Asteroid Provides Clues to Earth’s Oceans

An asteroid may have hit Earth and brought our planet its water

An artist conception of asteroid 24 Themis and a smaller fragment of this dynamical family, which resulted from a large impact more than 1 billion years ago. Credit: G. Pérez (Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Spain)

The first-ever discovery of ice and organic molecules on an asteroid may hold clues to the origins of Earth’s oceans and life 4 billion years ago. Life as we know it needs water to survive, and understanding the origin of Earth’s oceans is essential in determining how our planet became habitable.

University of Central Florida researchers detected a thin layer of water ice and organic molecules on the surface of 24 Themis, the largest in a family of asteroids orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.

Their unexpected findings was published Thursday, April 29 in Nature,which will feature two complementary articles by the UCF-led team and by another team of planetary scientists.

"What we’ve found suggests that an asteroid like this one may have hit Earth and brought our planet its water," said UCF Physics Professor HumbertoCampins, the study’s lead author.

Some theories suggest asteroids brought water to Earth after the planet formed dry. Scientists say the salts and water that have been found in some meteorites support this view.

Observations were made using telescopes on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea’s 4,200 meter summit houses the world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared and submillimeter astronomy. Credit: University of Hawaii

Using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, Campins and his team of researchers measured the intensity of the reflected sunlight as 24 Themis rotated. Differences in intensity at different wavelengths helped researchers determine the makeup of the asteroid’s surface.

Researchers were surprised to find ice and carbon-based compounds evenly distributed on 24 Themis. More specifically, the discovery of ice is unexpected because surface ice should be short lived on asteroids, which are expected to be too warm for ice to survive for long.

The distance between this asteroid and the Sun is about three times greater than between Earth and the sun.

Researchers will continue testing various hypotheses to explain the presence of ice. Perhaps most promising is the possibility that 24 Themis might have preserved the ice in its subsoil, just below the surface, as a kind of "living fossil" or remnant of an early solar system that was generally considered to have disappeared long ago.