Your Water Came from Where?

One interesting question when considering why Earth has life is from where did we get our water? This is important because essentially it is the difference between Earth and Venus. Both are rocky planets of about the same size. They each have similar amounts of carbon dioxide, with Venus having about 50% more than Earth, and four times the amount of nitrogen, but Venus is extremely short of water. If we are interested in knowing about whether there is life on other planets elsewhere in the cosmos, we need to know about this water issue. The reason Venus is hell and Earth is not is not that Venus is closer to the Sun (although that would make Venus warmer than Earth) but rather it has no water. What happened on Earth is that the water dissolved the CO2 to make carbonic acid, which in turn weathered rocks to make the huge deposits of lime, dolomite, etc that we have on the planet, and to make the bicarbonates in the sea.

One of the more interesting scientific papers has just appeared in Nature Astronomy ( although the reason I find it interesting may not meet with the approval of the authors. What the authors did was to examine a grain of the dust retrieved from the asteroid Itokawa by the Japanese Space agency and “found it had water on its surface”. Note it had not evaporated after millions of years in a vacuum. The water is produced, so they say, by space weathering. What happens is that the sun sends out bursts of solar wind which contains high velocity protons. Space dust is made of silicates, which involve silica bound to four oxygen atoms in a tetrahedron, and each oxygen atom is bound to something else. Suppose, for sake of argument, the something else is a magnesium atom. A high energy hydrogen nucleus (a proton) strikes it and makes SiOH and, say Mg+, with the Mg ion and the silicon atom remaining bound to whatever else they were bound to. It is fairly standard chemistry that 2SiOH → SiOSi plus H2O, so we have made water. Maybe, because the difference between SiOH on a microscopic sample of dust and dust plus water is rather small, except, of course, Si-OH is chemically bound to and is part of the rock, and rock does not evaporate. However, the alleged “clincher”: the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen on this dust grain was the same as Earth’s water.

Earth’s water has about 5 times more deuterium than solar hydrogen, Venus about a hundred times. The enhancement arises because if anything is to break the bond in H-O-D, the hydrogen is slightly more probable to go because the deuterium has a slightly stronger bond to the oxygen. Also, being slightly heavier, H-O-D is slightly less likely to get to the top of the atmosphere.

So, a light bulb moment: Earth’s water came from space dust. They calculate that this would produce twenty litres of water for every cubic meter of rock. This dust is wet! If that dust rained down on Earth it would deliver a lot of water. The authors suggest about half the water here came that way, while the rest came from carbonaceous chondrites, which have the same D/H ratio.

So, notice anything? There are two problems when forming a theory. First, the theory should account for everything of relevance. In practice this might be a little much, but there should be no obvious problems. Second, the theory should have no obvious inconsistencies. First, let us look at the “everything”. If the dust rained down on the Earth, why did not the same amount rain down on Venus? There is a slight weakness in this argument because if it did, maybe the water was largely destroyed by the sunlight. If that happened a high D/H ratio would result, and that is found on Venus. However, if you accept that, why did Earth’s water not also have its D/H ratio increased? The simplest explanation would be that it did, but not to extent of Venus because Earth had more water to dilute it. Why did the dust not rain down on the Moon? If the answer is the dust had been blown away by the time the Moon was formed, that makes sense, except now we are asking the water to be delivered at the time of accretion, and the evidence on Mars was that water was not there until about 500 million years later. If it arrived before the disk dust was lost, then the strongest supply of water would come closest to the star, and by the time we got to Earth, it would be screened by inner dust. Venus would be the wettest and it isn’t.

Now the inconsistencies. The strongest flux of solar wind at this distance would be what bombards the Moon, and while the dust was only here for a few million years, the Moon has been there for 4.5 billion years. Plenty of time to get wet. Except it has not. The surface of the dust on the Moon shows this reaction, and there are signs of water on the Moon, especially in the more polar regions, and the average Moon rock has got some water. But the problem is these solar winds only hit the surface. Thus the top layer or so of atoms might react, but nothing inside that layer. We can see those SiOH bonds with infrared spectroscopy, but the Moon, while it has some such molecules, it cannot be described as wet. My view is this is another one of those publications where people have got carried away, more intent on getting a paper that gets cited for their CV than actually stopping and thinking about a problem.

The Apollo Program – More Memories from Fifty Years Ago.

