Modern theory from ancient impacts

September 15, 2020

Around 4 billion years ago, the solar system was far less hospitable than we find it now. Many of the large bodies we know and love were present, but probably looked considerably different, especially the Earth. We know from a range of sources, including ancient meteorites and planetary geology, that around this time there were vastly more collisions between, and impacts from, asteroids originating in the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt.

Knowledge of these events is especially important to us, as the time period in question is not only when the surface of our planet was taking on a more recognizable form, but was also when life was just getting started. With more accurate details of Earth's rocky history, it could help researchers answer some long-standing questions concerning the mechanisms responsible for life, as well as provide information for other areas of life science.

"Meteorites provide us with the earliest history of ourselves," said Professor Yuji Sano from the Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute at the University of Tokyo. "This is what fascinated me about them. By studying properties, such as radioactive decay products, of meteorites that fell to Earth, we can deduce when they came and where they came from. For this study we examined meteorites that came from Vesta, the second-largest asteroid after the dwarf planet Ceres."

Sano and his team found evidence that Vesta was hit by multiple impacting bodies around 4.4 billion to 4.15 billion years ago. This is earlier than 3.9 billion years ago, which is when the late heavy bombardment (LHB) is thought to have occurred. Current evidence for the LHB comes from lunar rocks collected during the Apollo moon missions of the 1970s, as well as other sources. But these new studies are improving upon previous models and will pave the way for an up-to-date database of early solar impact records.

"That Vesta-origin meteorites clearly show us impacts earlier than the LHB raises the question, 'Did the late heavy bombardment truly occur?'" said Sano. "It seems to us that early solar system impacts peaked sooner than the LHB and reduced smoothly with time. It may not have been the cataclysmic period of chaos that current models describe."
-end-
Journal article

Mizuho Koike, Yuji Sano, Naoto Takahata, Tsuyoshi Iizuka, Haruka Ono & Takashi Mikouchi. Evidence for early asteroidal collisions prior to 4.15 Ga from basaltic eucrite phosphate U-Pb chronology. Earth and Planetary Science Letters Volume 549, 1 November 2020, 116497.

DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2020.116497

Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012821X20304416

This study is partly supported by JSPS Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (KAKENHI) to MK (16J07403, 18J02005, and 19K14790), to MK, YS, and TM (19H00726), and by National Institute of Polar Research to HO (NIPR General Collaboration Project no. 28-30).

Useful links

Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute
https://www.aori.u-tokyo.ac.jp/english/

Marine Analytical Chemistry group
http://co.aori.u-tokyo.ac.jp/macg/english/home-english.html

Research Contact

Professor Yuji Sano
Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, The University of Tokyo,
5-1-5 Kashiwanoha, Kashiwa, Chiba 277-8564 JAPAN
Email: ysano@aori.u-tokyo.ac.jp

Press Contact

Mr. Rohan Mehra
Division for Strategic Public Relations, The University of Tokyo
7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-8654, JAPAN
Tel: +81-(0)80-9707-8450
Email: press-releases.adm@gs.mail.u-tokyo.ac.jp

About the University of Tokyo

The University of Tokyo is Japan's leading university and one of the world's top research universities. The vast research output of some 6,000 researchers is published in the world's top journals across the arts and sciences. Our vibrant student body of around 15,000 undergraduate and 15,000 graduate students includes over 4,000 international students. Find out more at http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/ or follow us on Twitter at @UTokyo_News_en.

University of Tokyo

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