A Ball on Mars

In New Zealand we are approaching what the journalists say is “The Silly Season”, the reason being that what with Christmas and New Year, and with it being in the middle of summer, a lot of journalists take holidays, and the media, with a skeleton staff, have to find almost anything to fill in the spaces that the media makes available. So, in the spirit of getting off to an early start, I noticed an image from Mars that looks as if someone left a cannon ball lying around. (The image is easily found on the web, but details are not, so I am not sure where it was found.) So what is it?


Needless to say there were some loopy suggestions from “the fringe”, but while it is easy to scoff, it is not so easy to try to guess what it is. The idea of a cannon ball and nothing else borders on the totally bizarre. So what can we see from the image? The remarkable point about this object is it seems to be lying on the surface, which suggest it did not strike it, as otherwise there would be indentations, or, if it were a meteorite, there would be a crater. There clearly isn’t. Equally, however, it looks smooth, which suggests it has been fused, which means it did not arise there. Some have suggested it is a haematite spherule, but that, to me is not that likely, in part because it is so large (the so-called “blueberries” were quite small) and also because there seems to be only one of it, while what created the “blueberries” created a lot of them. In my opinion, it is probably an iron meteorite, and the reason there is no impact crater is that it landed somewhere else, and rolled to this spot.

So maybe time to get a little more serious, and think about iron meteorites. What can we say about them? The Curiosity rover has also found “Egg rock”, which is an iron meteorite about the size of a golf ball. The Rover found iron, nickel and phosphorus as significant constituents, and the phosphorus is present as iron phosphide. There are two important issues here: how did the iron/nickel ball form separately from everything else, and equally important, how did iron phosphide form? That last question may need explanation, because phosphorus does not normally occur as a phosphide, and phosphides only form under highly reducing conditions. (Reducing conditions are usually in the presence of hydrogen and or an active metal at higher temperatures. The opposite, oxidising conditions, occurs when there is oxygen or water present, but not enough hydrogen or metal to scavenge the oxygen.)

Iron phosphide is known to occur in certain iron meteorites, but such meteorites can always be attributed to having formed at a little more than 1 A.U. from, or closer to the star. Chondrites that formed further out, such as in the asteroid belt, always have their phosphorus in the form of phosphate, which is a very stable, oxidised, phosphorus compound. The point about 1 A.U. (the distance of Earth from the sun) is that was where the temperatures were hot enough to melt iron, and the phosphide would form by the molten iron reacting with phosphate to form the phosphide and iron oxide.

Now for the reason for going on about this. One of the JPL team explained that iron meteorites originated from the cores of asteroids. The premise here is that during initial accretion, the dust assembled into an asteroid-sized object, the object got sufficiently hot and the iron and nickel melted and sunk to the core. Later, there was a massive collision and the asteroid’s core shattered, and the meteorites we see are the fragments from the shattering. (Note, the same people argue planets formed by asteroid sized bodies, and bigger, colliding and everything stick together. Here is having your cake and eating it in action.) The first question is, why did the rock melt? One possibility is radioactive isotopes, so it is possible, nevertheless for the explanation to work the asteroid had to melt hot enough to melt iron, and to hold those temperatures for long enough for the iron to work its way to the centre through the very viscous silicates in a very weak gravitational field. A further problem is that the phosphate would dissolve in the silicates, in which case it would not form iron phosphide because the iron would not get there. Calcium phosphate has a density of about 3, very similar to many of the silicates, so it might be difficult for iron phosphide to form in such an asteroid. Only a very few asteroids, and Vesta is one, have iron cores, and there are some reasons to believe Vesta formed somewhere else and moved.

The reason for my interest is that in my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that the first way accretion started was for the dust in the accretion disk to get hot enough to get sticky, or to form something that could later act like a cement. When the temperatures got up to about 1550 degrees Centigrade, iron melts and in the disk would form globules that would grow to a certain degree. Many of these would also find molten silicates to coat them, so the separation occurred through the temperature generated by the accreting star. Provided these could separate themselves from the gas flow (and there is at least a plausible mechanism) then these would become the raw materials for rocky planets to form. That is why (at least in my opinion) Earth, Venus and Mercury have large iron cores, but Mars does not.

That, of course, has got a little away from the “Martian cannonball” but part of forming a scientific theory is to let the mind wander, to check that a number of other aspects of the problem are consistent with the propositions. In my view, the presence of iron phosphide in an iron meteorite is most unlikely to have come from the core of an asteroid that got smashed up. I still like my theory, but then again, I suppose I am biased.



