Study suggests space dust carries water and organic compounds

Jan 24, 2014
The surfaces of tiny interplanetary dust particles are space-weathered by the solar wind, causing amorphous rims to form on their surfaces. Hydrogen ions in the solar wind react with oxygen in the rims to form tiny water-filled vesicles (blue). This mechanism of water formation almost certainly occurs in other planetary systems with potential implications for the origin of life throughout the galaxy. Credit: John Bradley, UH SOEST/ LLNL.

Researchers from the University of Hawaii-Manoa (UHM) School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and University of California – Berkeley discovered that interplanetary dust particles (IDPs) could deliver water and organics to the Earth and other terrestrial planets.

Interplanetary dust, dust that has come from comets, asteroids, and leftover debris from the birth of the , continually rains down on the Earth and other Solar System bodies. These particles are bombarded by , predominately hydrogen ions. This ion bombardment knocks the atoms out of order in the silicate mineral crystal and leaves behind oxygen that is more available to react with hydrogen, for example, to create molecules.

"It is a thrilling possibility that this influx of dust has acted as a continuous rainfall of little reaction vessels containing both the water and organics needed for the eventual origin of life on Earth and possibly Mars," said Hope Ishii, new Associate Researcher in the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) at UHM SOEST and co-author of the study. This mechanism of delivering both water and organics simultaneously would also work for exoplanets, worlds that orbit other stars. These raw ingredients of dust and hydrogen ions from their parent star would allow the process to happen in almost any planetary system.

Implications of this work are potentially huge: Airless bodies in space such as asteroids and the Moon, with ubiquitous silicate minerals, are constantly being exposed to solar wind irradiation that can generate water. In fact, this mechanism of water formation would help explain remotely sensed data of the Moon, which discovered OH and preliminary water, and possibly explains the source of water ice in permanently shadowed regions of the Moon.

"Perhaps more exciting," said Ishii, ", especially dust from primitive asteroids and comets, has long been known to carry organic carbon species that survive entering the Earth's atmosphere, and we have now demonstrated that it also carries solar-wind-generated water. So we have shown for the first time that water and organics can be delivered together."

It has been known since the Apollo-era, when astronauts brought back rocks and soil from the Moon, that solar wind causes the chemical makeup of the dust's surface layer to change. Hence, the idea that solar wind irradiation might produce water-species has been around since then, but whether it actually does produce water has been debated. The reasons for the uncertainty are that the amount of water produced is small and it is localized in very thin rims on the surfaces of silicate minerals so that older analytical techniques were unable to confirm the presence of water.

Using a state-of-the-art transmission electron microscope, the scientists have now actually detected water produced by solar-wind irradiation in the space-weathered rims on in . Futher, on the bases of laboratory-irradiated minerals that have similar amorphous rims, they were able to conclude that the water forms from the interaction of solar wind (H+) with oxygen in the silicate mineral grains.

This recent work does not suggest how much water may have been delivered to Earth in this manner from IDPs.

"In no way do we suggest that it was sufficient to form oceans, for example," said Ishii. "However, the relevance of our work is not the origin of the Earth's oceans but that we have shown continuous, co-delivery of water and organics intimately intermixed."

In future work, the scientists will attempt to estimate water abundances delivered to Earth by IDPs. Further, they will explore in more detail what other organic (carbon-based) and inorganic species are present in the water in the vesicles in interplanetary dust rims.

Explore further: Solar wind and space dust create new source of water, laboratory study suggests

More information: Detection of solar wind-produced water in irradiated rims on silicate minerals, John Bradley, Hope Ishii, Jeffrey Gillis-Davis, James Ciston, Michael Nielsen, Hans Bechtel, Michael Martin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320115111

Related Stories

Water hidden in the Moon may have proto-Earth origin

Sep 10, 2013

Water found in ancient Moon rocks might have actually originated from the proto-Earth and even survived the Moon-forming event. Latest research into the amount of water within lunar rocks returned during ...

Recommended for you

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

11 hours ago

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.