of the 20th century geochemists and cosmochemists became able to compare the chemical characteristics of different meteorite classes with that of the Sun –from its radiation spectrum – and those of different terrestrial rocks – from direct analysis. The relative proportions of elements in chondrites turned out to match those in the Sun – inherited from the gas nebula from which it formed – better than did other classes. The best match with this primitive composition turned out to be the chemistry of carbonaceous chondrites that contain volatile organic molecules and water as well as silicates and sulfides. The average chemistry of one sub-class of carbonaceous chondrites (C1) has been chosen as a ‘standard of standards’ against which the composition of terrestrial rocks are compared in order that they can be assessed in terms of their formative processes relative to one another. For a while carbonaceous chondrites were reckoned to have formed the bulk of the Earth through homogeneous accretion: that is until analyses became more precise at increasingly lower concentrations. This view has shifted …

Geochemistry is a complex business(!), bearing in mind that rocks that can be analysed today predominantly come from the tiny proportion of Earth that constitutes the crust. The igneous rocks at the centre of wrangling how the whole Earth has evolved formed through a host of processes in the mantle and deep crust, which have operated since the Earth formed as a chemical system. To work out the composition of the primary source of crustal igneous rocks, the mantle, involves complex back calculations and modelling. It turns out that there may be several different kinds of mantle. To make matters worse, those mantle processes have probably changed considerably from time to time. To work back to the original formative processes for the planet itself faces the more recent discovery that different meteorite classes formed in different ways, different distances from the Sun and at different times in the early evolution of the pre-Solar nebula. Thankfully, some generalities about chemical evolution and the origin of the Earth can be traced using different isotopes of a growing suite of elements. For instance, lead isotopes have revealed when the Moon formed from Earth by a giant impact, and tungsten isotopes narrow-down the period when the Earth first accreted. Incidentally, the latest ideas on accretion involve a series of ‘embryo’ planets between the Moon and Mars in size.

An example of an E-type Chondrite (from the Ab...

An example of an enstatite chondrite (from the Abee fall) in the Gallery of Minerals at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Calculating from a compendium of isotopic data from various types of meteorite and terrestrial materials, Nicolas Dauphas of the University of Chicago has convincingly returned attention to a model of heterogeneous accretion of protoplanetary materials from different regions of the pre-Solar nebula (Dauphas, N. 2017. The isotopic nature of the Earth’s accreting material through time. Nature, v. 541, p. 521-524; doi:10.1038/nature20830). His work suggests that the first 60% of Earth’s accretion involved materials that were a mixture of meteorite types, half being a type known as enstatite chondrites. These meteorites are dry and contain grains of metallic iron-nickel alloy and iron sulfides set in predominant MgSiO3 the pyroxene enstatite. The Earth’s remaining bulk accumulated almost purely from enstatite-chondrite material. A second paper in the same issue of Nature (Fischer-Gödde, M. & Kleine, T. 2017. Ruthenium isotopic evidence for an inner Solar System origin of the late veneer. Nature, v. 541, p. 525-527; doi:10.1038/nature21045) reinforces the notion that the final addition was purely enstatite chondrite.

This is likely to cause quite a stir: surface rocks are nothing like enstatite chondrite and nor are rocks brought up from the upper mantle by volcanic activity or whose composition has been back-calculated from that of surface lavas; and where did the Earth’s water at the surface and in the mantle come from? It is difficult to escape the implication of a mantle dominated by enstatite chondrite From Dauphas’s analysis, for lots of other evidence from Earth materials seem to rule it out. One ‘escape route’ is that the enstatite chondrites that survived planetary accretion, which only make up 2% of museum collections, have somehow been changed during later times.  The dryness of enstatite chondrites and the lack of evidence for a late veneer of ‘moist’ carbonaceous chondrite in these analyses cuts down the options for delivery of water, the most vital component of the bulk Earth and its surface.  Could moister meteorites have contributed to the first 60% of accretion, or was  post-accretion cometary delivery to the surface able to be mixed in to the deep mantle? Nature’s News & Views reviewer, Richard Carlson of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, offers what may be a grim outlook for professional meteoriticists: that perhaps “the meteorites in our collection are not particularly good examples of Earth’s building blocks” (Carlson, R.W. 2017. Earth’s building blocks. Nature, v. 541, p. 468-470; doi:10.1038/541468a).

Animation of how the Solar System may have formed.

