Friday, February 13, 2015

The Late Heavy Bombardment

About 4 to 3.8 billion years ago a period of intense comet and asteroid bombardment is thought to have peppered all the planets including the Earth. Many of the numerous craters found on the Moon and other bodies in the Solar System record this event.
One theory holds that a gravitational surge caused by the orbital interaction of Jupiter and Saturn sent Neptune careening into the ring of comets in the outer Solar System. The disrupted comets were sent in all directions and collided with the planets. These water-rich objects may have provided much of the water in the Earth's oceans.
The record of this event is all but lost on the Earth because our planet's tectonic plate system and active erosion ensure that the surface is constantly renewed.

Evidence for the LHB derives from lunar samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts. Isotopic dating of Moon rocks implies that most impact melts occurred in a rather narrow interval of time. Several hypotheses are now offered to explain the apparent spike in the flux of impactors (i.e., asteroids and 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 scattered objects in the asteroid and/or Kuiper belts into eccentric orbits, and thereby into the path of the terrestrial planets. 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 materials retrieved from a single large impact basin. They also note that the rate of impact cratering could be significantly different between the outer and inner zones of the Solar System.

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