Late Heavy Bombardment
The Late Heavy Bombardment (commonly referred to as the lunar cataclysm, or the LHB) is a hypothetical event thought to have occurred approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago (Ga). During this interval, a disproportionately large number of asteroids apparently collided with the early terrestrial planets in the inner solar system, including Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The LHB happened "late" in the Solar System's accretion period when the Earth and other rocky planets formed and accreted most of their mass; it is a period still early in the history of the solar system as a whole.
Evidence for the LHB event is primarily from dating lunar samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts, which (dates) imply that most impact melt rocks were formed in this rather narrow interval of time. Several hypotheses are now offered to explain the spike in the flux of asteroids or comets in the inner Solar System but no consensus yet exists. The Nice model is popular among planetary scientists; it postulates that the gas giant planets underwent orbital migration and forced objects in the asteroid and/or Kuiper belts into eccentric orbits, and thereby into the path of the terrestrial planets. Alternatively, other researchers argue that the lunar sample data do not require a cataclysmic cratering event near 3.9 Ga and that the apparent clustering of impact melt ages near this time is an artifact of sampling material affected by a single large impact basin. They note that the rate of impact cratering could be significantly different between the outer and inner zones of the Solar System.
- 1 Evidence for a cataclysm
- 2 Criticisms of the cataclysm hypothesis
- 3 Geological consequences on Earth
- 4 Possible causes
- 5 Exosystem with possible Late Heavy Bombardment
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Evidence for a cataclysm
The main piece of evidence for a lunar cataclysm comes from the radiometric ages of impact melt rocks that were collected during the Apollo missions. The majority of these impact melts are believed to have formed during the collision of asteroids or comets tens of kilometers across, forming impact craters hundreds of kilometers in diameter. The Apollo 15, 16, and 17 landing sites were chosen as a result of their proximity to the Imbrium, Nectaris, and Serenitatis basins respectively.
Under study on Earth, the ages of impact melts collected at these sites clustered between about 3.8 and 4.1 Ga. The apparent clustering of ages of these was first noticed in the mid-1970s by Fouad Tera, Dimitri Papanastassiou, and Gerald Wasserburg who postulated that the ages record an intense bombardment of the Moon. They called it the "lunar cataclysm" and proposed that it represented a dramatic increase in the rate of bombardment of the Moon around 3.9 Ga. If these impact melts were derived from these three basins, then not only did these three prominent impact basins form within a short interval of time, but so did many others based on stratigraphic grounds. At the time, the conclusion was considered controversial.
As more data has become available, particularly from lunar meteorites, this theory, while still controversial, has gained in popularity. The lunar meteorites are believed to randomly sample the lunar surface, and at least some of these should have originated from regions far from the Apollo landing sites. Many of the feldspathic lunar meteorites probably originated from the lunar far side, and impact melts within these have recently been dated. Consistent with the cataclysm hypothesis, none of their ages was found to be older than about 3.9 Ga. Nevertheless, the ages do not "cluster" at this date, but span between 2.5 and 3.9 Ga.
Dating of howardite, eucrite and diogenite (HED) meteorites and H chondrite meteorites originating from the asteroid belt reveal numerous ages from 3.4 - 4.1 Ga and an earlier peak at 4.5 Ga. The 3.4 - 4.1 Ga ages has been interpreted as representing an increase in impact velocities as computer simulations using hydrocode reveal that the volume of impact melt increases 100-1000 times as the impact velocity increases from the current asteroid belt average of 5 km/s to 10 km/s. Impact velocities above 10 km/s require very high inclinations or the large eccentricities of asteroids on planet crossing orbits. Such objects are rare in the current asteroid belt but the population would be significantly increased by the sweeping of resonances due to giant planet migration.
Studies of the highland crater size distributions suggest that the same family of projectiles struck Mercury and the Moon during late heavy bombardment. If the history of decay of late heavy bombardment on Mercury also followed the history of late heavy bombardment on the Moon, the youngest large basin discovered, Caloris, is comparable in age to the youngest large lunar basins, Orientale and Imbrium, and all of the plains units are older than 3 billion years.
Criticisms of the cataclysm hypothesis
While the cataclysm hypothesis has recently gained in popularity, particularly among dynamicists who have identified possible causes for such a phenomenon, the cataclysm hypothesis is still controversial and based on debatable assumptions. Two criticisms are that (1) the "cluster" of impact ages could be an artifact of sampling a single basin's ejecta, and (2) that the lack of impact melt rocks older than about 4.1 Ga is related to all such samples having been pulverized, or their ages being reset.
The first criticism concerns the origin of the impact melt rocks that were sampled at the Apollo landing sites. While these impact melts have been commonly attributed to having been derived from the closest basin, it has been argued that a large portion of these might instead be derived from the Imbrium basin. The Imbrium impact basin is the youngest and largest of the multi-ring basins found on the central nearside of the Moon, and quantitative modeling shows that significant amounts of ejecta from this event should be present at all of the Apollo landing sites. According to this alternative hypothesis, the cluster of impact melt ages near 3.9 Ga simply reflects material being collected from a single impact event, Imbrium, and not several.
