Asteroids probably ferried water to an infant Earth , but they weren’t responsible for our planet’s entire chemical inventory. Comets might have trucked in noble gases and much of the raw material needed for life, researchers suggest online March 9 in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
Noble gases don’t play well with the other elements. They typically shun chemical reactions, which means their abundances haven’t changed much since the formation of the solar system. Comets are thought to be frozen relics from the birth of the planets, but until recently researchers didn’t know how much of any noble gas comets carried.
That changed shortly after the Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August 2014 (SN: 9/6/14, p. 8) and made the first measurement of argon in a cometary atmosphere. It’s not much — roughly 1/100,000 the amount of water — but it’s several orders of magnitude more than the abundance of argon in icy asteroids. And that’s enough for comets to have been a major source of argon (and presumably other noble gases) to Earth, Bernard Marty, a geochemist at Petrographic and Geochemical Research Centerin Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy, France, and colleagues report.
The delivery arrived during the Late Heavy Bombardment about 600 million years after the start of the solar system, Marty and collaborators suggest. That’s when the moon (and supposedly Earth) was pummeled by debris from the outer solar system as the giant planets abruptly settled into their current orbits.
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