K-T (K-Pg) boundary impact probed

One of the most eagerly followed ocean-floor drilling projects has just released some results. Its target is 46 km radially away from the centre of the geophysical anomaly associated with the Chixculub impact structure just to the north of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. In the case of large lunar impact craters the centre is often surrounded by a ring of peaks. Modelling suggests such features are produced by the deep penetration of immense seismic shock waves. In the first minute these excavate and fling out debris to leave a cavity penetrating deep into the crust. Within three minutes the cavity walls collapse inwards creating a rebound superficially similar to the drop flung upwards after an object is dropped in liquid. This, in turn, collapses outwards to emplace smashed and partially melted deep crustal material on top of what were once surface materials, creating a crustal inversion beneath a mountainous ring of Himalayan dimensions that surrounds a by-now shallow crater. That is the story modelled from what is known about well-studied, big craters on the Moon and Mercury. Chixculub is different because the impact was into the sea and involved debris-charged tsunamis that finally plastered the actual impact scar with sediments. The drilling was funded for several reasons, some palaeontological others relating to the testing of theories of impact processes and their products. Chixculub is probably the only intact impact crater on Earth, and the first reports of findings are in the second category (Morgan, J.V. and 37 others 2016. The formation of peak rings in large impact craters. Science, v. 354, p. 878-882; doi: 10.1126/science.aah6561).

English: K/T extinction event theory. An artis...

Artist’s depiction of the Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago that many scientists say is the most direct cause of the dinosaurs’ disappearance (credit: Wikipedia)

The drill core, reaching down to about 1.3 km below the sea floor penetrates post-impact Cenozoic sediments into a 100 m thick zone of breccias containing fragments of impact melt rock, probably the infill of the central crater immediately following the first few minutes of impact. Beneath that are coarse grained granites representing the middle continental crust from original depths around 10 km. The granite is intensely fractured and riven by dykes and pods of impact melt, and contains intensely shocked grains that typify impacts that produce a transient pressure of ~60 GPa – around six hundred thousand times atmospheric pressure. From seismic reflection surveys this crustal material overlies as yet un-drilled Mesozoic sedimentary rocks. Its density is significantly less than that of unshocked granite – averaging 2.4 compared with 2.6 g cm3. So it is probably filled with microfractures and sufficiently permeable for water to have penetrated once the impact site had cooled. This poses the question, yet to be addressed in print, of whether or not this near-surface layer became colonised by microorganisms in the aftermath (Barton, P. 2016. Revealing the dynamics of a large impact. Science, v. 354, p. 836-837). That is, was the surrounding ocean sterilised at the time of the K-T (K-Pg) mass extinction?; an issue whose resolution is awaited with bated breath by the palaeobiology audience. OK; so theory about the physical process of cratering has been validated to some extent, but will later results be more interesting, outside the planetary sciences community?

Read more about impacts here and mass extinctions here .

Lunar gravity and the Orientale Basin

Mapping the Earth’s gravitational field once involved painstaking use of highly sensitive gravimeters at points on the surface, then interpolating values in the spaces between. How revealing maps produced in this way are depends on the spacing of the field sites, and that is still highly variable because of accessibility and how much money is available to carry out such a task in different areas. Space-borne methods have been around for decades.  One uses radar measurement of sea-surface height, which depends on the underlying gravitational field. The other deploys two satellites in tandem orbits (the US-German Aerospace Centre Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment – GRACE), the distance between them – measureable using radar –  varying along each orbit according to variations in the Earth’s gravity. Respectively, these methods have produced gravity maps of the ocean floor and estimates melting rates of ice caps and the amount of groundwater extraction from sedimentary basins. The problem with GRACE is that satellites need to avoid the Earth’s atmosphere by using orbits hundreds of kilometres above the surface, otherwise drag soon brings them down. So the resolution of the gravity maps that it produces is too coarse (about 270 km) for most useful applications. If a world has no atmosphere, however, there is no such limit on orbital altitude, other than surface topography. A similar tandem-system to GRACE has been orbiting the Moon at 55 km since 2011. The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission has produced full coverage of lunar gravity at a resolution of 20 km. In a later phase of operation, GRAIL has been skimming the tops of the highest mountains on the Moon at an average altitude of 6 km; close enough to give a resolution of between 3 and 5 km.

Lunar Orbiter 4 image of the Mare Orientale ba...

