Earth, Moon, and Planets

, Volume 102, Issue 1–4, pp 435–445 | Cite as

What was the Volatile Composition of the Planetesimals that Formed the Earth?

  • Joseph A. NuthIII


Is there an asteroid type or meteorite class that best exemplifies the materials that went into the Earth? Carbonaceous chondrites were once the objects of choice, and in the minds of many this choice is still valid. However, the origin of primitive chondritic meteorites is unclear. At the extremes they could either be fragments of very small parent bodies that never became hot enough to undergo geochemical modification other than mild lithification, or remnants of the uppermost layers of a body that had undergone a significant degree of internal differentiation, while the top layers remained cool due to radiative heat loss or loss of volatiles to space. This latter case is problematic if one considers these objects as precursors to the Earth since the timescale for the evolution of such a small body could be longer than the timescale for the accretion of the Earth. Large-scale circulation of materials in the primitive solar nebula could greatly increase the diversity of materials near 1 AU while also making the entire inner solar system both more homogeneous and much wetter than previously expected. The total mass of the nebula is an important, but poorly constrained factor controlling the growth of planetesimals. There is also a selection effect that dominates our sampling of the planetesimals that may have existed 4.5 billion years ago; namely, small fragile bodies are more likely to be lost from the system or ground down by collisions between small bodies, yet these are precisely those that may have dominated the population from which the Earth accreted. The composition of these aggregates could have played a very important role in the early chemical evolution of the Earth. In particular, the Earth may have been much wetter and richer in hydrocarbons and other reducing materials than previously suspected.


Accretion Earth Planetesimals Water Organics Oceans Volatiles 



I would like to thank NASA’s Cosmochemistry Program for its generous support of my research program. I would also like to acknowledge the many helpful comments from Drs. Rhian Jones and Kevin Righter that greatly improved this manuscript, even though following all of their suggestions would have nearly doubled its original length.


