Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Billion Years B.C.

The Earth is still forming. Every year our planet accumulates another 40 million kilograms of material, mostly in the form of microscopic interplanetary dust. More sporadically the planet is also hit by larger bodies. Hundred meter diameter asteroids or cometary lumps arrive on average every thousand years, kilometer-sized civilization manglers arrive roughly every million years. This had been going on since the Earth coagulated from the material of the proto-planetary disk around a baby Sun 4.54 billion years ago.

As we turn back the cosmic clock the rate of accumulation of material increases. The pockmarked lunar surface has served as a proxy for reconstructing the history of asteroidal and cometary impact on the Earth. Without an atmosphere or significant geophysical activity the Moon has an excellent memory of impacts, while the Earth had eroded and resurfaced itself in continual reinvention. This record has indicated that during a period between about 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago the Earth must have been subject to a particularly brutal pummeling. A substantial fraction of the outer shell of our planet could have been laid down during what has become known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.
It's a fascinating time in the history of our world. The first indications that microbial life might have been at work come not so very long after this quite cataclysmic episode ended.

The reason for this infall of material seems likely to be connected to a period of dynamical evolution in the outer planets. Models suggest that both Neptune and Uranus could have migrated outwards and dug into a rich belt of outer, Kuiper or trans-Neptunian objects. Many of those distant small bodies would have been pushed into orbital paths that would eventually lead to passage through the inner solar system and collision with the Earth. At the same time, Jupiter and Saturn would have migrated inwards and could have scattered material from the asteroid belt onto inbound trajectories. Once the dynamical reorganization of the giant planets was finished the Late Heavy Bombardment would have tailed off. A settling planet Earth then gave rise to the tentative steps of biochemistry and single-celled organisms.

Or so we thought. New evidence is emerging from the terrestrial rock record that the Earth actually continued to be pounded by very significant impacts from 3.8 billion years ago all the way up to around 2.5 billion years ago. "Life Killer" type asteroid impacts seem to have happened roughly every 40 million years during this timespan, rather than every 500 million years as had previously been thought. 

So what gives? Where did these chunks of material come from? W. Bottke and colleagues have studied the gravitational dynamics of the teenage solar system and suggest that a now-depleted inner belt of material between Mars and Jupiter could have been scattered onto an inclined set of orbits - out of the plane of the planets. This population would then slowly "leak" into Earth-crossing paths, thereby greatly extending the tail of the Late Heavy Bombardment over another billion years or so. The leftovers of these bodies are still there, known as the Hungaria asteroids.

It all looks to fit rather well. The dynamics are believable, and provide a mechanism for the impacts that littered the planet with the molten globs of rock that geologists find in layers of ancient strata. There's just one teensy question. What are the implications for the evolution of life on Earth? While evidence of microbe-built structures like stromatolites from 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago remain a little controversial, the presence of a diverse planet-wide biosphere is pretty incontrovertible in the 3 to 2.5 billion year ago span. Apparently microbial life not only dealt with continual destructive asteroid impacts but really did rather well for itself.

This raises another intriguing issue. As W. Bottke and colleagues point out, this prolonged period of heavy impacts does effectively stop around 2.5 billion years ago. That is suspiciously coincident with the first signs of a rising oxygen content in the Earth's atmosphere (the "Great Oxidation Event"), and the eventual emergence of multi-cellular life somewhere around 1.6 to 2 billion years ago. Is there a connection? Could the continual accumulation of planetary material have held back the full-on evolutionary party of early life? It's highly speculative, but one is tempted to think that this might be further evidence for the incredible resilience of life and its near-relentless nature once it becomes entrenched on a planet.  

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