The Mare Orientale basin on the Moon. (credit: Wikipedia)

This capacity has given a completely new take on lunar near-surface structure, about as good as that provided by conventional gravity mapping for parts of the Earth. The first pay-off has been for the best preserved major impact feature on the lunar surface: the Orientale basin that formed at the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment of the Solar System, around 3.8 billion years ago. The ~400 km diameter Orientale basin is at the western border of the moon’s disk visible from Earth, and looks like a gigantic bullseye. Its central crater, floored by dark-coloured basalt melted from the mantle by the power of the impact, is surrounded by three concentric rings extending to 900 km across; a feature seen partially preserved around even larger lunar maria. The structure of such giant ringed basins – also seen on other bodies in the Solar System – has been something of a puzzle since their first recognition on the Moon. A popular view has been that they are akin to the rippling produced dropping a pebble in water, albeit preserved in now solid rock.

The Orientale basin superimposed by the strength of the moon's gravity field. Areas shaded in red have higher gravity, while areas in blue have the least gravity. (Credit: Ernest Wright, NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio)

The Orientale basin superimposed by the strength of the moon’s gravity field. Areas shaded in red have higher gravity, while areas in blue have the least gravity. (Credit: Ernest Wright, NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio)

GRAIL has allowed planetary scientists to model a detailed cross section through the lunar crust (Zuber, M.T. and 27 others, 2016. Gravity field of the Orientale basin from the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory Mission. Science, v. 354, p. 438-441). The 40 km thick anorthositic (feldspar-rich) lunar crust has vanished from beneath the central crater, which is above a great upwards bulge of the lunar mantle mantled by about 2 km of mare basalts. The shape of the crust-mantle boundary beneath the rings shows that it has been thickened by anorthositic debris flung out by the impact. But the rings seem to be controlled by huge faults that penetrate to the mantle: signs of 2-stage gravitational collapse of the edifice produced initially by the impact.

More on planetary impacts

Impact linked to the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary event

The PalaeoceneEocene (P-E) boundary at 55.8 Ma marks the most dramatic biological changes since the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary 10 million years earlier. They included the rapid expansions of mammals and land plants and major extinction of deep-water foraminifera.  It was a time of sudden global warming (5-10°C in 10-20 ka) superimposed on the general Cenozoic cooling from the ‘hothouse’ of the Cretaceous Period. It coincided with a decrease in the proportion of 13C in marine carbonates.  Because photosynthesis, the source of organic carbon, favours light 12C, such a negative δ13C “spike” is generally ascribed to an unusually high release of organic carbon to the atmosphere.  The end-Palaeocene warming may have resulted from a massive release of methane from gas-hydrate buried in shallow seafloor sediments. But another process may yield such a signature; massive burning of organic material at the land surface. Since its discovery, the P-E thermal maximum has been likened to the situation that we may face should CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning continue to rise without control. Unsurprisingly, funds are more easily available for research on this topic than, say, ‘Snowball Earth’ events.

Climate change during the last 65 million year...

Climate change during the last 65 million years. The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum is labelled PETM. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three seafloor sediment cores off the east coast of the US that include the P-E boundary have been found to contain evidence for an impact that occurred at the time of the δ13C “spike” (Schaller, M.F. et al. 2016. Impact ejecta at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Science, v. 354, p. 225-229). The evidence is dominated by tiny spherules and tear-shaped blobs of glass, some of which contain tiny crystals of shocked and high-temperature forms of silica (SiO2). These form part of the suite of features that have been used to prove the influence of asteroid impacts. Two other onshore sites have yielded iridium anomalies at the boundary, so it does look like there was an impact at the time. The question is, was it large enough either to cause vast amounts of methane to blurt out from shall-water gas hydrates or set the biosphere in fire? Two craters whose age approximates that of the P-E boundary are known, one in Texas the other in Jordan, with diameters of 12 and 5 km respectively; far too small to have had any global effect. So either a suitably substantial crater of the right age is hidden somewhere by younger sediments or the association is coincidental – the impact that created the Texan crater could conceivably have flung glassy ejecta to the area of the three seafloor drilling sites.

