Key points: Chaotic asteroid orbits and ongoing bombardment of the planets; the K/T extinction; other extinctions
Despite the 4.6 billion years for the earth to clear out all asteroids it might collide with, collisions are still frequent.With thousands of members, the solar system is so complex that chaotic orbits can propel asteroids into the inner solar system.
|This comet (blue) is on an orbit that takes it back and forth between
Jupiter (yellow) and Mars. We show just 50 years of its motion. Every time it comes close
to Jupiter it is perturbed into a new orbit, and eventually it is likely to collide with
Mars. (animation by M. & G. Rieke, from Dance of the Planets)
Even though the comet has gone through many orbits, its behavior is difficult to predict accurately because of the large effects from Jupiter. Chaos applies to a system where virtually unmeasurable changes can lead to completely different final results. The comet is on a chaotic orbit.
The processes that can deflect the orbits of comets or asteroids lead to the possibility that Earth could collide with a significant sized object.
|The frequency and power of impacts are compared with the effects of
nuclear warfare to the left. The impact that killed the dinosaurs is labeled
K/T, Zharmanshin is a large crater in Russia, and the Arizona crater is
labeled "Meter Crater".
Do your own experiments at
|In the spring of 1993, a very curious comet was discovered. This comet was not single, but a string of cometary pieces strung out in a line. Running the orbits backwards showed that these pieces most likely came from a parent body which fell apart in 1992 when it passed very close to Jupiter. (from Astronomy Picture of the Day, NASA/HST/H. Weaver, T. Smith http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap970323.html)|
Further calculations showed that the pieces would hit Jupiter in July of 1994. Astronomers around the world prepared to observe the crash.
|The orbit of the comet took it close to both Jupiter and Saturn, so it had been in a chaotic situation similar to the comet illustrated previously between Mars and Jupiter.|
The impacts occurred on the far side of Jupiter. Here are two artist's concepts of how they might have looked
|Each impact resulted in a bright flash on the limb of Jupiter. When the Jovian rotation brought them into view, there was a large, dark scar at each site. Our measurements of the spectrum of a flash showed that temperatures reached 5000K!|
|Each nucleus crash had hurled material high
above Jupiter. The flashes and high temperatures occurred when this material fell back
onto the top of the Jovian atmosphere. Chemical reactions at these high
temperatures left the dark scars.
The events on Jupiter agreed closely with the most popular theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this theory, a dramatic impact on the Yucatan coast of a comet or asteroid about 10 km in diameter 65 million years ago caused havoc with life on Earth. The time of this extinction is called the "Cretaceous-Tertiary" (also called K/T) Boundary.
A series of paintings by William Hartmann shows how it might have looked from a "safe" distance.
This closer-up re-creation shows
the fireball descending, a large tidal
wave rising off the Yucatan coast,
the coastal region being inundated
by the ocean, and the emergence
of the impact crater.
|The location of the impact is shown by shattered rock and a huge, shallow crater. (from http://web.ukonline.co.uk/a.buckley/dino.htm)|
|The impactor threw material up into space. This material eventually fell back all over the earth (falling soonest near the impact site). The friction with the atmosphere heated it to many hundreds of degrees, setting all the plants on fire and literally cooking any exposed animal life -- and it is hard to hide a dinosaur! Some mammals survived because they were burrowing animals and were protected under ground.|
|To the above left, we show the progressive spreading of returning material over the earth. To the left, we show a dinosaur's perspective on events. (animations adapted by G. Rieke)|
From David Hardy, http://www.hardyart.demon.co.uk/html/main.html
Although most dinosaurs were probably killed off in the initial event where returning impact debris superheated the upper atmosphere, the afterevents would have been very destructive too. There would have been huge tidal waves from the shock, and possibly the impact triggered large earthquakes that caused even more. Afterwards, the upper atmosphere would have been saturated with the soot and gases from the massive fires, resulting in years of climate change that included severe acid rain. Here is another version of the events. (from L. Close, http://athene.as.arizona.edu/~lclose/teaching/a202/lect7.html)
|Supporting evidence for this theory comes from a thin layer of material all around the earth which contains a large amount of the rare element iridium, plus soot from widespread fires. Because the earth is differentiated, iridium is rare on its surface (it is heavy and has sunk to the center). However, it would be well mixed in an asteroid/comet, so this layer appears to be rich in material from the impactor. (from http://web.ukonline.co.uk/a.buckley/dino.htm)|
However, there are also a number of variations on the theory
In any case, the elimination of the dinosaurs left the evolutionary field open for mammals The reconstruction to the left shows primitive mammals in a scene just after the K/T extinction (from http://www.palaeos.com/Cenozoic/Paleocene/Paleocene.htm)
There have been a number of mass extinctions previous to the K/T event.
|The major extinctions are indicated to the left by peaks in the rate
of disappearance of biological "families" of plant and animal types. The
Permian-Triassic event appears to coincide with a huge volcanic event in Siberia that
produced a flow of lava covering 600,000 square miles. It is likely that the gas and dust
from these eruptions produced a climate catastrophe. There may have also been an asteroid
impact at about the same time to make things worse. Ironically, this extinction cleared
away other animal forms and gave the dinosaurs the opening that allowed them to rule the
earth for 200 million years. The cause of many of the other extinctions is not clearly
understood. They might be related to impacts, to other astronomical events like nearby
supernovae, or to geological events that resulted in large-scale climate change, such as
volcano eruptions .
How safe are we from another extinction that might include us
Read more at: http://nicholnl.wcp.muohio.edu/DingosBreakfastClub/Extinction/Extinct1.html
Test your understanding before going on
Diorama of early complex life (Ediacaran), from Smithsonian
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