As most will know, it is fifty years ago since the first Moon landing. I was doing a post-doc in Australia at the time, and instead of doing any work that morning, when the word got around on that fateful day we all downed tools and headed to anyone with a TV set. The Parkes radio telescope had allowed what they received to be live-streamed to Australian TV stations. This was genuine reality TV. Leaving aside the set picture resolution, we were seeing what Houston was seeing, at exactly the same time. There was the Moon, in brilliant grey, and we could watch the terrain get better defined as the lander approached, then at some point it seemed as if the on-board computer crashed. (As computers go, it was primitive. A few years later I purchased a handheld calculator that would leave that computer for dead in processing power.) Anyway, Armstrong took control, and there was real tension amongst the viewers in that room because we all knew if anything else went wrong, those guys would be dead. There was no possible rescue. The ground got closer, Armstrong could not fix on a landing site, the fuel supply was getting lower, then, with little choice because of the fuel, the ground got closer faster, the velocity dropped, and to everyone’s relief the Eagle landed and stayed upright. Armstrong was clearly an excellent pilot with excellent nerves. Fortunately, the lander’s legs did not drop into a hole, and as far as we could tell, Armstrong chose a good site. Light relief somewhat later in the day to watch them bounce around on the lunar surface. (I think they were ordered to take a 4-hour rest. Why they hadn’t rested before trying to land I don’t know. I don’t know about you, but if I had just successfully landed on the Moon, and would be there for not very long, a four-hour rest would not seem desirable.)

In some ways that was one of America’s finest moments. The average person probably has no idea how much difficult engineering went into that, and how everything had to go right. This was followed up by six further successful landings, and the ill-fated Apollo 13, which nevertheless was a triumph in a different way in that despite a near-catastrophic situation, the astronauts returned to Earth.

According to the NASA website, the objectives of the Apollo program were:

  • Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
  • Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
  • Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
  • Developing human capability to work in the lunar environment.

The first two appear to have been met, but obviously there is an element of opinion there. It is debatable that the last one achieved much because there has been no effort to return to the Moon or to use it in any way, although that may well change now. Charles Duke turns 84 this year and he still claims the title of “youngest person to walk on the Moon”.

So how successful was the scientific program? In some ways, remarkably, yet in others there is a surprising reluctance to notice the significance of what was found. The astronauts brought back a large amount of lunar rocks, but there were some difficulties here in that until Apollo 17, the samples were collected by astronauts with no particular geological training. Apollo 17 changed that, but it was still one site, albeit with a remarkably varied geological variety. Of course, they did their best and selected for variety, but we do not know what was overlooked.

Perhaps the most fundamental discovery was that the isotopes from lunar rocks are essentially equivalent to earth rocks, and that means they came from the same place. To put this in context, the ratio of isotopes of oxygen, 16O/17O/18O varies in bodies seemingly according to distance from the star, although this cannot easily be represented as a function. The usual interpretation is that the Moon was formed when a small planet, maybe up to the size of Mars, called Theia crashed into Earth and sent a deluge of matter into space at a temperature well over ten thousand degrees Centigrade, and some of this eventually aggregated into the Moon. Mathematical modelling has some success at showing how this happened, but I for one am far from convinced. One of the big advantages of this scenario is that it shows why the Moon has no significant water, no atmosphere, and never had any, apart from some water and other volatiles frozen in deep craters at the South Pole that almost certainly arrived from comets and condensed there thanks to the cold. As an aside, you will often read that the lunar gravity is too weak to hold air. That is not exactly true; it cannot hold it indefinitely, but if it started with carbon dioxide proportional in mass, or even better in cross-sectional area, to what Earth has, it would still have an atmosphere.

One of the biggest disadvantages of this scenario is where did Theia come from? The models show that if the collision, which happened about 60 million years after the Earth formed, occurred from Theia having a velocity much above the escape velocity from Earth, the Moon cannot form. It gets the escape velocity from falling down the Earth’s gravitational field, but if it started far enough further out that would have permitted Theia to have lasted 60 million years, then its velocity would be increased by falling down the solar gravitational field, and that would be enhanced by the eccentricity of its trajectory (needed to collide). Then there is the question of why are the isotopes the same as on Earth when the models show that most of the Moon came from Theia. There has been one neat alternative: Theia accreted at the Earth-Sun fourth or fifth Lagrange point, which gives it indefinite stability as long as it is small. That Theia might have grown just too big to stay there explains why it took so long and starting at the same radial distance as Earth explains why the isotope ratios are the same.