  1. A.P. Boss, Evolution of the solar nebula. VI. Mixing and transport of isotopic heterogeneity. Astrophys. J. 616, 1265–1277 (2004)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  2. P.G. Brown, A.R. Hildebrand, M.E. Zolensky, M. Grady et al., The fall, recovery, orbit, and composition of the Tagish Lake meteorite: a new type of carbonaceous chondrite. Science 290, 320–325 (2000)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  3. A.G.W. Cameron, W. Benz, The origin of the moon and the single impact hypothesis. IV. Icarus 92, 204–216 (1991)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  4. R.M. Canup, Simulations of a late lunar forming impact. Icarus 168, 433–456 (2004)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  5. R.M. Canup, E. Asphaug, Origin of the Moon in a giant impact near the end of the Earth’s formation. Nature 412, 708–712 (2001)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  6. N.L. Chabot H. Haack, Evolution of asteroidal cores, in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II, ed. by D.S. Lauretta, H.Y. McSween (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 747–741Google Scholar
  7. C.F. Chyba, T.C. Owen, W.-H. Ip, Impact delivery of volatiles and organic molecules to earth, in Hazards Due to Comets and Asteroids, ed. by T. Gehrels (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1994), pp. 9–58Google Scholar
  8. F.J. Ciesla, Outward transport of high temperature materials around the midplane of the solar nebula. Science 318, 613–615 (2007)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  9. F.J. Ciesla, S.B. Charnley, The physics and chemistry of nebular evolution, in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II, ed by D.S. Lauretta, H.Y. McSween (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 209–230Google Scholar
  10. F.J. Ciesla, J.N. Cuzzi, The distribution of water in a viscous protoplanetary disk (abstract), in Lunar and Planetary Science, 36, #1479 (CD-ROM) (Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, Texas, 2005)Google Scholar
  11. F.J. Ciesla, J.N. Cuzzi, The evolution of the water distribution in a viscous protoplanetary disk. Icarus 181, 178–204 (2006)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  12. A. Das, G. Srinivisan, Rapid melting of planetesimals due to radioactive decay of Al-26: a case study of planetary bodies with variable aluminum abundance (abstract). Lunar Planetary Science Conference 38, #2370, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, Texas, 2007Google Scholar
  13. B. Donn, The accumulation and structure of comets, in Comets in the Post Halley Era, ed by R.L. Newburn, M. Neugebauer, J. Rahe (Kluwer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1991), pp. 335–359Google Scholar
  14. M.J. Drake, Origin of water in the terrestrial planets. Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 40, 519–527 (2005)ADSMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  15. M.J. Drake, K. Righter, Determining the composition of the earth. Nature 416, 39–44 (2002)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  16. E.D. Feigelson, K. Getman, L. Townsley, G. Garmire, T. Preibisch, N. Grosso, T. Montmerle, A. Muench, M. McCaughrean, Global X-Ray properties of the Orion Nebula region. Astrophys. J. Suppl. 160, 379–389 (2005)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  17. E. Feigelson, L. Townsley, M. Gudel, K. Stassun, X-ray properties of young stars and stellar clusters, in Protostars and Planets V, ed by B. Reipurth, D. Jewett, K. Keil (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 313–328Google Scholar
  18. R.S. Gomes, A. Morbidelli, H.F. Levison, Planetary migration in a planetesimal disk: why did Neptune stop at 30 AU? Icarus 170, 492–507 (2004)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  19. R.S. Gomes, H.F. Levison, K. Tsiganis, A. Morbidelli, Origin of the cataclysmic Late Heavy Bombardment period of the terrestrial planets. Nature 435, 466–469 (2005)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  20. A. Ghosh, S.J. Weidenschilling, H.Y. McSween, A. Rubin, Asteroidal heating and thermal stratification of the asteroid belt, in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II ed by D.S. Lauretta, H.Y. McSween (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 555–566Google Scholar
  21. M. Gounelle, F.H. Shu, H. Shang, A.E. Glassgold, E.K. Rehm, T. Lee, Extinct radioactivities and protosolar cosmic-rays: Self-shielding and light elements. Astrophys. J. 548, 1051–1070 (2001)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  22. M. Gounelle, O. Spurný, P.A. Bland, The orbit and atmospheric trajectory of the Orgueil meteorite from historical records. Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 41, 135–150 (2006)ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. L. Hartmann, N. Calvet, E. Gullbring, P. D’Alessio, Accretion and the evolution of T Tauri disks. Astrophys. J. 495, 385–400 (1998)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  24. L. Hartmann, J. Ballesteros-Paredes, E.A. Bergin, Rapid formation of molecular clouds and stars in the solar neighborhood. Astrophys. J. 562, 852–868 (2001)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  25. W.K. Hartmann, G. Ryder, L. Dones, D. Grinspoon, The time-dependent intense bombardment of the primordial Earth/Moon system, in Origin of the Earth and Moon, ed by R.M. Canup, K. Righter (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2000), pp. 493–512Google Scholar
  26. J.J. Hester, S.J. Desch, K.R. Healy, L.A. Leshin, The cradle of the solar system. Science 304, 1116–1117 (2004)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  27. G.R. Huss, Ubiquitous interstellar diamond and SiC in primitive chondrites: abundances reflect metamorphism. Nature 347, 159–162 (1990)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  28. G.R. Huss, R.S. Lewis, Noble gases in presolar diamonds II: component abundances reflect thermal processing. Meteoritics 29, 811–829 (1994)ADSGoogle Scholar