A second criticism concerns the significance of the lack of impact melt rocks older than about 4.1 Ga. One hypothesis for this observation that does not involve a cataclysm is that old melt rocks did exist, but that their ages have all been reset by the continuous effects of impact cratering over the past 4 billion years. Furthermore, it is possible that these putative samples could all have been pulverized to such small sizes that it is impossible to obtain age determinations using standard radiometric methods.
Geological consequences on Earth
If a lunar cataclysmic cratering event were truly to have occurred on the Moon, the Earth would have been affected as well. Extrapolating lunar cratering rates to Earth at this time suggest that the following number of craters would have formed:
- 22,000 or more impact craters with diameters >20 km (12 mi),
- about 40 impact basins with diameters about 1,000 km (620 mi),
- several impact basins with diameter about 5,000 km (3,100 mi),
Serious environmental damage would occur about every 100 years, although life is not known to have existed on Earth at this time.
Prior to the introduction of the Late Heavy Bombardment theory, it was generally assumed that the Earth had remained molten until about 3.8 Ga. This date could be found in all of the oldest known rocks from around the world, and appeared to represent a strong "cutoff point" beyond which older rocks could not be found. These dates remained fairly constant even across various dating methods, including the system considered the most accurate and least affected by environment, uranium-lead dating of zircons. As no older rocks could be found, it was generally assumed that the Earth had remained molten until this point in time, which defined the boundary between the earlier Hadean and later Archean eons.
Older rocks could be found, however, in the form of chips off asteroids that fall to Earth as meteorites. Like the rocks on Earth, asteroids also show a strong cutoff point, at about 4.6 Ga, which is assumed to be the time when the first solids formed in the protoplanetary disk around the then-young Sun. The Hadean, then, was the period of time between the formation of these early rocks in space, and the eventual solidification of the Earth's crust, some 700 million years later. This time would include the accretion of the planets from the disk and its slow cooling into a solid as the gravitational potential energy of this collapse was released.
Later calculations showed that the rate of collapse and cooling was dependent on the size of the body, and applying this to an Earth-sized mass suggested this should have happened quite quickly, as quickly as 100 million years. The difference between measurement and theory was something of a mystery at the time.
The Late Heavy Bombardment is now offered as an explanation of this oddity. Under this model, the rocks dating to 3.8 Ga represent those that were solidifying after much of the crust was destroyed by the Bombardment. The Acasta Gneiss in the North American cratonic shield and gneisses within the Jack Hills portion of the Narryer Gneiss Terrane in Western Australia are, collectively, the oldest continental fragments on Earth and do not predate the late heavy bombardment. The oldest mineral yet dated on Earth, a zircon from Jack Hills, predates this event but may simply be a fragment of crust left over from this event, contained within a much younger (~3800 Ma old) rock.
This has led to something of a revolution in the understanding of the earliest stages of Earth's history during the Hadean. Older references generally show the Hadean Earth having a molten surface with prominent volcanos. The name referred to the "hellish" conditions assumed on Earth for the time. It is now theorized (although still controversial) that the Hadean surface may have been solid, temperate, and water covered (albeit acidic). This is due to the presence of several particular isotopic ratios which suggest water-based chemistry took place at some point prior to the formation of the oldest rocks.
Of particular interest, Manfred Schidlowski argued in 1979 that the carbon isotopic ratios of some sedimentary rocks found in Greenland were a relic of organic matter. There was much debate over the precise dating of the rocks, with Schidlowski suggesting they were about 3800 Ma old, and others suggesting a more "modest" 3600 Ma. In either case it was a very short time for abiogenesis to have taken place, and if Schidlowski was correct, arguably too short a time. The Late Heavy Bombardment and the "re-melting" of the crust that it suggests provides a timeline under which this would be possible; life either formed immediately after the Late Heavy Bombardment, or more likely survived it, having arisen earlier during the Hadean. Recent studies suggest that the rocks Schidlowski found are indeed from the older end of the possible age range at about 3850 Ma, suggesting the latter possibility is the most likely answer.
More recently, a similar study of Jack Hills rocks shows traces of the same sort of potential organic indicators. Thorsten Geisler of the Institute for Mineralogy at the University of Münster studied traces of carbon trapped in small pieces of diamond and graphite within zircons dating to 4250 Ma. The ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 was unusually high, normally a sign of "processing" by life.
Three-dimensional computer models developed in May 2009 by a team at the University of Colorado at Boulder postulate that much of Earth's crust, and the microbes living in it, could have survived the bombardment. Their models suggest that although the surface of the Earth would have been sterilized, hydrothermal vents below the Earth's surface could have incubated life by providing a sanctuary for heat-loving microbes.