If you have been to more than the occasional science fiction movie, you will know that a staple is to have the trusty hero being pursued, but escaping by weaving in and out of an asteroid field. Looks like good cinema, they make it exciting, but it is not very realistic. If asteroids were that common, according to computer simulations their mutual gravity would bring them together to form a planet, and very quickly. In most cases, if you were standing on an asteroid, you would be hard pressed to see another one, other than maybe as a point like the other stars. One of the first things about the asteroid belt is it is mainly empty. If we combined all the mass of the asteroids we would get roughly 4% of the mass of the Moon. Why is that? The standard theory of planetary formation cannot really answer that, so they say there were a lot there, but Jupiter’s gravity drove them out, at the same time overlooking the fact their own theory says they should form a planet through their self-gravity if there were that amny of them. If that were true, why did it leave some? It is not as if Jupiter has disappeared. In my “Planetary formation and Biogenesis”, my answer is that while the major rocky planets formed by “stone” dust being cemented together by one other agent, the asteroid belt, being colder, could only manage dust being cemented together with two other agents, and getting all three components in the same place at the same time was more difficult.

There is a further reason why I do not believe Jupiter removed most of the asteroids. The distribution currently has gaps, called the Kirkwood gaps, where there are very few asteroids, and these occur at orbital resonances with Jupiter. Such a resonance is when the target body would orbit at some specific ratio to Jupiter’s orbital period, so frequently the perturbations are the same because in a given frame of reference, they occur in the same place. Thus the first such gap occurs at 2.06 A.U. from the sun, where any asteroid would go around the sun exactly four times while Jupiter went around once. That is called a 4:1 resonance, and the main gaps occur at 3:1, 5:2, 7:3 and 2:1 resonances. Now the fact that Jupiter can clear out these narrow zones but leave all the rest more or less unchanged strongly suggests to me there were never a huge population of asteroids and we are seeing a small residue.

The next odd thing about asteroids is that while there are not very many of them, they change their characteristics as they get further from the star (with some exceptions to be mentioned soon.) The asteroids closest to the sun are basically made of silicates, that is, they are essentially giant rocks. There appear to be small compositional variations as they get further from the star, then there is a significant difference. How can we tell? Well, we can observe their brightness, and in some cases we can correlate what we see with meteorites, which we can analyse. So, further out, they get significantly duller, and fragments that we call carbonaceous chondrites land on Earth. These contain a small amount of water, and organic compounds that include a variety of amino acids, purines and pyrimidines. This has led some to speculate that our life depended on these landing on Earth in large amounts when Earth was very young. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, I disagree. The reasons are that to get enough, a huge number of such asteroids would have to impact the Earth because they are still basically rock, BUT at the same time, hardly any of the silicate based asteroids would have to arrive, because if they did, the isotopes of certain elements on Earth would have to be different. Such isotope evidence also rules these out as a source of water, as does certain ratios such as carbon to chlorine. What these asteroid fragments do show, however, is that amino acids and other similar building blocks of life are reasonably easily formed. If they can form on a lump of rock in a vacuum, why cannot they form on Earth?

The asteroid belt also has the odd weird asteroid. The first is Ceres, the largest. What is weird about it is that it is half water. The rest are essentially dry or only very slightly wet. How did that happen, and more to the point, why did it not happen more frequently? The second is Vesta, the second largest. Vesta is rocky, although it almost certainly had water at some stage because there is evidence of quartz. It has also differentiated, and while the outer parts have olivine, deeper down we get members of the pyroxene class of rocks, and deeper down still there appears to be a nickel/iron core. Now there is evidence that there may be another one or two similar asteroids, but by and large it is totally different from anything else in the asteroid belt. So how did that get there?

I rather suspect that they started somewhere else and were moved there. What would move them is if they formed and came close to a planet, and instead of colliding with it, they were flung into a highly elliptical orbit, and then would circularise themselves where they ended up. Why would they do that? In the case of Vesta, at some stage it suffered a major collision because there is a crater near the south pole that is 25 km deep, and it is from this we know about the layered nature of the asteroid. Such a collision may have resulted in it remaining in orbit roughly near its present position, and the orbit would be circularised due to the gravity of Jupiter. Under this scenario, Vesta would have formed somewhere near Earth to get the iron core. Ceres, on the other hand, probably formed closer to Jupiter.

In my previous post, I wrote that I believed the planets and other bodies grew by Monarchic growth, but that does not mean there were no other bodies growing in a region. Monarchic growth means the major object grows by accreting things at least a hundred times smaller, but of course significant growth can occur for other objects. The most obvious place to grow would be at a Lagrange point of the biggest object and the sun. That is a position where the planet’s gravitational field and the sun’s cancel, and the body is in stable or metastable orbit there. Once it gets to a certain size, however, it is dislodged, and that is what I think was the source of the Moon, its generating body probably starting at L4, the position at the same distance from the sun as Earth, but sixty degrees in front of it. There are other metastable positions, and these may have also formed around Venus or Mercury, and these would also be unstable due to different rocky planets. The reason I think this is that for Vesta to have an iron core, it had to pick up bodies with a lot of iron, and such bodies would form in the hotter part of the disk while the star was accreting. This is also the reason why Earth has an iron core and Mars has a negligible one. However, as I understand it, the isotopes from rocks on Vesta are not equivalent to those of Earth, so it may well have started life nearer to Venus or Mercury. So far we have no samples to analyse that we know came from either of these two planets, and I am not expecting any such samples anytime soon.