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Source of Water on Earth– Icy Asteroids?

April 29, 2010

It’s still not clear what led to formation of huge reservoirs of water on the earth’s surface. But recent discovery of ice on asteroid might be able to provide few answers or lead us to think in different direction about how our solar system was formed. Asteroids are basically failed planets and these huge chunks are remainants or you can say building blocks of our solar system. Asteroid belt lies in between Mars and Jupiter and these celestial bodies have largely remained unchanged all these past 4 billion years, unlike the planets, and so studying asteroids might provide clues to how our solar system evolved including the answer to the question “Why our Earth is blue?”. Scientists until recently thought that these asteroids are too close to the sun (orbiting at 297 million miles from sun) for them to retain any water on their surface, but these ideas have been debunked by few recent discoveries including the present one where scientists have found presence of water and organic materials on the asteroids surface. Recent study, published in latest edition of Nature, shows the presence of thin coating of ice and other organic compounds on asteriod 24 Themis by using absorption spectroscopy. This leads us to speculate that maybe these asteroids were the first source of water on earth’s surface when they smashed our dry earth and left huge reservoirs of water during the Late Heavy Bombardment period (LHB). Recently NASA’s instrument onboard India’s Chandrayan-1 spacecraft  discovered ice caps on the North pole of the moon as well by measuring OH species using combination of near IR and UV-Vis spectroscopic data. Here are some absorption spectra from the recent asteroid study by Rivkin et.al. showing the detection of water at 3.1 µm (0.4µm wide), C-H stretching at 3.4-3.5 µm, and aromatic compound stretch bands at 3.3 µm. (The spectra images have been linked to the article in Nature and so if you are not able to see the images, probably you might need Nature subscription to view it).

Reference: Detection of ice and organics on an asteroidal surface, Andrew S. Rivkin& Joshua P. Emery, Nature Volume: 464, Pages: 1322–1323 Date published: (29 April 2010) DOI: doi:10.1038/nature09028

Picture Source:Asteroid Illustration- NASA; Absorption Spectra- Nature©

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