Almost coinciding with the spherule-based paper’s publication another stole its potential thunder. Researchers at Southampton University used a mathematical model to investigate how a methane release event might have unfolded (Minshull, T.A. et al. 2016. Mechanistic insights into a hydrate contribution to the Paleocene-Eocene carbon cycle perturbation from coupled thermohydraulic simulations. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 43, p. 8637-8644, DOI: 10.1002/2016GL069676). Their findings challenge the hypothesized role of methane hydrates in causing the sudden warming at the P-E boundary. But that leaves out the biosphere burning, which probably would have neded a truly spectacular impact.

More on mechanisms for ancient climate change

The nearest Earth-like planet

What could be more exciting for exobiologists and planetary scientists than to discover that a nearby star is orbited by a planet approximately the same mass as the Earth that may support liquid water: a world in the ‘Goldilocks zone’? It seems that Proxima Centauri, the Sun’s closest companion star (4.2 light years distant), might have such a planet (Anglada-Escudé, G. And 30 others 2016. A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri. Nature, v. 536, p. 437-440).  It is one of 34 candidates found to date with various levels of likelihood for having the potential to produce life and support it. To fit the bill a planet first has to orbit a star at a distance where the stellar energy output is unlikely to vapourise any surface water yet is sufficient to keep it at a temperature above freezing point, i.e. the ‘Goldilocks’ or circumstellar habitable zone is closer to a cool star than to a hot one. Note that the liquid-water criterion requires that the planet also has an atmosphere with sufficient pressure to maintain liquid water. It also needs to have a mass close to that of the Earth (between 0.1 to 5 Earth masses) and a similar density, i.e. a candidate needs to be dominated by silicates so that it has a solid surface rather than being made mainly of gases and liquids.

The location of Alpha Centauri A and B, Proxim...

The location of Alpha Centauri A and B, Proxima Centauri and the Sun in the Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram. (credit: Wikipedia)

Proxima Centauri b, as the planet is called, was not discovered by the Kepler space telescope using the transit method (drops in a star’s brightness as a planet transits across its disk) but by terrestrial telescopes that measure the Doppler shifts in starlight as it wobbles because of the gravitational affect of an orbiting planet. As well as being close, Proxima Centauri is much smaller than the Sun so such effects are more pronounced, especially by planets orbiting close to it. The planet that has excited great interest has an orbital period of only 11.2 Earth days so is much closer to its star and may have a surface temperature (without any greenhouse effect) of 234 K (21 degrees less than that of Earth). The wobble suggests a mass and radius are likely to be 1.3  and between 0.8 to 1.4 times those of Earth, respectively. So Proxima Centauri b is probably a silicate-rich world. But, of course, such limited information gives no guarantee whatever of the presence of liquid water and an atmosphere that can support it. Neither is it possible to suggest a day length. In fact, such a close orbit may have resulted in the planet tidally locked in synchrony with its orbit, in the manner of the Moon showing only one face to the Earth. Moreover, its star is a red dwarf and is known to produce a prodigious X-ray flux, frequent flares and probably a stream of energetic particles, from which only a planet with a magnetic field is shielded. All red dwarfs seem to have such characteristics, and the list of possible Earth-like planets show them to be the most common hosts.

It is too early to get overexcited as technologies for astronomical detection of atmospheres and surface composition are about a decade off at the earliest. Being so close makes it tempting for some space agency to plan sending tiny probes (around 1 gram) using a laser propulsion system that is under development. Anything as substantial as existing planetary probes and certainly a crewed mission is unthinkable with current propulsion systems – a one-way trip of 80 thousand years and stupendous amounts of fuel.

Oceans of magma, Moon formation and Earth’s ‘Year Zero’

That the Moon formed and Earth’s geochemistry was reset by our planet’s collision with another, now vanished world, has become pretty much part of the geoscientific canon. It was but one of some unimaginably catastrophic events that possibly characterised the early Solar System and those around other stars. Since the mantle geochemistry of the Earth’s precursor was fundamentally transformed to that which underpinned all later geological events, notwithstanding the formation of the protoEarth about 4.57 Ga ago, I now think of the Moon-forming event as our homeworld’s ‘Year Zero’. It was the ‘beginning’ of which James Hutton reckoned there was ‘no vestige’. Any modern geochemist might comment, ‘Well, there must be some kind of signature!’, but what that might be and when it happened are elusive, to say the least. One way of looking for answers is, as with so many thorny issues these days, to make a mathematical model. James Connelly and Martin Bizzarro of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have designed one based on the fact that one of the volatile elements that must have been partially ‘blown off’ by such a collision is lead and, of course, that is an element with several isotopes that are daughters of long-term decay of radioactive uranium and thorium (Connelly, J.N. & Bizzarro, M. 2016. Lead isotope evidence for a young formation age of the Earth–Moon system. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 452, p. 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2016.07.010).

