When a meteorite enters a planet's atmosphere, extreme heat causes some of the minerals and organic matter on its outer crust to be released as water and carbon dioxide before it breaks up and hits the ground.
Researchers suggest the delivery of this water could have made Earth's and Mars' atmospheres wetter. The release of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide could have trapped more energy from sunlight to make Earth and Mars warm enough to sustain liquid oceans.
In the new study, researchers from Imperial College London analysed the remaining mineral and organic content of fifteen fragments of ancient meteorites that had crashed around the world to see how much water vapour and carbon dioxide they would release when subjected to very high temperatures like those that they would experience upon entering the Earth's atmosphere.
The researchers used a new technique called pyrolysis-FTIR, which uses electricity to rapidly heat the fragments at a rate of 20,000 degrees Celsius per second, and they then measured the gases released.
They found that on average, each meteorite was capable of releasing up to 12 percent of the meteorites' mass as water vapour and 6 percent of the meteorites' mass as carbon dioxide when entering an atmosphere. They concluded that contributions from individual meteorites were small and were unlikely to have a significant impact on the atmospheres of planets on their own.
The researchers then analysed data from an ancient meteorite shower called the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), which occurred 4 billion years ago, where millions of rocks crashed to Earth and Mars over a period of 20 million years.
Using published models of meteoritic impact rates during the LHB, the researchers calculated that 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and 10 billion tonnes of water vapour could have been delivered to the atmospheres of Earth and Mars each year.
This suggests that the LHB could have delivered enough carbon dioxide and water vapour to turn the atmospheres of the two planets into warmer and wetter environments that were more habitable for life, say the researchers.
Professor Mark Sephton, from Imperial's Department of Earth Science and Engineering believes the study provides important clues about Earth's ancient past:
"For a long time, scientists have been trying to understand why Earth is so water rich compared to other planets in our solar system. The LHB may provide a clue. This may have been a pivotal moment in our early history where Earth's gaseous envelope finally had enough of the right ingredients to nurture life on our planet."
Lead- author of the study, Dr Richard Court from Imperial's Department of Earth Science and Engineering, adds:
"Because of their chemistry, ancient meteorites have been suggested as a way of furnishing the early Earth with its liquid water. Now we have data that reveals just how much water and carbon dioxide was directly injected into the atmosphere by meteorites. These gases could have got to work immediately, boosting the water cycle and warming the planet."
However, researchers say Mars' good fortune did not last. Unlike Earth, Mars doesn't have a magnetic field to act as a protective shield from the Sun's solar wind. As a consequence, Mars was stripped of most of its atmosphere. A reduction in volcanic activity also cooled the planet. This caused its liquid oceans to retreat to the poles where they became ice.
For further information please contact:Colin Smith
Richard W. Court (1), Mark A. Sephton (2)
(1) Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London
(2) Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London
2. About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.
Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.
Colin Smith | EurekAlert!
NASA looks to solar eclipse to help understand Earth's energy system
21.07.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Scientists shed light on carbon's descent into the deep Earth
19.07.2017 | European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
Physicists have developed a new technique that uses electrical voltages to control the electron spin on a chip. The newly-developed method provides protection from spin decay, meaning that the contained information can be maintained and transmitted over comparatively large distances, as has been demonstrated by a team from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute. The results have been published in Physical Review X.
For several years, researchers have been trying to use the spin of an electron to store and transmit information. The spin of each electron is always coupled...
What is the mass of a proton? Scientists from Germany and Japan successfully did an important step towards the most exact knowledge of this fundamental constant. By means of precision measurements on a single proton, they could improve the precision by a factor of three and also correct the existing value.
To determine the mass of a single proton still more accurate – a group of physicists led by Klaus Blaum and Sven Sturm of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear...
The research team of Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle at the University of Freiburg's Institute of Biochemistry has long been exploring the functioning of nitrogenase....
A one trillion tonne iceberg - one of the biggest ever recorded -- has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica, after a rift in the ice,...
Physics supports biology: Researchers from PTB have developed a model system to investigate friction phenomena with atomic precision
Friction: what you want from car brakes, otherwise rather a nuisance. In any case, it is useful to know as precisely as possible how friction phenomena arise –...
21.07.2017 | Event News
19.07.2017 | Event News
12.07.2017 | Event News
21.07.2017 | Earth Sciences
21.07.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
21.07.2017 | Physics and Astronomy