Water on terrestrial planets of the Solar System

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The origin and development of water on terrestrial planets, Venus, Earth, Mars, and the closely related Earth's Moon, varies with each planetary body, with the exact origins remaining unclear. Additionally, the terrestrial dwarf planet, Ceres is known to have water ice on its surface.

Water inventories[edit]


Main article: Water on Mars

A significant amount of surface hydrogen has been observed globally by the Mars Odyssey GRS.[1] Stoichiometrically estimated water mass fractions indicate that - when free of carbon dioxide - the near surface at the poles consists almost entirely of water covered by a thin veneer of fine material.[1] This is reinforced by MARSIS observations, with an estimated 1.6×106 km3 (3.8×105 cu mi) of water at the southern polar region with Water Equivalent to a Global layer (WEG) 11 metres (36 ft) deep.[2] Additional observations at both poles suggest the total WEG to be 30 m (98 ft), while the Mars Odyssey NS observations places the lower bound at ~14 cm (5.5 in) depth.[3] Geomorphic evidence favors significantly larger quantities of surface water over geologic history, with WEG as deep as 500 m (1,600 ft).[3] The current atmospheric reservoir of water, though important as a conduit, is insignificant in volume with the WEG no more than 10 µm (0.00039 in).[3] Since the typical surface pressure of the current atmosphere (~6 hPa (0.087 psi)[4]) is less than the triple point of H2O, liquid water is unstable on the surface unless present in sufficiently large volumes. Furthermore, the average global temperature is ~220 K (−53 °C; −64 °F), even below the eutectic freezing point of most brines.[4] For comparison, the highest diurnal surface temperatures at the two MER sites have been ~290 K (17 °C; 62 °F).[5]

Mercury, Moon, and Earth[edit]

Main article: Lunar water

Recent observation made by a number of spacecraft confirmed significant amounts of Lunar water. Mercury does not appear to contain observable quantities of H2O, presumably due to loss from giant impacts.[6] In contrast, Earth's hydrosphere contains ~1.46×1021 kg (3.22×1021 lb) of H2O and sedimentary rocks contain ~0.21×1010 kg (4.6×109 lb), for a total crustal inventory of ~1.67×1010 kg (3.68×1010 lb) of H2O.[7] The mantle inventory is poorly constrained in the range of 0.5×1010–4×1010 kg (1.1×1010–8.8×1010 lb).[8] Therefore, the bulk inventory of H2O on Earth can be conservatively estimated as 0.04% of Earth's mass (~6×1010 kg (1.3×1011 lb)).


Main article: Atmosphere of Venus

The current Venusian atmosphere has only ~200 mg/kg H2O(g) in its atmosphere and the pressure and temperature regime makes water unstable on its surface. Nevertheless, assuming that early Venus's H2O had a D/H ratio similar to Earth's Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW) of 1.6×10−4,[9] the current D/H isotopic ratio in the Venusian atmosphere of 1.9×10−2, at nearly ×120 of Earth's, may indicate that Venus had a much larger H2O inventory.[7] While the large disparity between terrestrial and Venusian D/H ratios makes any estimation of Venus's geologically ancient water budget difficult,[6] its mass may have been at least 0.3% of Earth's hydrosphere.[7] Estimates based on Venus's levels of deuterium suggest that the planet has lost anywhere from 4 metres (13 ft) of surface water up to "an Earth's ocean's worth".[10]

Accretion of water by Earth and Mars[edit]