Artist’s impression of the impact of a roughly Mars-size planet with the proto-Earth to form an incandescent cloud, from part of which the Moon formed.

Artist’s impression of the impact of a roughly Mars-size planet with the proto-Earth to form an incandescent cloud, from part of which the Moon formed. A NASA animation of lunar history can be viewed here.

Loss of volatile daughter isotopes of Pb produced by the decay schemes of highly refractory isotopes of U and Th would have reset the U-Pb and Th-Pb isotopic systems and therefore the radiogenic ‘clocks’ that depend on them in the same way as melting or high-temperature metamorphism resets the simpler 87Rb-87Sr decay scheme. Each radioactive U isotope has a different decay rate that produces a different Pb isotope daughter (235U Þ 207Pb; 238U Þ 206Pb, so it is possible to devise means of using present-day values of ratios between Pb isotopes, such as 207Pb/206Pb, 206Pb/204Pb and 207Pb/204Pb, to work back to such a ‘closure’ time. In short, that is the approach used by Connelly and Bizzarro. The most complicated bit of that geochemical ruse is estimating values of the ratios for the Earth’s modern mantle and for the Solar system in general – a procedure based on what we can actually measure: lots of mantle-derived basalts and lots of meteorites. Cutting out some important caveats, the result of their model is quite a surprise: ‘Year Zero’ on their account was between 4426 and 4417 Ma years ago, which is astonishingly precise. And it is pretty close to the measured age of the of lunar Highland anorthosites – products of fractional crystallisation of the Moon’s early magma ocean – and also to that of the oldest zircons on Earth. But is also about 60 Ma later than previous estimates

The Connelly and Bizzarro paper follows hard on the heels of another with much the same objective  (Snape, J.F. and 8 others 2016. Lunar basalt chronology, mantle differentiation and implications for  determining the age of the Moon. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 451, p. 149-158. Once again omitting a great deal of argument, Snape and colleagues end up with an age for the isotopic resetting of the lunar mantle of 4376 Ma to the nearest 18 Ma; i.e. an age significantly different from that arrived at by Connelly and Bizzarro. So the answer to the question, ‘When was there a vestige of a beginning?’ is, ‘It depends on the model’… Thankfully, neither estimate for ‘Year Zero’ has much bearing on the big, practical questions, such as, ‘When did life form?’, ‘Has there always been plate tectonics?’

More on the origin of the early Solar System and formation of the Earth-Moon system

Tungsten isotopes provide a ‘vestige of a beginning’

Apart from ancient detrital zircons no dated materials from the Earth’s crust come anywhere near the age when our home world formed, which incidentally was derived by indirect means. Hutton’s famous saying towards the close of the 18th century, ‘The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, – no prospect of an end’ seems irrefutable. Hardly surprising, you might think, considering the frantic pace of events that have reworked the geological record for four billion years and convincing evidence that not long after accretion the Moon-forming collision may have melted most of the early mantle. But there is a way of peering beyond even that definitive catastrophe. The metal tungsten, as anyone from the steel town of Rotherham will tell you, alloys very nicely with iron and makes it harder, stronger and more temperature resistant. Most of the Earth’s original complement of tungsten probably ended up in the core; it is a siderophile element. But traces can be detected in virtually any rock and, of course, in W-rich ore bodies. Its interest to modern-day geochemists lies in its naturally occurring isotopes, particularly 182W, a proportion of which forms by decay of a radioactive isotope of hafnium (182Hf). Or rather it did, for 182Hf has a half-life of about 9 million years. Only a vanishingly small amount from a nearby supernova that may have triggered  formation of the solar system remains undecayed.

