Water delivery to the inner Solar System is crucial for life to develop, for worlds like our own must have formed dry, well within the ‘snowline.’ We need a mechanism to bring volatiles from the ice-rich regions beyond 3 AU or so, and while much attention has been paid to comets, we’ve been learning more about asteroids as a second delivery option, for isotopic measurements have shown that Earth’s water has similarities to water bound up in carbonaceous asteroids.
Focusing on asteroid delivery, Pete Schultz (Brown University) and colleague Terik Daly, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University, have confronted the issues raised by early system impacts in a series of experiments. The results appear in the journal Science Advances. Says Schultz:
“Impact models tell us that impactors should completely devolatilize at many of the impact speeds common in the solar system, meaning all the water they contain just boils off in the heat of the impact. But nature has a tendency to be more interesting than our models, which is why we need to do experiments.”
Daly and Schultz found the equipment they needed to study volatile delivery at the Vertical Gun Range at NASA Ames. Their methodology was to fire marble-sized projectiles similar in composition to water-rich carbonaceous chondrite asteroids at a dry target made of pumice power. The speed at impact is some 5 kilometers per second, producing debris that can be analyzed in search of water traces.
Image: Hypervelocity impact experiments, like the one shown here, reveal key clues about how impacts deliver water to asteroids, moons, and planets. In this experiment, a water-rich impactor collides with a bone-dry pumice target at around 18,000 kilometers per hour. The target was designed to rupture partway through the experiment in order to capture materials for analysis. This high-speed video, taken at 130,000 frames per second, slows down the action, which in real time is over in less than a second. Credit: Schultz Lab / Brown University.
The results are a useful window into water delivery. The heat of the impact destroys much of the impactor, while a vapor plume then forms that contains water that was inside the impactor. Inside the plume itself, melted materials and breccias — particles of shattered rock re-formed within a fine-grained matrix — contain some of the original water in recaptured form.The original impactor may be gone, in other words, but a portion of its internal water can survive.
The implications for the early Solar System are clear, as the paper notes:
The fact that the amorphous, glassy component—not projectile survivors—constitutes the primary reservoir for impact-delivered water is critical for extrapolating these experiments. Impact melt production increases with impact speed. If impact melt derived primarily from the target successfully traps water during collisions among planetary bodies (as it does in experiments), then higher-speed impacts may still deliver significant quantities of water.
Image: Samples of impact glasses created during an impact experiment. In impact experiments, these glasses capture surprisingly large amounts of water delivered by water-rich, asteroid-like impactors. Credit: Schultz Lab / Brown University.
The authors calculate that carbonaceous chondrite impactors should be able to deliver up to 30 percent of their internal water to silicate bodies under conditions of impact speeds and angles that we would expect during the early phases of planet formation. Impacts at velocities high enough to vaporize the volatiles still allow for the recapture of those volatiles through impact melts and breccias, so water can be incorporated into the growing planetesimals.
“[T]hese new experiments raise the possibility that growing terrestrial planets trap water in their interiors as they grow, which would profoundly affect their geodynamical evolution,” the authors write. It’s a finding that also helps us explain water distribution later on in the system, such as water ice found on the Moon’s surface in the rays of the Tycho crater, or asteroid-derived water that could account for ice deposits in the polar regions of Mercury.
“The point is that this gives us a mechanism for how water can stick around after these asteroid impacts,” Schultz adds. “And it shows why experiments are so important because this is something that models have missed.”
The paper is Daly & Schultz, “The delivery of water by impacts from planetary accretion to present,” Science Advances Vol. 4, No. 4 (25 April 2018). Full text.