So why did the missions stop? In part, the cost, but that is not a primary reason because most of the costs were already paid: the rockets had already been manufactured, the infrastructure was there and the astronauts had been trained. In my opinion, it was two-fold. First, the public no longer cared, and second, as far as science was concerned, all the easy stuff had been done. They had brought back rocks, and they had done some other experiments. There was nothing further to do that was original. This program had been a politically inspired race, the race was run, let’s find something more exciting. That eventually led to the shuttle program, which was supposed to be cheap but ended up being hideously expensive. There were also the deep space probes, and they were remarkably successful.

So overall? In my opinion, the Apollo program was an incredible technological program, bearing in mind from where it started. It established the US as firmly the leading scientific and engineering centre on Earth, at least at the time. Also, it got where it did because of a huge budget dedicated to one task. As for the science, more on that later.

Space Mining

Most readers will have heard that there are a number of proposals to go mine asteroids, or maybe Mars. The implication is that Earth will become short of resources, so we can mine things in space. However, if we mine there for the benefit here, how would we get such resources here, and in what form. If the resources are refined elsewhere, then there is the “simple” cost of getting them here. If we bring them down in a shuttle, we have to get the shuttle back up there, and the cost is huge. If on the other hand, we drop them (and gravity is cheap) we have to stop whatever we send from burning up in the atmosphere, so to control the system we have to build some sort of spacecraft out there to bring them down. Overall, this is unlikely to be profitable. On the other hand if we build structures in space, such as space stations, or on Mars for settlers, then obviously it is very much cheaper to use local resources, if we can refine them there.

So, what are the local resources? The answer is it depends on the history. All the solid elements are expelled in novae (light elements only) or supernovae (all). The very light elements lithium, beryllium and boron are rather rare because they tend to be destroyed in the star before the explosion. The elements vary in relative amounts made, and basically the heavier the element the less is made, and elements with an even number of protons are more common than elements with odd numbers. Iron, and to some extent nickel, are more common than those around them because the nuclei are particularly stable. The most common elements are magnesium, silicon and with iron about 10% less. Sulphur is about half as common, calcium and aluminium are about 6 – 8% as common as silicon, while the metals such as copper and zinc are about 100,000 times less common than aluminium. The message from all that is that unless there is some process that has sorted the various elements, an object in space is likely to have the composition of dust, which are mainly silicates, i.e. rock. There may well be metal sulphides as well, as there is a lot of sulphur there.

So what sorting could there be? The most obvious is that if the body formed close enough to the star during primary accretion, the heat in the accretion disk could be sufficient to melt the element, if it were there as an element. It appears that iron was, because we get iron meteorites and iron-cored meteorites. The accretion disk, of course, was primarily hydrogen, and at the melting point of iron, hydrogen will reduce iron oxides to iron, also making water. So we could expect asteroids to have iron cores? Well, we are sure most members of the asteroid belt do not, and the reason why not is presumably it did not get hot enough to melt iron where they formed. However, since the regolith (fine “soil”) on the Moon has iron dust in it, perhaps there was iron dust where the asteroids formed. However, the problem is what caused them to solidify. If they melted, steam would be created, and that would oxidise iron dust, so the iron then would be as an oxide, or a silicate.

The ores we have on Earth are there due to geochemical processing. For example, in the mantle, water forms a supercritical fluid that dissolves all sorts of things, including silica and gold. When this comes to the surface, it cools and deposits its solids, which is why gold is found in some quartz veins. The big iron oxide deposits we have were formed through carbon dioxide weathering iron-containing silicates (such as olivine and pyroxene) to make ferrous and magnesium solutions in the oceans. When oxygen came along, the ferrous precipitated to form goethite and haematite, which we now mine. All the ore deposits on Earth are there because of geochemical processing.

There will be limited such processing on Mars, and on the Moon. Thus on the Moon, as it cooled some materials crystallised out before others. The last to crystallise on the Moon was what we call KREEP, which stands for potassium, rare earths and phosphate, which is what it largely comprises. There is also anorthite, a calcium aluminosilicate on the Moon. As for Mars, it seems to be mainly basaltic, which means it is mainly iron magnesium silicate. The other elements will be there, of course, mixed up, but how do you get them out? Then there is the problem of chemical compatibility. Suppose you want rare earths? The rare earths are not that rare, actually, and are about as common as copper. But copper occurs in nice separate ores, at least on Earth, but rare earths have chemical properties somewhat similar to aluminium. For every rare earth atom, there are 100,000 aluminium atoms, all behaving similarly, although not exactly the same. So it is far from easy to separate them from the aluminium, then there is the problem of separating them from each other.