Artistic impression of the early Earth before Moon formation. (Source: Creative Commons)

Artistic impression of the early Earth before Moon formation. (Source: Creative Commons)

A sign of the former presence of 182Hf in the early Earth comes from higher amounts of its daughter isotope 182W in some Archaean rocks (3.96 Ga) than in younger rocks. That excess is probably from undecayed  182Hf  in asteroidal masses that bombarded the Earth between 4.1 and 3.8 Ga. Now it turns out that some much younger flood basalts from the Ontong Java Plateau on the floor of the West Pacific Ocean (~120 Ma) and Baffin Island in northern Canada (~60 Ma) also contain anomalously high 182W/184W ratios (Rizo, H. et al. 2016. Preservation of Earth-forming events in the tungsten isotopic composition of modern flood basalts. Science, v. 352, p. 809-812; see also: Dahl, T.W. 2016. Identifying remnants of early Earth. Science, v. 352, p. 768-769). A different explanation is required for these occurrences. The flood basalts must have melted from chemically anomalous mantle, which originally contained undecayed 182Hf. The researchers have worked out that this heterogeneity stems from a silicate-rich planetesimal that had formed in the first 50 Ma of the solar system’s history, and was accreted to the Earth before the Moon-forming event – lunar rocks formed after 182Hf became extinct. That catastrophe and the succeeding 4.51 Ga of mantle convection failed to mix the ancient anomaly with the rest of the Earth.

New ideas on evolution of the Solar System

The Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009 was designed to detect and measure planetary bodies orbiting other stars. It was hoped that it would help slake the growing thirst for signs of alien but Earth-like worlds, extraterrestrial life and communications from other sentient beings. Results from the Kepler mission have, however, fostered a growing awareness that all is not well with the simple, Laplacian formation of planetary systems. For a start not one of the thousands of exoplanets revealed by Kepler is in a planetary system resembling the Solar System, let along sharing crucial attributes with the Earth. Giant planets occur around only a tenth of the stars observed, and even fewer in stable, near-circular orbits. Although it is early days in the quest for Earth- and Solar System look-alikes, some unexpected contrasts with the Solar System are emerging. For instance, many of the systems have far more mass in close orbit around their star, including gas giants with orbital periods of only a few days and giant rocky planets. Such configurations defy the accepted model for the Solar System where an outward increase in the proportion of volatiles and ices was thought to be the universal rule. Could these ‘hot Jupiters’ have formed further out and then somehow been dragged into scorching proximity to their star? Answers to this and other questions have been sought from computer simulations of the evolution of nebulas. Inevitably, the software has been applied to that of the Solar System, and the results are, quite literally, turning ideas about its early development inside out (Batygin, K., Laughlin, G. & Morbidelli, A., 2016. Born of chaos. Scientific American, v. 314(May 2016),  p. 20-29).

An artist's impression of a protoplanetary disk

An artist’s impression of a protoplanetary disk (credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that at some stage in its growth from the protoplanetary disk the gravitational influence of a planet creates mass perturbations in the remainder of the disk. These feed back to the planet itself, to others and different parts of the disk to create complex and continuously evolving motions; individual planets may migrate inwards, outwards or escape their star’s influence altogether in a chaotic, unpredictable dance. Ultimately, some balance emerges, although that may involve the star engulfing entire worlds and other bodies ending up in interstellar space. It may also end up with worlds dominated by ‘refractory’ materials – i.e. rocky planets like Earth – orbiting further from their star than those composed of ‘volatiles’. In the case of the early Solar System the modelling revealed  Jupiter and Saturn drifting inwards and dragging planetesimals, dust, ice and gas with them to create a gap in the protoplanetary disk. Within about half a million years the two giant planets became locked in their present orbital resonance, which changed the distribution of angular momentum between them and reversed their motion to outward. The clearing of mass neatly explains the asteroid belt and Mars’s otherwise inexplicably small size.

One of the characteristics emerging from Kepler’s discoveries is that ‘super Earths’ orbit close to their star in other systems. Had they existed in the early Solar System the inward drive of Jupiter and Saturn and their ‘bow wave’ of smaller bodies would have had consequences. Swarms of matter from the ‘bow wave’ captured and dissipated angular momentum from the super Earths and dissipated it within a few hundred thousand years, thereby pushing them into death spirals to be consumed by the Sun. This explains what by comparison with Kepler data is a mass deficit in the inner Solar System. The rocky planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – accreted from the leftovers, perhaps over far longer periods than previously thought.