  29. G.R. Huss, R.S. Lewis, Presolar diamond, SiC, and graphite in primitive chondrites: abundances as a function of meteorite class and petrologic type. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta. 59, 115–160 (1995)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  30. G. R. Huss, A. E. Rubin, J.N. Grossman, Thermal metamorphism in chondrites, in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II, ed by D.S. Lauretta, H.Y. McSween (University of Arizona Press, Tucson 2006), pp. 567–586Google Scholar
  31. S. Jacobsen, How old is planet earth? Science 300, 1513–1514 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. S.B. Jacobsen, The Hf-W isotopic system and the origin of the Earth and Moon. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 33, 531–570 (2005)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  33. T. Kleine, C. Münker, K. Metzger, H. Palme, Rapid accretion and early core formation on asteroids and the terrestrial planets from Hf-W chronometry. Nature 418, 952–955 (2002)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  34. T. La Tourette, G.J. Wasserburg, Mg diffusion in anorthite: implications for the formation of early solar system planetesimals. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 158, 91–108 (1998)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  35. H.F. Levison, L. Dones, C.R. Chapman, S.A. Stern, M.J. Duncan, K. Zahnle, Could the lunar “Late Heavy Bombardment” have been triggered by the formation of Uranus and Neptune? Icarus 151, 286–306 (2001)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  36. H.F. Levison, A. Morbidelli, R. Gomes, D. Backman, Planet migration in planetesimal disks, in Protostars and Planets V, ed by B. Reipurth, D. Jewett, K. Keil (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 669–684Google Scholar
  37. J.I. Lunine, Origin of water ice in the solar system, in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II, ed by D.S. Lauretta, H.Y. McSween (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 309–219Google Scholar
  38. P. Meakin, B. Donn, Aerodynamic properties of fractal grains: implications for the primordial solar nebula. Astrophys. J. 329, L39–L41 (1988)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  39. S.L. Miller, A production of amino acids under possible primitive Earth conditions. Science 117, 528–529 (1953)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  40. S.L. Miller, H.C. Urey, Organic compound synthesis on the primitive earth. Science 130, 245–251 (1959)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  41. R.H. Nichols, Chronological constraints on planetesimal accretion, in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II, ed by D.S. Lauretta, H.Y. McSween (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 463–472Google Scholar
  42. F.J.M. Rietmeijer, Interplanetary dust particles, in Planetary Materials, Reviews in Mineralogy, vol. 36, ed by J.J. Papike (Mineralogical Society of America, Chantilly, Virginia, 1998), pp. 2-1–2-95Google Scholar
  43. K. Righter, Not so rare Earth? New developments in understanding the origin of the Earth and Moon. Chemie der Erde. 67, 179–200 (2007)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  44. K. Righter, M.J. Drake, E. Scott, Compositional relationships between meteorites and terrestrial planets, in Meteorites and the Early Solar System II, ed by D.S. Lauretta, H.Y. McSween (University of Arizona Press, Tucson 2006), pp. 803–828Google Scholar
  45. C.P. Sonett, D.S. Colburn, The principle of solar wind induced planetary dynamos. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 1, 326–346 (1968)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  46. C.P. Sonett, D.S. Colburn, K. Schwartz, Electrical heating of meteorite parent bodies and planets by dynamo induction from a premain sequence T Tauri “solar wind”. Nature 219, 924–926 (1968)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  47. M. Stimpfl, M.J. Drake, N.H. de Leeuw, P. Deymeier, A.M. Walker, Effect of composition on adsorption of water on perfect olivine (abstract). Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta. 70, A615 (2006a)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  48. M. Stimpfl, A.M. Walker, M.J. Drake, N.H. de Leeuw, P. Deymier, An angstrom-sized window on the origin of water in the inner solar system: atomistic simulation of adsorption of water on olivine. J. Cryst. Growth. 294, 83–95 (2006b)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  49. M. Wadhwa, Y. Amelin, A.M. Davis, G.W. Lugmair, B. Meyer, M. Gounelle, S.J. Desch, From dust to planetesimals: implications for the solar protoplanetary disk from short-lived radionuclides, in Protostars and Planets V, ed by B. Reipurth, D. Jewett, K. Keil (University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2006), pp. 835–848Google Scholar
  50. S.R. Weidenschilling, The origin of comets in the solar nebula: A unified model. Icarus 127, 290–306 (1997)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  51. G.W. Wetherill, Occurrence of giant impacts during the growth of the terrestrial planets. Science 228, 877–879 (1985)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  52. G.W. Wetherill, The formation and habitability of extra-solar planets. Icarus 119, 219–238 (1996)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  53. G.W. Wetherill, G.R. Stewart, Accumulation of a swarm of small planetesimals. Icarus 77, 330–357 (1989)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  54. G.W. Wetherill, G.R. Stewart, Formation of planetary embryos—effects of fragmentation, low relative velocity, and independent variation of eccentricity and inclination. Icarus 106, 190 (1993)CrossRefADSGoogle Scholar
  55. D.S. Woolum, P. Cassen, Astronomical constraints on nebular temperatures: implications for planetesimal formation. Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 34, 897–907 (1999)ADSGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© US Government 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Astrochemistry LaboratoryCode 691 NASA’s Goddard Space Flight CenterGreenbeltUSA

Personalised recommendations