There is what I consider a lot of nonsense spoken about asteroids. Thus one was reported to be “mainly diamond”. On close questioning, it had an infrared signature typical of carbon. That would be typically amorphous graphitic carbon, and no, they did not know specifically it was diamond. Another proposal was to mine asteroids for iron. There may well be some with an iron core, and Vesta probably does have such a core, but most do not. I have heard some say there will be lots of platinum there. Define lots, because unless there has been some form of sorting, it will be there proportionately to its dust concentration, and while there is more than in most bits of basalt, there will still be very little. In my opinion, beware of investment opportunities to get rich quickly through space mining.

Origin of the Rocky Planet Water, Carbon and Nitrogen

The most basic requirement for life to start is a supply of the necessary chemicals, mainly water, reduced carbon and reduced nitrogen on a planet suitable for life. The word reduced means the elements are at least partly bound with hydrogen. Methane and ammonia are reduced, but so are hydrocarbons, and aminoacids are at least partly reduced. The standard theory of planetary formation has it (wrongly, in my opinion) that none of these are found on a rocky planet and have to come from either comets, or carbonaceous asteroids. So, why am I certain this is wrong? There are four requirements that must be met. The first is, the material delivered must be the same as the proposed source; the second is they must come in the same proportions, the third is the delivery method must leave the solar system as it is now, and the fourth is that other things that should have happened must have.

As it happens, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen are not the same through the solar system. Each exists in more than one isotope (different isotopes have different numbers of neutrons), and the mix of isotopes in an element varies in radial distance from the star. Thus comets from beyond Neptune have far too much deuterium compared with hydrogen. There are mechanisms by which you can enhance the D/H ratio, such as UV radiation breaking bonds involving hydrogen, and hydrogen escaping to space. The chemical bonds to deuterium tend to be several kJ/mol. stronger than bonds to hydrogen. The chemical bond strength is actually the same, but the lighter hydrogen has more zero point energy so it more easily breaks and gets lost to space. So while you can increase the deuterium to hydrogen ratio, there is no known way to decrease it by natural causes. The comets around Jupiter also have more deuterium than our water, so they cannot be the source. The chondrites have the same D/H ratio as our water, which has encouraged people to believe that is where our water came from, but the nitrogen in the chondrites has too much 15N, so it cannot be the source of our nitrogen. Further, the isotope ratios of certain heavy elements such as osmium do not match those on Earth. Interestingly, it has been argued that if the material was subducted and mixed in the mantle, it would be just possible. Given that the mantle mixes very poorly and the main sources of osmium now come from very ancient plutonic extrusions, I have doubts on that.

If we look at the proportions, if comets delivered the water or carbon, we should have five times more nitrogen, and twenty thousand times more argon. Comets from the Jupiter zone get around this excess by having no significant nitrogen or argon, and insufficient carbon. For chondrites, there should be four times as much carbon and nitrogen to account for the hydrogen and chlorine on Earth. If these volatiles did come from chondrites, Earth has to be struck by at least 10^23 kg of material (that is, ten followed by 23 zeros). Now, if we accept that these chondrites don’t have some steering system, based on area the Moon should have been struck by about 7×10^21 kg, which is approximately 9.5% of the Moon’s mass. The Moon does not subduct such material, and the moon rocks we have found have exactly the same isotope ratios as Earth. That mass of material is just not there. Further, the lunar anorthosite is magmatic in origin and hence primordial for the Moon, and would retain its original isotope ratios, which should give a set of isotopes that so not involve the late veneer, if it occurred at all.

The third problem is that we are asked to believe that there was a narrow zone in the asteroid belt that showered a deluge of asteroids onto the rocky planets, but for no good reason they did not accrete into anything there, and while this was going on, they did not disturb the asteroids that remain, nor did they disturb or collide with asteroids closer to the star, which now is most of them. The hypothesis requires a huge amount of asteroids formed in a narrow region for no good reason. Some argue the gravitational effect of Jupiter dislodged them, but the orbits of such asteroids ARE stable. Gravitational acceleration is independent of the body’s mass, and the remaining asteroids are quite untroubled. (The Equivalence Principle – all bodies fall at the same rate, other than when air resistance applies.)

Associated with this problem is there is a number of elements like tungsten that dissolve in liquid iron. The justification for this huge barrage of asteroids (called the late veneer) is that when Earth differentiated, the iron would have dissolved these elements and taken them to the core. However, they, and iron, are here, so it is argued something must have brought them later. But wait. For the isotope ratios this asteroid material has to be subducted; for them to be on the continents, they must not be subducted. We need to be self-consistent.