Intense bombardment of the Moon and the Earth took place during the first half billion years after they had formed, rising to a crescendo in its later stages. Formation of the mare basins brought it to a sudden close at 3.8 Ga, which coincides with the earliest evidence for life on Earth. Lunar evidence indicates that this Late Heavy Bombardment spanned 4.1 to 3.8 Ga. Previously explained by a variety of unsatisfying hypotheses it forms part of the new grand modelling of jostling among the giant planets. Once Jupiter and Saturn together with Uranus and Neptune had stabilised, temporarily, they accumulated lesser orbital perturbations from an outlying disk of evolving dust and planetesimals throughout the Hadean Eon. Ultimately, around 4.1 Ga, the giant planets shifted out of resonance, pushing Jupiter slightly inwards to its current orbit and thrusting the other 3 further outwards. Incidentally, this may have flung another giant planet out of solar orbit to the void. Over about 300 million years they restabilised their orbits through gravitational interaction with the Kuiper belt but at the expense of destabilising the icy bodies within it. Some fled inwards as a barrage of impactors, possibly to deliver much of the water in Earth’s oceans. By 3.8 Ga the giants had settled into their modern orbital set-up; hopefully for the last time.

Most exotic geology on far-off Pluto

About 9 months ago NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past the binary dwarf planets Pluto and Charon more than 9 years after launch. Everyone knew they would be frigid little worlds but the great risk was that they might turn out to be geologically boring. The relief when the first images finally arrived – New Horizons’ telecoms are pretty slow – was obvious on the faces at mission control. Even non-Trekkies, such as me, will be thrilled by the first in-depth, illustrated account (Moore, J.M. and 41 others 2016. The geology of Pluto and Charon through the eyes of New Horizons. Science, v. 351, p. 1284-1293), part of a five-article summary of early findings; the other 4 are on-line and scheduled for full publication later (summaries in Science, 18 March 2016, v. 351, p. 1280-1284). A gallery of images can be seen here and an abbreviated summary of the series here.

Pluto imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)

Pluto imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)

They are astonishing places, even at a resolution of only about 1 km (270 m for some parts), and only one fully illuminated hemisphere was imaged for each because of the short duration of the fly-by. Pluto is by no means locked in stasis, for one of its largest features, Sputnik Planum, is so lightly cratered that is must be barely 10 Ma old at most. It is a pale, heart-shaped terrane dominated by smooth plains, which have a tiled or cellular appearance, with flanking mountains up to 9 km high that appear to be a broken-up chaos. Much of it is made of frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. The dominant nitrogen ice has low strength which accounts for the large area of very low relief. The highly angular mountains are water ice that is buoyant and stronger relative to the others making up Sputnik Planum. Across the plain are areas of pitting and blades that seem to have formed by ice sublimation (solid to gas phase transitions) much like terrestrial snow or ice fields that have begun to degrade, and there are even signs of glacier-like flow.

4 Ga old cratered, upland terranes surrounding Sputnik Planum display grooved, ‘washboard’ and a variety of other surface textures reminiscent of dissection. The may have formed by long-term lateral flow (advection) of nitrogen ice and perhaps some melting. It is in this rugged part of Pluto that colour variation is spectacular, with yellows, blues and reds, probably due to deposition of hydrocarbon ‘frosts’ condensed from the atmosphere. That Pluto is still thermally active is shown by a few broad domes with central depressions that suggest volcanism, albeit with a magma made of ices. Areas of aligned ridges and troughs provide signs of tectonics, possibly extensional in nature.

Charon imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)

Charon imaged in approximately natural colour by New Horizons. (credit: NASA)

Charon  shows little sign of remaining active and capable of remoulding its surface. The hemisphere that has been imaged is spectacularly bisected by a 200 km wide belt of roughly parallel escarpments, ridges and troughs with a relief of about 10 km. Superimposed by large craters the extensional system probably dates back to the early history of the outer Solar System. Dominated by water ice it seems that Charon’s surface may have lost any more volatile ices by sublimation and loss to space. This suggests that superficial differences between two small worlds of similar density may be explained by Charon’s lower mass and gravitational field, resulting in the loss of its most volatile components that partly veneer the surface of Pluto.

Being hugely distant from any other sizeable body it is likely that the energy used to form cryovolcanic eruptions and deform the surface of both dwarf planets is due to internal radioactivity. Their similar mean density around 1.9 implies rocky cores that could host the required unstable isotopes. Being the only Kuiper Belt objects that have been closely examined naturally suggests that the rest of the myriad bodies that clutter it are similar. There are currently as many as 9 other sizable bodies suspected of eccentrically orbiting the Sun in the Kuiper Belt, including one that may be ten times more massive than Earth – a candidate for a ninth planet to replace Pluto, which was removed from that status following redefinition in 2006 of what constitutes a bona fide planet.