The Earth-Moon system during the late heavy bombardment period - Geochemical support for impacts dominated by comets

Uffe Gråe Jørgensen, Peter W.U. Appel, Yuichi Hatsukawa, Robert Frei, Masumi Oshima, Yosuke Toh, Atsushi Kimura

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The solid planets assembled 4.57 Gyr ago during a period of less than 100 Myr, but the bulk of the impact craters we see on the inner planets formed much later, in a narrow time interval between 3.8 and 3.9 Gyr ago, during the so-called late heavy bombardment (LHB). It is not certain what caused the LHB, and it has not been well known whether the impactors were comets or asteroids, but our present study lend support to the idea that it was comets. Due to the Earth's higher gravity, the impactors will have hit the Earth with ∼twice the energy density that they hit the Moon, and the bombardment will have continued on Earth longer than on the Moon. All solid surface of the Earth will have been completely covered with craters by the end of the LHB. However, almost nothing of the Earth's crust from even the end of this epoch, is preserved today. One of the very few remnants, though, is exposed as the Isua greenstone belt (IGB) and nearby areas in Western Greenland. During a field expedition to Isua, we sampled three types of metasedimentary rocks, deposited ∼3.8 billion years ago, that contain information about the sedimentary river load from larger areas of surrounding land surfaces (mica-schist and turbidites) and of the contemporaneous seawater (BIF). Our samples show evidence of the LHB impacts that took place on Earth, by an average of a seven times enrichment (150 ppt) in iridium compared to present-day ocean crust (20 ppt). The clastic sediments show slightly higher enrichment than the chemical sediments, which may be due to contamination from admixtures of mafic (proto-crustal) sources. We show that this enrichment is in agreement with the lunar cratering rate and a corresponding extraterrestrial LHB contribution to the Earth's Hadean-Eoarchean crust, provided the bulk of the influx was cometary (i.e., of high velocity and low in CI abundance), but not if the impactors were meteorites (i.e. had velocities and abundances similar to present-day Earth-crossing asteroids). Our study is a first direct indication of the nature of the LHB impactors, and the first to find an agreement between the LHB lunar cratering rate and the Earth's early geochemical record (and the corresponding lunar record). The LHB comets that delivered the iridium we see at Isua will at the same time have delivered the equivalent of a ∼1 km deep ocean, and we explain why one should expect a cometary ocean to become roughly the size of the Earth's present-day ocean, not only in terms of depth but also in terms of the surface area it covers. The total impacting mass on the Earth during the LHB will have been ∼1000 tons/m 2.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)368-380
Number of pages13
JournalIcarus
Volume204
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2009

Keywords

  • Comets
  • Geological processes
  • Ices
  • Meteorites

Programme Area

  • Programme Area 4: Mineral Resources

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