Thinking about supplying a young planet with water, the mind naturally heads for the outer reaches of the Solar System. After all, beyond the ‘snowline,’ where temperatures are cold enough to allow water to condense into ice grains, volatiles are abundant (this also takes in methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide, all of which can condense into ice grains). The idea that comets or water-rich asteroids bumping around in a chaotic early Solar System could deliver the water Earth needed for its oceans makes sense, given our planet’s formation well inside the snowline.

We’ve just looked at Ceres, in celebration of the Dawn mission’s achievements there, and we know that Ceres has an icy mantle and perhaps even an ocean beneath its surface. At 2.7 AU, the dwarf planet is right on the edge of traditional estimates for the snowline as it would have occurred in the early days of planet formation. Obviously, the snowline has a great deal to do with various models about the accretion of solid grains into planetesimals.

If I dig around in the archives, I can even show you an image of a snowline. The star below is V883 Orionis, from a stellar class called FU Orionis, a young, pre-main sequence star capable of major variability in brightness and spectral type. The snowline is easy to find here because an outburst in luminosity has heated up the protoplanetary disk, pushing the snowline outwards.

Image: This image of the planet-forming disc around the young star V883 Orionis was obtained by ALMA in long-baseline mode. This star is currently in outburst, which has pushed the water snowline further from the star and allowed it to be detected for the first time. The dark ring midway through the disc is the water snowline, the point from the star where the temperature and pressure dip low enough for water ice to form. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Cieza.

As sound an idea as water delivery via objects from beyond the snowline seems, it’s always wise to question our assumptions, and indeed, the issue is strongly debated. For a second scenario for Earth’s water is available. This is the idea that enough water-rich dust grains can accumulate to form boulders of kilometer size, objects that can contain large enough amounts of water to explain the amount we have on Earth. This is the so-called ‘wet-endogenous scenario,’ in which water in the early, still accreting Earth occurs in the form of hydrous silicates.

An interesting take on this comes from Martina D’Angelo (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) and colleagues, with a second paper in the process from W. F. Thi (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics) and team. How to defend the latter scenario given Earth’s formation well inside the snowline? The answer may lie in sheets of silicate materials called phyllosilicates, which as I’ve learned in preparing this piece, include the micas, chlorite, serpentine, talc, and the clay minerals. Usefully, they have interesting properties when it comes to water, retaining it when heated up to several hundreds of degrees centigrade.

Thus D’Angelo, supported by earlier work, notes that there is a way to preserve structural water even in the warmer regions of the protoplanetary disk. D’Angelo’s paper, supported by the still unpublished work of Thi’s team, explores how water from the gas phase can diffuse into the silicates well before the dust grains of the inner system have accreted into planetesimals.

The paper explains the astrophysical models for protoplanetary disks and the Monte Carlo simulations used for studying ice accretion on grains that were used in this work. The simulations show water vapor abundances, temperature and pressure radial profiles that identify where in the protoplanetary disk hydration of dust grains could have occurred. The results show that the ‘wet endogenous scenario’ can by no means be ruled out. From the paper, addressing the simulation results for water adsorption on a forsterite crystal lattice:

Our MC [Monte Carlo] models show that complete surface water coverage is reached for temperatures between 300 and 500 K. For hotter environments (600, 700 and 800 K), less than 30% of the surface is hydrated. At low water vapor density and high temperature, water cluster formation plays a crucial role in enhancing the coverage… The binding energy of adsorbed water molecules increases with the number of occupied neighboring sites, enabling a more temperature-stable water layer to form. Lateral diffusion of water molecules lowers the timescale for surface hydration by water vapor condensation by three order of magnitude with respect to an SCT model, ruling out any doubts on the efficiency of such process in a nebular setting.

Image: Artist impression of a very young star surrounded by a disk of gas and dust. Scientists suspect that rocky planets such as the Earth are formed from these materials. Credit & Copyright: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

D’Angelo and colleagues believe that between 0.5 and 10 Earth oceans worth of water can be produced by the agglomeration of hydrated grains in an Earth-sized planet in formation, depending on size differences among the grains. The timescale in question fits easily into the time necessary for grains to eventually accrete into larger boulders within the early Solar nebula. Now needed are simulations of grain growth that will help the researchers understand how water is retained on grain surfaces through periods of accumulation and collision.

So it may be that we have twin processes at work, with delivery of water from comets and asteroids playing a role in bulking up a young world with a latent supply of its own water.

The papers are Thi et al., “Warm dust surface chemistry in protoplanetary disks – Formation of phyllosilicates,” submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics, and D’Angelo et al., “On water delivery in the inner solar nebula: Monte Carlo simulations of forsterite hydration,” accepted at Astronomy & Astrophysics (preprint).