Splatters of Molten Rock Signal Period of Intense Asteroid Impacts on Earth

on April 26, 2012 10:48 AM EDT

Earth impact
This image shows an artist’s depiction of a 10-kilometer (six-mile) diameter asteroid striking the Earth. Approximately 70 of these dinosaur killer-sized or larger impacts hit the Earth over a span that lasted between 3.8 and 1.8 billion years ago. They are capable of producing a global millimeter- to centimeter-thick rock layer that contains impact debris: sand-sized droplets, or spherules, of molten rock that rained down from the huge molten plumes made by the mega-impact. (Photo: Art by Don Davis)

New research reveals that the Archean era - a formative time for early life from 3.8 billion years ago to 2.5 billion years ago - experienced far more major asteroid impacts than had been previously thought, with a few impacts perhaps even rivaling those that produced the largest craters on the Moon, according to a paper published online today in Nature.

The fingerprints of these gigantic blasts are millimeter- to centimeter-thick rock layers on Earth that contain impact debris: sand-sized droplets, or spherules, of molten rock that rained down from the huge molten plumes thrown up by mega-impacts. This barrage of asteroids appears to have originated in an extended portion of the inner asteroid belt that is now mostly extinct. Computer models suggest the zone was likely destabilized about 4 billion years ago by the late migration of the giant planets from the orbits they formed on to where we find them today.

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The team conducting this study includes members or associates of the NASA Lunar Science Institute's Center of Lunar Origin and Evolution (CLOE), based at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colo.

Archean rocks are scarcer than rocks of any other age, and impact spherule beds have been found only in terrains where conditions were ideal for capture and preservation, such as in shales deposited on the seafloor below the reach of waves. At least 12 spherule beds deposited between 3.47 and 1.7 billion years ago (Ga) have been found, with most in the Archean; 7 between 3.23-3.47 Ga, 4 between 2.49-2.63 Ga and 1 between 1.7-2.1 Ga.

"The beds speak to an intense period of late bombardment of the Earth, but their source has long been a mystery," says CLOE Principal Investigator and SwRI Researcher Dr. William Bottke.

By comparison, the Chicxulub impact that is believed to have killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was the only known collision over the past half-billion years that made a spherule layer as thick as those of the Archean period.

"The Archean beds contain enough extraterrestrial material to rule out alternative sources for the spherules, such as volcanoes," says Bruce Simonson, a geologist from the Oberlin College and Conservatory who has studied these ancient layers for decades.

The timing of these major events is curious because they occur well after the presumed end of the so-called Late Heavy Bombardment, or LHB, of the Moon. This period occurred about 4 billion years ago and produced the largest lunar craters, or basins. The precise nature of the LHB continues to be debated, and testing what happened and for how long was the top science priority for future exploration of the Moon, according to a previously published report by the National Research Council.

The best available model of the LHB, often referred to as the Nice model after the observatory where it was developed in Nice, France, invokes a large-scale repositioning of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as a trigger for a solar system-wide bombardment of asteroids and comets. The extensive pummeling of the Earth and Moon identified in the Nice model, however, lasted 100- to 200-million years, not nearly long enough to explain the Archean spherule beds.

Source: Southwest Research Institute

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