Finally, what should have happened? If all the volatiles came from these carbonaceous chondrites, the various planets should have the same ratio of volatiles, should they not? However, the water/carbon ratio of Earth appears to be more than 2 orders of magnitude greater than that originally on Venus, while the original water/carbon ratio of Mars is unclear, as neither are fully accounted for. The N/C ratio of Earth and Venus is 1% and 3.5% respectively. The N/C ratio of Mars is two orders of magnitude lower than 1-2%. Thus if the atmospheres came from carbonaceous chondrites:

Only the Earth is struck by large wet planetesimals,

Venus is struck by asteroidal bodies or chondrites that are rich in C and especially rich in N and are approximately 3 orders of magnitude drier than the large wet planetesimals,

Either Earth is struck by a low proportion of relatively dry asteroidal bodies or chondrites that are rich in C and especially rich in N and by the large wet planetesimals having moderate levels of C and essentially no N, or the very large wet planetesimals have moderate amounts of carbon and lower amounts of nitrogen as the dry asteroidal bodies or chondrites, and Earth is not struck by the bodies that struck Venus,

Mars is struck only infrequently by a third type of asteroidal body or chondrite that is relatively wet but is very nitrogen deficient, and this does not strike the other bodies in significant amounts,

The Moon is struck by nothing,

See why I find this hard to swallow? Of course, these elements had to come from somewhere, so where? That is for a later post. In the meantime, see why I think science has at times lost hold of its methodology? It is almost as if people are too afraid to go against the establishment.

Ancient Physics – What Causes Tides? The Earth Moves!

I am feeling reasonably pleased with myself because I now have book 2 of my Gaius Claudius Scaevola trilogy, Legatus Legionis, out as an ebook on Amazon. This continues the story set during the imperium of Caligulae, and the early imperium of Claudius, and concludes during the invasion of Britain. I shall discuss some of the historical issues in later posts, but the story also has an objective of showing what science is about.

In my last post, I showed how the ancients could “prove” the Earth could not go around thy Sun. Quite simply, orbital motion is falling motion, and if things fell at different rates depending on their mass, the Earth would fall to bits. It doesn’t. So, what went wrong? Quite simply, nobody checked, and even more surprisingly, nobody noticed. Why not? My guess is that, quite simply, they knew, it was obvious, so why bother looking? So the first part is showing the Earth moves around the Sun is to have my protagonist actually see three things fall off a high bridge, and what he sees persuades him to check. I think that part of success in science comes from having an open mind and observing things despite the fact that you were not really intending to look for them. It is the recognizing that which you did not expect that leads to success.

That, however, merely permits the Earth to go around the Sun. The question then is, how could you prove it, at the time? My answer is through the tides. What do you think causes the tides? Quite often you see the statement that the Moon pulls on the water. While true, this is a bit of an oversimplification because it does not lift the water; if it did, there would be a gap below. In fact, the vector addition of forces shows the Moon makes an extremely small change in the Earth’s gravity, and the net force is still very strongly downwards. To illustrate, do you really think you can jump higher when the Moon is above you? There is a second point. In orbital motion (and the Earth goes around a centre of gravity with the Moon) all things fall at the same acceleration, but the falling is cancelled out because the sideways velocity takes the body away at exactly the correct rate to compensate. This allowed my protagonist to see what happens (although the truth is a little more complicated). The key issue is the size of the Earth. The side nearest the Moon is not moving fast enough, so there is a greater tendency to fall towards the Moon; the far side is moving too fast, so there is a greater tendency for water to be thrown outwards. There is, of course, still a strong net force towards the centre of the Earth, but when not directly under the Moon, the two forces are not exactly opposed, and hence the water flows sideways towards the point under the Moon. The same thing happens for the Sun. This is admittedly somewhat approximate, but what I have tried to capture is how someone in the first century who did not know the answer could conceivably reach the important conclusion, namely that the Earth moves. If it moves, because the Sun stays the same size, it must move in a circle. (It actually moves in an ellipse, but the eccentricity is so small you cannot really detect the change in the size of the Sun.)

 What I hope to have shown in these posts, and in the two novels, is the excitement of science, how it works and what is involved using an example that should be reasonably comprehensible to all. The same principles apply in modern science, except of course that once the basic idea is obtained, the following work is a bit more complicated.