First of all, check out this recent article on a gigantic stellar explosion. Just think: the stardust released by this giant supernova might evolve into a new solar system, one day. Perhaps this stardust will evolve into a solar system with terrestrial planets not so unlike our own Earth. Also, the shockwave released in the explosion might trigger the gravitational collapse of a different nebula, triggering the birth of a new solar system. Clearly, the universe is still a dynamic, evolving place. Though, I suppose, this giant supernova explosion actually happened some time ago and is only now being observed on Earth. Depending on how far away this supernova explosion occurred (Phil, help here?), I suppose astronomers may have observed a somewhat ancient event in this giant explosion.
Second, here is Part IV of my Origin of the Earth paper. The fifth and final installment of this paper will follow tomorrow. For now, enjoy!
The Origin of the Earth
Part IV: It’s Getting Hot in Here, Differentiation, and Core Formation
Heating of the Early Earth:
Before moving on to a discussion of the differentiation of the accreted Earth, an understanding of the various processes that lead to the heating of the Earth is important. The early Earth was a very hot place and, indeed, the Earth is still fairly hotâ€” plate tectonics and volcanism on Earth are largely driven by convection in Earthâ€™s hot mantle. There are four main sources of Earthâ€™s heat (e.g. Lutgens and Tarbuck, 2003):
1. Potential (gravitational) energy that was converted to thermal energy during the accretion of the Earth.
2. The kinetic energy of the various impactors, which hit and heated the early Earth.
3. Differentiation of planetary layers. Again, gravitational potential energy was converted to thermal energy.
4. Energy released by the decay of both short-lived and long-lived isotopes. In particular, decay of short-lived isotopes such as 26Al may have contributed significantly to the heating of the early Earth and other planetary bodies.
One should also note that the presence of an early proto-atmosphere, perhaps comprised of gases captured from the solar nebula, may have helped blanket the Earth and prevented loss of heat through irradiation to space as the Earth was accreting. Later, atmospheres composed of volatiles released from accreting impactors may similarly have helped blanket Earth and retain heat.
Overall, the various sources of heat in the early Earth suggest that the early Earth was either partially or totally molten as the planet was accreting. Also, heating by impactors and the blanketing affect of a proto-atmosphere suggests that one or more magma oceans may have existed on Earth as the result of especially large impacts. In particular, a large magma ocean is believed to have formed after a Mars-sized impactor hit the proto-Earth in a collision that is believed to have produced Earthâ€™s moon.
The Differentiation of the Earth:
After Earth accreted from the solar nebula, the Earth differentiated into several layers: a solid inner core, a liquid outer core, a solid but plastic mantle, and a thin shell of crust at the surface. The differentiation of the Earthâ€™s core is one of the most significant events in Earthâ€™s history and led to the concentration of iron as well as of siderophile and chalcophile elements at the center of the Earth. Most likely, the formation of the iron core was the first event in Earthâ€™s differentiation. As will be described below, geophysical models and short-lived isotope systems, especially 182H-182W, can be used to place constraints on when and how core formation occurred in the Earth. Very likely, a deep, long-lived magma ocean which formed when a giant impactor hit the Earth and created the moon played a role in Earthâ€™s core formation. After core formation, the upper Earth then differentiated into an enriched upper crust and a depleted mantle, which is the source material for modern oceanic crust. Again, geophysical models as well as isotopic systems and analysis of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) can provide constraints on how and when Earthâ€™s upper mantle differentiated. Additionally, recent evidence from short-lived 142Nd isotopes suggests that there may have been an early protocrust, which was subducted deep in Earthâ€™s mantle and has never been sampled.
Several models have been put forth to explain the formation of Earthâ€™s iron core (see Figure 10). In early work, the core was modeled to have formed through a one-stage segregation of metal from a solid, fully-accreted Earth (Halliday, 2006). However, this simple model is probably unrealistic. More recent research has modeled Earthâ€™s core forming gradually over millions of years and has examined the possible role of a magma ocean in the differentiation of the core. Additonally, some researchers have developed models of core formation in which Earth accreted (at least partially) from already-differentiated planetesimals (Halliday, 2006). If Earth was formed through giant impacts between differentiated planetesimals, the cores of these planetesimals may have merged to form the Earthâ€™s core (Halliday, 2006).
Based on constraints from short-lived isotopic systems, Earthâ€™s core is believed to have formed very early in Earthâ€™s history. Most of Earthâ€™s core was probably formed by about 10 million years after the formation of the solar system, and the final stage of core formation likely occurred in a magma ocean which resulted from a giant, moon-forming impact about 30 million years after the formation of the solar system (Jacobsen, 2005). Short-lived isotope systems have come into use recently as mass spectrometry has become sensitive enough to detect very small variations in these systems and are helping geochemists constrain the timing of core formation and other events in Earthâ€™s history. The short-lived isotope systems 182Hf-182W (1/2-life: 9 million years) and 129I-129Xe (1/2-life: 16 million years) as well as the longer-lived U-Th-Pb system are all used to try to constrain when core formation occurred.
The 182Hf-182W system is the most straightforward system and has shed the most light on the formation of the core. Again, 182Hf has a Â½-life of 9 million years, which means that variations created by the decay of this element cannot be detected after ~60 million years after the formation of the solar system (Lee and Halliday, 1995). Importantly, both Hf and W are refractory, which means that their ratio should not have been significantly altered during the accretion of the Earth from the solar nebula (Lee and Halliday, 1995). However, Hf is strongly lithophile while W is strongly chalcophile. This means that the Hf/W ratio would be greatly affected by core formation as W would be incorporated into the core while Hf would have remained concentrated in the upper, silicate Earth. The 182W/184W ratio of the Earth is slightly above chondritic (Jacobsen, 2005). This means that Earthâ€™s core formation must have occurred before ~60 million years, after which time it would not be possible to significantly alter the 182W/184W ratio. By modeling the development of the observed 182W/184W ratios on Earth and the moon, scientists think that Earthâ€™s core formed very early in Earthâ€™s history and that the moon-forming impact occurred around 30 million years after the formation of the solar system (Jacobsen, 2005).