Gas giant migration
A series of simulations by Gomes et al. start with a Solar System where the gas giant planets are in a tight orbital configuration. This configuration is in itself stable, but assuming a rich trans-Neptunian belt, stray transneptunians interacted with these planets, causing them to migrate slowly during a time of several hundred million years. Jupiter is predicted to migrate inward, whereas the other planets go outwards. By this migration, the Solar System became catastrophically unstable when Jupiter and Saturn reached a 2:1 orbital resonance, causing the outer Solar System to reconfigure rapidly to a wide jovian system. As these planets migrated, resonances would be "swept" through the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt. These resonances would increase the orbital eccentricity of the objects, allowing them to enter the inner Solar System and impact with the terrestrial planets.
The Nice model has undergone some evolution since it initial publication. In recent works the giant planets begin in a multi-resonant configurations consistent with numerical models of the early Solar System. After the resonant configuration is destabilized by interactions with the trans-Neptunian belt a series of gravitational encounters occur. Among these are an encounter between one of the ice giants and Saturn propelling the ice giant inward onto a Jupiter-crossing orbit followed by an encounter with Jupiter which drives the ice giant outward. Referred to as a jumping-Jupiter scenario, these encounters quickly increase the separation between Jupiter and Saturn which has been found to be necessary to avoid excessively altering the eccentricity of the inner planets and the inclination distribution of the asteroids. This scenario also significantly reduces the fraction of asteroids removed from the main asteroid belt leaving a now nearly depleted inner band of asteroids as the primary source of the impactors of the LHB. In numerical simulations the ice giant is often ejected following its encounter with Jupiter leading some to propose that the Solar System began with five giant planets.
Late Uranus/Neptune formation
According to one planetesimal simulation of the establishment of the planetary system, the outermost planets Uranus and Neptune formed very slowly, over a period of several billion years. Harold Levison and his team have also suggested that the relatively low density of material in the outer Solar System during planet formation would have greatly slowed their accretion. This "late appearance" of these planets has therefore been suggested as a different reason for the LHB. However, recent calculations of gas-flows combined with planetesimal runaway growth in the outer Solar System imply that Jovian planets formed extremely rapidly, on the order of 10 My, which does not support this explanation for the LHB.
Planet V hypothesis
The Planet V hypothesis posits that a fifth terrestrial planet created the Late Heavy Bombardment when its meta-stable orbit entered the inner asteroid belt. The hypothetical fifth terrestrial planet, Planet V, had a mass less than half of Mars and originally orbited between Mars and the asteroid belt. Planet V's orbit became unstable due to perturbations from the other inner planets causing it to intersect the inner asteroid belt. After close encounters with Planet V many asteroids entered Earth-crossing orbits producing the Late Heavy Bombardment. Planet V was ultimately lost, likely plunging into the Sun. In numerical simulations an uneven distribution of asteroids, with the asteroids heavily concentrated toward the inner asteroid belt, has been shown to be necessary to produce the LHB via this mechanism.
Disruption of Mars-crossing asteroid
A hypothesis proposed by Matija Ćuk posits that the last few basin-forming impacts were the result of the collisional disruption of a large Mars-crossing asteroid. This Vesta-sized asteroid was a remnant of a population which initially was much larger than the current main asteroid belt. Most of the pre-Imbrium impacts to these Mars-crossing objects with the early bombardment extending until 4.1 billion years ago. A lull in basin-forming impacts follows during which the lunar magnetic field decays. Roughly 3.9 billion years ago a catastrophic impact disrupts a Vesta-sized asteroid radically increasing the population of Mars-crossing objects. Many of these objects then evolve onto Earth-crossing orbits producing a spike in the lunar impact rate during which the last few lunar impact basins are formed. Cuk points to the weak or absent residual magnetism of the last few basins and a change in the size-frequency distribution of craters which formed during this late bombardment as evidence supporting this hypothesis. The timing   of and the cause of the change in the size-frequency distribution of craters is controversial.
Other potential sources
A number of other possible sources of the Late Heavy Bombardment have been investigated. Among these are additional Earth satellites orbiting independently or as lunar Trojans, planetesimals left over from the formations of the terrestrial planets, Earth or Venus co-orbitals, and the breakup of a large main belt asteroid. Additional Earth satellites on independent orbits were shown to be quickly captured into resonances during the Moon's early tidally-driven orbital expansion and were lost or destroyed within in a few million years Lunar Trojans were found to be destabilized within 100 million years by a solar resonance when the Moon reached 27 Earth radii. Planetesimals left-over from the formation of the terrestrial planets were shown to be depleted due to collisions and ejections too rapidly to form the last lunar basins. The long term stability of primordial Earth or Venus co-orbitals (Trojans or objects with horseshoe orbits) in conjunction with the lack of current observations indicate that they were unlikely to have been common enough to contribute to the LHB. Producing the LHB from the collisional disruption of a main belt asteroid was found to require at minimum a 1000 - 1500 km parent body with the most favorable initial conditions.
Exosystem with possible Late Heavy Bombardment
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