Nav: Home

A new timeline of Earth's cataclysmic past

August 12, 2019

Welcome to the early solar system. Just after the planets formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, our cosmic neighborhood was a chaotic place. Waves of comets, asteroids and even proto-planets streamed toward the inner solar system, with some crashing into Earth on their way.

Now, a team led by University of Colorado Boulder geologist Stephen Mojzsis has laid out a new timeline for this violent period in our planet's history.

In a study published today, the researchers homed in on a phenomenon called "giant planet migration." That's the name for a stage in the evolution of the solar system in which the largest planets, for reasons that are still unclear, began to move away from the sun.

Drawing on records from asteroids and other sources, the group estimated that this solar system-altering event occurred 4.48 billion years ago--much earlier than some scientists had previously proposed.

The findings, Mojzsis said, could provide scientists with valuable clues around when life might have first emerged on Earth.

"We know that giant planet migration must have taken place in order to explain the current orbital structure of the outer solar system," said Mojzsis, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences. "But until this study, nobody knew when it happened."

It's a debate that, at least in part, comes down to moon rocks collected by Apollo astronauts--many of which seemed to be only 3.9 billion years old, hundreds of millions of years younger than the moon itself.

To explain those ages, some researchers suggested that our moon, and Earth, were slammed by a surge of comets and asteroids around that time. But not everyone agreed with the theory, Mojzsis said.

"It turns out that the part of the moon we landed on is very unusual," he said. "It is strongly affected by one big impact, the Imbrium Basin, that is about 3.9 billion years old and affects nearly everything we sampled."

To get around that bias, the researchers decided to compile the ages from an exhaustive database of meteorites that had crash landed on Earth.

"The surfaces of the inner planets have been extensively reworked both by impacts and indigenous events until about 4 billion years ago," said study coauthor Ramon Brasser of the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo. "The same is not true for the asteroids. Their record goes back much further."

But those records, the team discovered, only went back to about 4.5 billion years ago.

For the researchers, that presented only one possibility: The solar system must have experienced a major bombardment just before that cut-off date. Very large impacts, Mojzsis said, can melt rocks and variably reset their radioactive ages, a bit like shaking an etch-a-sketch.

Mojzsis explained that this carnage was likely kicked off by the solar system's giant planets, which researchers believe formed much closer together than they are today. Using computer simulations, however, his group demonstrated that those bodies started to creep toward their present locations about 4.48 billion years ago.

In the process, they scattered the debris in their wake, sending some of it hurtling toward Earth and its then-young moon.

The findings, Mojzsis added, open up a new window for when life may have evolved on Earth. Based on the team's results, our planet may have been calm enough to support living organisms as early as 4.4 billion years ago.
-end-
Other co-authors on the study include Nigel Kelly, formerly of CU Boulder, Oleg Abramov at the Planetary Science Institute and Stephanie Werner at the University of Oslo.

The Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) is one of Japan's ambitious World Premiere International research centers, whose aim is to achieve progress in broadly inter-disciplinary scientific areas by inspiring the world's greatest minds to come to Japan and collaborate on the most challenging scientific problems. ELSI's primary aim is to address the origin and co-evolution of the Earth and life.

University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.