In the normal course of everyday life, we tend to think of the planets as immobile and unchanging. There are few things more reliable than the ground beneath our feet, but that’s only because our experiences are time-limited. Over fairly long time scales – even brief ones, in geologic time – we see worlds constantly changing and evolving, through both internal and external forces. For a planet, these events are not important, but we call them natural disasters and make movies about them. Like Oceans Rising, now broadcast on Peacock!
In it, scientist Josh Chamberlain attempts to warn the world of an upcoming flood, but is ignored and forced to build a boat to survive the coming deluge like a modern-day Noah. While the film offers a handy explanation involving a reverse electric field and the melting of the polar ice caps, the notion of changing planetary water levels isn’t all that far-fetched. At least if you take the broad view of time.
Recently, scientists from the University of Paris, University of Copenhagen, University of Bern and ETH Zurich revealed that Mars – famous for its dusty red surface and dry desert landscapes – may have to have once had more water than she rightly knew what to do with. That’s according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.
To understand what could have happened, we must first turn the clock back to just before the solar system existed. It all started with a huge cloud of gas with tiny solid dust particles mixed in. Slowly, under the persistent pull of gravity, this gas and dust began to come together in a process known as accretion. At first, there were only small objects, balls of earth, rock or ice. Later, these small objects grew larger, gathering more matter like a snowball rolling down an icy mountain. The largest of these conglomerates became the Sun. The finalists: the planets. But after the champion was crowned and the ribbons distributed, the solar system was left with a horrifying number of leftover ingredients, small objects that didn’t reach one of the planetary collection sites at time and which revolved around the solar system as if they were late. Because they were.
This period of late arrivals lasted approximately 700 million years, between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago and is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. Meanwhile, the planets have been slammed over and over again, like the cosmic version of Hundred Hand Slap by E. Honda.
One hypothesis about this time period is that the gas giants funneled small impactors – small being relative in this case, some of them were real firecrackers – into the inner solar system where they made cataclysmic contact with the smaller planets. rocky. Jupiter has since compensated for this attack and now seems to protect us from these same impactors, for the most part.
In those early days, however, it was difficult to be a booming rocky planet. According to the new paper, Mars endured a 100 million year period of its early development during which the celestial welcoming committee hit it with shotgun blast after shotgun blast from comets. and asteroids, many of which were carrying buckets full of water. In fact, Mars could have been the emperor of the oceans at the start of the solar system.
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Because Mars has no active plate tectonics that recycle its surface features, the Martian crust retains an ancient record of the planet’s history in the sediments. Researchers analyzed the variability of chromium isotopes in 31 Martian meteorites to get clues about the planet’s past. By studying these meteorites, which are effectively preserved pieces of an ancient, unaltered planet, scientists can gain insight into the planet’s original composition, development, and chemistry on the surface.
In short, by examining the composition of these meteorites, scientists can deduce how badly Mars was impacted at first, and thus estimate the amount of water that could have been delivered to the Red Planet by these impactors. When all the numbers were calculated, the team landed on a truly staggering number. The data suggests that Mars once had enough water to be covered by a planetary ocean at least 300 meters deep. Some estimates put it closer to a full kilometer.
Notably, these same impactors could have delivered organic molecules like amino acids – important note: these molecules would not have been alive but could have been some of the ingredients necessary for the subsequent emergence of life – potentially reigniting any potential life that could have arisen there. Meanwhile, Earth was recovering from a one-on-one with a protoplanet called Theia, which would eventually form the Moon. It’s like that when worlds collide, as the great philosopher Powerman 5000 would say.
The early solar system would have been a very different place, with a thriving, lush Mars and a shattered, melting Earth. But over time, the worlds turn, and so do the tables.
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