Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid approximately 9 km in diameter hit the hydrocarbon- and sulfur-rich sedimentary rocks in what is now Mexico. Recent studies have shown that this impact at the Yucatan Peninsula heated the hydrocarbon and sulfur in these rocks, forming stratospheric soot and sulfate aerosols and causing extreme global cooling and drought. These events triggered a mass extinction, including dinosaurs, and led to the subsequent macroevolution of mammals. The amount of hydrocarbon and sulfur in rocks varies widely, depending on location, which suggests that cooling and extinction levels were dependent on impact site. Here we show that the probability of significant global cooling, mass extinction, and the subsequent appearance of mammals was quite low after an asteroid impact on the Earth’s surface. This significant event could have occurred if the asteroid hit the hydrocarbon-rich areas occupying approximately 13% of the Earth’s surface. The site of asteroid impact, therefore, changed the history of life on Earth.
Earth is continuously colliding with fragments of asteroids and comets of various sizes. The largest encounter in historical times occurred over the Tunguska river in Siberia in 1908, producing an airburst of energy equivalent to 5-15 megatons of trinitrotoluene (1 kiloton of trinitrotoluene represents an energy of 4.185 × 10(12) joules). Until recently, the next most energetic airburst events occurred over Indonesia in 2009 and near the Marshall Islands in 1994, both with energies of several tens of kilotons. Here we report an analysis of selected video records of the Chelyabinsk superbolide of 15 February 2013, with energy equivalent to 500 kilotons of trinitrotoluene, and details of its atmospheric passage. We found that its orbit was similar to the orbit of the two-kilometre-diameter asteroid 86039 (1999 NC43), to a degree of statistical significance sufficient to suggest that the two were once part of the same object. The bulk strength-the ability to resist breakage-of the Chelyabinsk asteroid, of about one megapascal, was similar to that of smaller meteoroids and corresponds to a heavily fractured single stone. The asteroid broke into small pieces between the altitudes of 45 and 30 kilometres, preventing more-serious damage on the ground. The total mass of surviving fragments larger than 100 grams was lower than expected.
The Earth-Moon system has unique chemical and isotopic signatures compared with other planetary bodies; any successful model for the origin of this system therefore has to satisfy these chemical and isotopic constraints. The Moon is substantially depleted in volatile elements such as potassium compared with the Earth and the bulk solar composition, and it has long been thought to be the result of a catastrophic Moon-forming giant impact event. Volatile-element-depleted bodies such as the Moon were expected to be enriched in heavy potassium isotopes during the loss of volatiles; however such enrichment was never found. Here we report new high-precision potassium isotope data for the Earth, the Moon and chondritic meteorites. We found that the lunar rocks are significantly (>2σ) enriched in the heavy isotopes of potassium compared to the Earth and chondrites (by around 0.4 parts per thousand). The enrichment of the heavy isotope of potassium in lunar rocks compared with those of the Earth and chondrites can be best explained as the result of the incomplete condensation of a bulk silicate Earth vapour at an ambient pressure that is higher than 10 bar. We used these coupled constraints of the chemical loss and isotopic fractionation of K to compare two recent dynamic models that were used to explain the identical non-mass-dependent isotope composition of the Earth and the Moon. Our K isotope result is inconsistent with the low-energy disk equilibration model, but supports the high-energy, high-angular-momentum giant impact model for the origin of the Moon. High-precision potassium isotope data can also be used as a ‘palaeo-barometer’ to reveal the physical conditions during the Moon-forming event.
Most large (over a kilometre in diameter) near-Earth asteroids are now known, but recognition that airbursts (or fireballs resulting from nuclear-weapon-sized detonations of meteoroids in the atmosphere) have the potential to do greater damage than previously thought has shifted an increasing portion of the residual impact risk (the risk of impact from an unknown object) to smaller objects. Above the threshold size of impactor at which the atmosphere absorbs sufficient energy to prevent a ground impact, most of the damage is thought to be caused by the airburst shock wave, but owing to lack of observations this is uncertain. Here we report an analysis of the damage from the airburst of an asteroid about 19 metres (17 to 20 metres) in diameter southeast of Chelyabinsk, Russia, on 15 February 2013, estimated to have an energy equivalent of approximately 500 (±100) kilotons of trinitrotoluene (TNT, where 1 kiloton of TNT = 4.185×10(12) joules). We show that a widely referenced technique of estimating airburst damage does not reproduce the observations, and that the mathematical relations based on the effects of nuclear weapons-almost always used with this technique-overestimate blast damage. This suggests that earlier damage estimates near the threshold impactor size are too high. We performed a global survey of airbursts of a kiloton or more (including Chelyabinsk), and find that the number of impactors with diameters of tens of metres may be an order of magnitude higher than estimates based on other techniques. This suggests a non-equilibrium (if the population were in a long-term collisional steady state the size-frequency distribution would either follow a single power law or there must be a size-dependent bias in other surveys) in the near-Earth asteroid population for objects 10 to 50 metres in diameter, and shifts more of the residual impact risk to these sizes.
Mars hosts the solar system’s largest volcanoes. Although their size and impact crater density indicate continued activity over billions of years, their formation rates are poorly understood. Here we quantify the growth rate of a Martian volcano by (40)Ar/(39)Ar and cosmogenic exposure dating of six nakhlites, meteorites that were ejected from Mars by a single impact event at 10.7 ± 0.8 Ma (2σ). We find that the nakhlites sample a layered volcanic sequence with at least four discrete eruptive events spanning 93 ± 12 Ma (1416 ± 7 Ma to 1322 ± 10 Ma (2σ)). A non-radiogenic trapped (40)Ar/(36)Ar value of 1511 ± 74 (2σ) provides a precise and robust constraint for the mid-Amazonian Martian atmosphere. Our data show that the nakhlite-source volcano grew at a rate of ca. 0.4-0.7 m Ma(-1)-three orders of magnitude slower than comparable volcanoes on Earth, and necessitating that Mars was far more volcanically active earlier in its history.Mars hosts the solar system’s largest volcanoes, but their formation rates remain poorly constrained. Here, the authors have measured the crystallization and ejection ages of meteorites from a Martian volcano and find that its growth rate was much slower than analogous volcanoes on Earth.
