Whence Earth’s water?

English: Carbonaceous chondrite Meteorite. The...
Carbonaceous chondrite meteorite. (credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikipedia)
English: Image of comet C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake),...
Comet Hyakutake. (credit: E. Kolmhofer & H. Raab via Wikipedia)

Because they can be so big, consist mainly of water ice and there are probably a great many lurking in the outer reaches of the solar system impacting comets have long been thought to have delivered the water that makes the Earth so dynamic and, so far as we know, the only place in near-space that hosts complex life. Remote sensing studies of the isotopic composition of water in one comet (Hartley 2) caused great excitement in 2011 by showing that its ratio of deuterium to hydrogen was very similar to that of Earthly ocean water. Other D:H ratios have recently been published from a suite of meteorites gleaned from the surface of Antarctic ice (Alexander, C.M.O’D. et al. 2012. The provenances of asteroids, and their contributions to the volatile inventories of the terrestrial planets. Science, v. 337, p. 721-723). These meteorites are carbonaceous chondrites thought to be the source of much of the solid material in planets of the Inner Solar System. To cut short a long and closely argued argument, it seems that the CI-type chondrites’ water is isotopically quite different from that in analysed comets, knocking another popular hypothesis on the head; that comets and carbonaceous chondrites formed in the same part of the Solar System.

Since hydrocarbons in comets – known from interplanetary dust particles – contain hydrogen with a far richer complement of its heavy isotope deuterium than does cometary water ice, the crashing of entire comets onto planets such as the Earth would not produce the observed terrestrial D:H ratio even though their water ice alone does match it. The US, British and Canadian meteoriticists conclude what seems to be a unifying explanation whereby CI chondritic solids and volatiles alone would have been able to form the Inner Planets and their various complements of water by initial accretion. Comets as a second-stage source, in this account, are relegated to mere curiosities of the Solar System with little role to play other than occasional big impacts that may, or may not, have influenced evolution by the power that they delivered not through their chemistry.

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