The D/H isotopic ratio is a primary constraint on the source of H2O of terrestrial planets. Comparison of the planetary D/H ratios with those of carbonaceous chondrites and comets enables a tentative determination of the source of H2O. The best constraints for accreted H2O are determined from non-atmospheric H2O, as the D/H ratio of the atmospheric component may be subject to rapid alteration by the preferential loss of H [4] unless it is in isotopic equilibrium with surface H2O. Earth's VSMOW D/H ratio of 1.6×10−4[9] and modeling of impacts suggest that the cometary contribution to crustal water was less than 10%. However, much of the water could be derived from Mercury-sized planetary embryos that formed in the asteroid belt beyond 2.5 AU.[11] Mars's original D/H ratio, as estimated by deconvolving the atmospheric and magmatic D/H components in Martian meteorites (e.g., QUE 94201), is ×(1.9+/-0.25) the VSMOW value.[11] The higher D/H and impact modeling (significantly different from Earth due to Mars's smaller mass) favor a model where Mars accreted a total of 6% to 27% the mass of the current Earth hydrosphere, corresponding respectively to an original D/H between ×1.6 and ×1.2 the SMOW value.[11] The former enhancement is consistent with roughly equal asteroidal and cometary contributions, while the latter would indicate mostly asteroidal contributions.[11] The corresponding WEG would be 0.6–2.7 km (0.37–1.68 mi), consistent with a 50% outgassing efficiency to yield ~500 m (1,600 ft) WEG of surface water.[11] Comparing the current atmospheric D/H ratio of ×5.5 SMOW ratio with the primordial ×1.6 SMOW ratio suggests that ~50 m (160 ft) of has been lost to space via solar wind stripping.[11]

The cometary and asteroidal delivery of water to accreting Earth and Mars has significant caveats, even though it is favored by D/H isotopic ratios.[6] Key issues include:[6]

  1. The higher D/H ratios in Martian meteorites could be a consequence of biased sampling since Mars may have never had an effective crustal recycling process
  2. Earth's Primitive Upper Mantle estimate of the 187Os/188Os isotopic ratio exceeds 0.129, significantly greater than that of carbonaceous chondrites, but similar to anhydrous ordinary chondrites. This makes it unlikely that planetary embryos compositionally similar to carbonaceous chondrites supplied water to Earth
  3. Earth's atmospheric content of Ne is significantly higher than would be expected had all the rare gases and H2O been accreted from planetary embryos with carbonaceous chondritic compositions.[8]

An alternative to the cometary and asteroidal delivery of H2O would be the accretion via physisorption during the formation of the terrestrial planets in the solar nebula. This would be consistent with the thermodynamic estimate of around two Earth masses of water vapor within 3AU of the solar accretionary disk, which would exceed by a factor of 40 the mass of water needed to accrete the equivalent of 50 Earth hydrospheres (the most extreme estimate of Earth's bulk H2O content) per terrestrial planet.[6] Even though much of the nebular H2O(g) may be lost due to the high temperature environment of the accretionary disk, it is possible for physisorption of H2O on accreting grains to retain nearly three Earth hydrospheres of H2O at 500 K (227 °C; 440 °F) temperatures.[6] This adsorption model would effectively avoid the 187Os/188Os isotopic ratio disparity issue of distally-sourced H2O. However, the current best estimate of the nebular D/H ratio spectroscopically estimated with Jovian and Saturnian atmospheric CH4 is only 2.1×10−5, a factor of 8 lower than Earth's VSMOW ratio.[6] It is unclear how such a difference could exist, if physisorption were indeed the dominant form of H2O accretion for Earth in particular and the terrestrial planets in general.


  1. ^ a b Boynton, W. V. et al. (2007), Concentration of H, Si, Cl, K, Fe, and Th in the low and mid latitude regions of Mars, Journal of Geophysical Research Planets, in press doi 10.1029/2007JE002887
  2. ^ Plaut, J. J. et al. (2007), doi 10.1126/science.1139672
  3. ^ a b c Feldman, W. C. et al. (2004), doi 10.1029/2003JE002160
  4. ^ a b c Jakosky, B. M. and Phillips, R. J. (2001), doi 10.1038/35084184
  5. ^ Spanovich, N. et al. (2006), doi 10.1016/j.icarus.2005.09.014
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Drake, M. J. (2005) Origin of water in the terrestrial planets, Meteoritics and Planetary Science 40 (4), 515-656
  7. ^ a b c Kulikov, Yu. N. et al. (2006), doi 10.1016/j.pss.2006.04.021
  8. ^ a b Morbidelli, A. et al. (2000), Source regions and timescales for the delivery of water to the Earth, Meteoritics and Planetary Science, 35, 1309-1320
  9. ^ a b National Institute of Standards and Technology (2005), Report of Investigation
  10. ^ Owen, (2007), news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/11/071128-venus-earth_2.html
  11. ^ a b c d e f Lunine, J. I. et al. (2003), doi 10.1016/S0019-1035(03)00172-6

See also[edit]