We present orbital bistatic radar observations of a small-body, acquired during occultation by the Dawn spacecraft at asteroid Vesta. The radar forward-scattering properties of different reflection sites are used to assess the textural properties of Vesta’s surface at centimeter-to-decimeter scales and are compared to subsurface hydrogen concentrations observed by Dawn’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector to assess potential volatile occurrence in the surface and shallow subsurface. We observe significant differences in surface radar reflectivity, implying substantial spatial variations in centimeter-to-decimeter-scale surface roughness. Our results suggest that unlike the Moon, Vesta’s surface roughness variations cannot be explained by cratering processes only. In particular, the occurrence of heightened hydrogen concentrations within large smoother terrains (over hundreds of square kilometers) suggests that potential ground-ice presence may have contributed to the formation of Vesta’s current surface texture. Our observations are consistent with geomorphological evidence of transient water flow from Dawn Framing Camera images.The Dawn spacecraft has provided orbital bistatic radar observations of a small body in the solar system. Here, the authors present results from Vesta suggesting that smooth terrains with heightened hydrogen concentrations indicate that ground-ice presence potentially helped shape Vesta’s current surface texture.
From mid-Ordovician ∼470 Myr-old limestone >100 fossil L-chondritic meteorites have been recovered, representing the markedly enhanced flux of meteorites to Earth following the breakup of the L-chondrite parent body. Recently one anomalous meteorite, Österplana 065 (Öst 65), was found in the same beds that yield L chondrites. The cosmic-ray exposure age of Öst 65 shows that it may be a fragment of the impactor that broke up the L-chondrite parent body. Here we show that in a chromium versus oxygen-isotope plot Öst 65 falls outside all fields encompassing the known meteorite types. This may be the first documented example of an ‘extinct’ meteorite, that is, a meteorite type that does not fall on Earth today because its parent body has been consumed by collisions. The meteorites found on Earth today apparently do not give a full representation of the kind of bodies in the asteroid belt ∼500 Myr ago.
The dwarf planet (1) Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt with a mean diameter of about 950 kilometres, is located at a mean distance from the Sun of about 2.8 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the Earth-Sun distance). Thermal evolution models suggest that it is a differentiated body with potential geological activity. Unlike on the icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, where tidal forces are responsible for spewing briny water into space, no tidal forces are acting on Ceres. In the absence of such forces, most objects in the main asteroid belt are expected to be geologically inert. The recent discovery of water vapour absorption near Ceres and previous detection of bound water and OH near and on Ceres (refs 5, 6, 7) have raised interest in the possible presence of surface ice. Here we report the presence of localized bright areas on Ceres from an orbiting imager. These unusual areas are consistent with hydrated magnesium sulfates mixed with dark background material, although other compositions are possible. Of particular interest is a bright pit on the floor of crater Occator that exhibits probable sublimation of water ice, producing haze clouds inside the crater that appear and disappear with a diurnal rhythm. Slow-moving condensed-ice or dust particles may explain this haze. We conclude that Ceres must have accreted material from beyond the ‘snow line’, which is the distance from the Sun at which water molecules condense.
Most stars become white dwarfs after they have exhausted their nuclear fuel (the Sun will be one such). Between one-quarter and one-half of white dwarfs have elements heavier than helium in their atmospheres, even though these elements ought to sink rapidly into the stellar interiors (unless they are occasionally replenished). The abundance ratios of heavy elements in the atmospheres of white dwarfs are similar to the ratios in rocky bodies in the Solar System. This fact, together with the existence of warm, dusty debris disks surrounding about four per cent of white dwarfs, suggests that rocky debris from the planetary systems of white-dwarf progenitors occasionally pollutes the atmospheres of the stars. The total accreted mass of this debris is sometimes comparable to the mass of large asteroids in the Solar System. However, rocky, disintegrating bodies around a white dwarf have not yet been observed. Here we report observations of a white dwarf–WD 1145+017–being transited by at least one, and probably several, disintegrating planetesimals, with periods ranging from 4.5 hours to 4.9 hours. The strongest transit signals occur every 4.5 hours and exhibit varying depths (blocking up to 40 per cent of the star’s brightness) and asymmetric profiles, indicative of a small object with a cometary tail of dusty effluent material. The star has a dusty debris disk, and the star’s spectrum shows prominent lines from heavy elements such as magnesium, aluminium, silicon, calcium, iron, and nickel. This system provides further evidence that the pollution of white dwarfs by heavy elements might originate from disrupted rocky bodies such as asteroids and minor planets.
The asteroid impact near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on 15 February 2013 was the largest airburst on Earth since the 1908 Tunguska event, causing a natural disaster in an area with a population exceeding one million. Because it occurred in an era with modern consumer electronics, field sensors, and laboratory techniques, unprecedented measurements were made of the impact event and the meteoroid that caused it. Here, we document the account of what happened, as understood now, using comprehensive data obtained from astronomy, planetary science, geophysics, meteorology, meteoritics, and cosmochemistry, and from social science surveys. A good understanding of the Chelyabinsk incident provides a unique opportunity to calibrate the event, with implications for the study of near-Earth objects and developing hazard mitigation strategies for planetary protection.