Lost in Space: Earth and Mars Were Formed From Missing Solar System Material

An artist’s conception of the developing solar system, with the young sun at its center and (proto-)planets accreting dust and debris from the disk. Credit: NASA

By looking at the range of isotopic variations in terrestrial and meteoritic samples, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientist and collaborators have figured out that Earth and Mars formed by collisions of planetary embryos originating from the inner solar system.

Rocky planets may have formed by two fundamentally different processes, but it is unclear which one built the terrestrial planets of our solar system. The planets formed either by collisions among planetary embryos from the inner solar system or by accreting sunward-drifting millimeter-sized “pebbles” from the outer solar system.

In the new research, the team showed that the isotopic compositions of Earth and Mars predominantly result from the accretion of planetary bodies from the inner solar system, including material from the innermost disk unsampled by meteorites, with only a few percentages of a planet’s mass coming from outer solar system bodies. The research appears in the December 22 issue of Science Advances.

“Our data refute a pebble accretion origin of the terrestrial planets but are consistent with collisional growth from inner solar system embryos,” said LLNL scientist and co-author Jan Render, who performed part of the measurements while working as a postdoc at his previous position at the University of Münster. “This low fraction of outer solar system material in Earth and Mars suggests the presence of a persistent dust-drift barrier in the disk and highlights the specific pathway of rocky planet formation in the solar system.”

Determining which of the two processes governed the formation of the terrestrial planets of our solar system is crucial for understanding the solar system’s architecture and dynamical evolution, and for placing planet formation in the solar system into the context of general planet formation processes, such as those observed in exoplanetary systems.

Nucleosynthetic isotope anomalies may be used to calculate how much material from the outer solar system has been accreted by the terrestrial planets. These arise as the result of the uneven distribution of presolar matter inside the solar protoplanetary disk, and they serve as a record of the history of the constituent materials of planets. These isotope anomalies permit distinguishing between non-carbonaceous (NC) and carbonaceous (CC) meteorites, which are commonly assumed to represent planetary bodies that accreted in the inner and outer solar system, respectively.

The team used the recent observation of correlated isotope variations among NC meteorites to show that both Earth and Mars incorporated material unsampled among meteorites, determined the provenance and isotopic composition of this lost planetary building material and used this information to assess the amount of CC material accreted by Earth and Mars.

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