From: LARRY KLAES (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Tue Mar 26 2002 - 09:35:20 PST
ASTEROID THEORY EXPLORES IMPACT ON EARTH LIFE
>From The Honolulu Advertiser, 25 March 2002
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
Talk about a big bang - a UH researcher offers evidence indicating that a
swarm of asteroids slammed into Earth, the moon and Mars some 3.9 billion
Such an event could have wiped out life on Earth - or helped generate it,
according to University of Hawai'i researcher Barbara Cohen.
Cohen and co-researcher David Kring, of the University of Arizona, put
together diverse bits of information to develop a compelling theory that
could help to explain why the oldest rocks on Earth, the moon and Mars are
all the same age - hundreds of years younger than the main bodies
Their concept is that something jerked a large number of rocks out of the
asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and sent them careening through the
inner solar system. Perhaps it was a burp in the orbit of Jupiter, changing
the gravitation field of the region; perhaps it was the formation of Uranus
and Neptune out of gas clouds; or perhaps it was any of a suggested series
of other events.
"We're looking for the initiating event, and whether it could happen again,"
said Cohen, a planetary scientist with the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics
and Planetology. That's next in the series of investigations that led to a
paper on the asteroid impacts, "Cataclysmic bombardment throughout the inner
solar system 3.9-4.0 Ga," in the Journal of Geophysical Research (Planets).
Their initial take on the likelihood of recurrence is that this was an
exceedingly rare event.
"We want to know what happened to the Earth because we want to know what
could happen in the future," Cohen said. The evidence suggests that the
asteroid catastrophe 3.9 billion years ago was an exceedingly rare event
that may have been associated with the formation of the solar system, and
therefore highly unlikely to happen again.
The scientists were intrigued by the finding that meteorites known to have
come from pieces of the moon had the same age as a meteorite known to be
from Mars, and the same age as the oldest known rocks on Earth. Because all
three bodies are believed to be older than that, something terrible must
have happened 3.9 billion years ago to cause the effects on all three of
Cohen and Kring feel that a disruption in the asteroid belt dislodged a
cluster of stony bodies that "came winging in" toward the inner planets.
There were so many of them, they crashed into multiple planets and probably
into the sun as well. Cohen said no one has been able to test the theory,
but she believes that Venus and Mercury were probably also hit.
"Eighty percent of the moon was resurfaced by remelting or settled dust,"
Cohen said - an indication of the severity of the impact.
An intriguing question is what impact this might have had on life. There are
some scientists who believe they see the chemical signature of single-celled
life already in place when the impacts took place. But fossils don't appear
for nearly another half-billion years-about 3.5 billion years ago.
"One possibility is that life already existed, and it survived.
Another is that (the asteroid impacts) provided the Earth with heat sources
and organic elements, and helped start life," she said. A third is that life
existed before but was wiped out by the impacts, so it had to start again.
"The impactors likely delivered biogenic materials, although it is not clear
if these were essential for life's origins," the authors said in their
The rogue asteroids slammed into a planet or moon perhaps every 10,000 years
or so - a heartbeat in geologic time. Most were probably sucked into the sun
by its immense gravity. Earth, because its gravity is stronger than the
moon's, probably got more impacts than the moon.
The craters that are the signatures of those impacts are still visible on
the moon, but are gone from Earth. That's because the moon has no weather to
modify the landscape through erosion and lacks Earth's plate tectonics.
On our planet, vast plates cover the surface like the pattern on a soccer
ball. The plates are in constant movement, some sliding under others, with
the rock remelting as it is driven into the depths. The process destroys and
re-forms the land. Only one part of the surface has remained exposed and
represents the oldest rocks on Earth. It's in Canada. On the Canadian
shield, Cohen said, is rock 3.9 billion years old. It shows evidence of
having formed earlier, then being transformed by an event in the time frame
of the presumed asteroid impacts.
Like the moon's, the surface of much of this planet would have been
re-formed by new lava flows and by the settling of the vast clouds of debris
that would have been tossed into the atmosphere with each new impact, she
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