As Earth's life-sustaining elixir, water remains an enigma, with its origins shrouded in mystery. A groundbreaking study led by University of Maryland researchers dives deep into the cosmic history, analyzing ancient meteorites to unravel the secrets of how water arrived on our planet. These findings not only illuminate Earth's remarkable past but also hold the key to understanding the potential for life beyond our world.
The origins of water on Earth
Covering 71% of Earth’s surface, water is essential for life, yet the origin of such vast quantities of water on our planet remains a mystery. A recent study in the journal Nature, led by the University of Maryland Assistant Professor of Geology Megan Newcombe, brings scientists closer to solving this enigma. The researchers examined melted meteorites dating back to the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago and discovered they contained extremely low levels of water, making them some of the driest extraterrestrial materials ever measured.
This finding allows researchers to rule out these meteorites as the primary source of Earth’s water and has significant implications for the search for water—and life—on other planets. It also sheds light on the improbable conditions that made Earth habitable.
From meteorites to oceans?
Newcombe and her team analyzed seven melted meteorites originating from at least five planetesimals—objects that collided to form our solar system’s planets. The water content in these meteorites was measured for the first time using secondary ion mass spectrometry. Some meteorite samples came from the inner solar system, where Earth is located, while others came from the colder, outer solar system.
The research revealed that water made up less than two-millionths of the meteorite samples’ mass. In comparison, the wettest meteorites contain up to 20% water by weight. This study concluded that water was likely delivered to Earth via unmelted meteorites and demonstrated that not all outer solar system objects are water-rich, as previously thought. These findings have implications beyond geology, as understanding the origin of Earth’s water is vital for exoplanet researchers and those seeking potential life hosts.
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