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    NASA’s DART spacecraft just smashed into an asteroid — on purpose

    Mission control rooms rarely celebrate crash landings. But the collision of NASA’s DART spacecraft with an asteroid was a smashing success.

    At about 7:15 p.m. EDT on September 26, the spacecraft hurtled into Dimorphos, an asteroid moonlet orbiting a larger space rock named Didymos. The mission’s goal was to bump Dimorphos slightly closer to its parent asteroid, shortening its 12-hour orbit around Didymos by several minutes.

    The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, is the world’s first attempt to change an asteroid’s motion by ramming a space probe into it (SN: 6/30/20). Neither Dimorphos nor Didymos poses a threat to Earth. But seeing how well DART’s maneuver worked will reveal how easy it is to tamper with an asteroid’s trajectory — a strategy that could protect the planet if a large asteroid is ever discovered on a collision course with Earth.

    “We don’t know of any large asteroids that would be considered a threat to Earth that are coming any time in the next century,” says DART team member Angela Stickle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “The reason that we are doing something like DART is because there are asteroids that we haven’t discovered yet.”

    NASA’s DART spacecraft (illustrated) just crashed into the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos on purpose in the world’s first test of a strategy for planetary defense.Johns Hopkins APL/NASA

    Astronomers have spotted almost all the kilometer-size asteroids in the solar system that could end civilization if they hit Earth, says Jessica Sunshine, a planetary scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park who’s also on the DART team. But when it comes to space rocks around 150 meters wide, like Dimorphos, “we only know where about 40 percent of those are,” Sunshine says. “And that is something that, if it did hit, would certainly take out a city.”

    Dimorphos is a safe asteroid to give an experimental nudge, says Mark Boslough, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who has studied planetary protection but is not involved in DART. “It’s not on a collision course” with Earth, he says, and DART “can’t hit it hard enough to put it on a collision course.” The DART spacecraft weighs only as much as a couple of vending machines, whereas Dimorphos is thought to be nearly as hefty as Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza.

    After a 10-month voyage, DART met up with Didymos and Dimorphos near their closest approach to Earth, about 11 million kilometers away. Up until the very end of its journey, DART could see only the larger asteroid, Didymos. But about an hour before impact, DART spotted Dimorphos in its field of view. Using its onboard camera, the spacecraft steered itself toward the asteroid moonlet and slammed into it at some 6.1 kilometers per second, or nearly 14,000 miles per hour.

    After traveling about 11 million kilometers, NASA’s DART spacecraft closed in on its target: the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos. This image of the space rock was taken by DART just seconds  before the spacecraft smashed into it. NASA

    DART’s camera feed went dark after impact. But another probe nearby is expected to have caught the collision on camera. The Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids rode to Dimorphos aboard DART but detached a couple of weeks before impact to watch the event from a safe distance. Its mission was to whiz past Dimorphos about three minutes after DART’s impact to snap pictures of the crash site and the resulting plume of asteroid debris launched into space. The probe is expected to beam images of DART’s demise back to Earth within a couple of days.

    “I was absolutely elated, especially as we saw the camera getting closer and just realizing all the science that we’re going to learn,” said Pam Melroy, NASA Deputy Administrator, after the impact. “But the best part was seeing, at the end, that there was no question there was going to be an impact, and to see the team overjoyed with their success.”

    [embedded content]
    This animation shows how DART’s impact on Dimorphos will affect the space rock’s orbit around its larger parent asteroid, Didymos. DART should shove Dimorphos into a slightly tighter, shorter orbit.

    DART’s impact is expected to shove Dimorphos into a closer, shorter orbit around Didymos. Telescopes on Earth can clock the timing of that orbit by watching how the amount of light from the double asteroid system changes as Dimorphos passes in front of and behind Didymos.

    “It’s really a beautifully conceived experiment,” Boslough says. In the coming weeks, dozens of telescopes across every continent will watch Dimorphos to see how much DART changed its orbit. The Hubble and James Webb space telescopes may also get images.

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    “It’ll be really interesting to see what comes out,” says Amy Mainzer, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who is not involved in DART. “Asteroids have a way of surprising us,” she says, because it’s hard to know a space rock’s precise chemical makeup and internal structure based on observations from Earth. So Dimorphos’ motion post-impact may not exactly match researchers’ expectations.

    The DART team will compare data on Dimorphos’ new orbit with their computer simulations to see how close those models were to predicting the asteroid’s actual behavior and tweak them accordingly. “If we can get our models to reproduce what actually happened, then you can use those models to [plan for] other scenarios that might show up in the future” — like the discovery of a real killer asteroid, says DART team member Wendy Caldwell, a mathematician and planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

    “No matter what happens,” she says, “we will get information that is valuable to the scientific community and to the planetary defense community.”  More

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    Here is the first direct look at Neptune’s rings in more than 30 years

    Humankind is seeing Neptune’s rings in a whole new light thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope.

    In an infrared image released September 21, Neptune and its gossamer diadems of dust take on an ethereal glow against the inky backdrop of space. The stunning portrait is a huge improvement over the rings’ previous close-up, which was taken more than 30 years ago.

    Unlike the dazzling belts encircling Saturn, Neptune’s rings appear dark and faint in visible light, making them difficult to see from Earth. The last time anyone saw Neptune’s rings was in 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, after tearing past the planet, snapped a couple grainy photos from roughly 1 million kilometers away (SN: 8/7/17). In those photos, taken in visible light, the rings appear as thin, concentric arcs.

    As Voyager 2 continued to interplanetary space, Neptune’s rings once again went into hiding — until July. That’s when the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, turned its sharp, infrared gaze toward the planet from roughly 4.4 billion kilometers away (SN: 7/11/22).

    Neptune’s elusive rings appear as thin arcs of light in this 1989 image from the Voyager 2 spacecraft, taken shortly after the probe made its closest approach to the planet. JPL/NASA

    Neptune itself appears mostly dark in the new image. That’s because methane gas in the planet’s atmosphere absorbs much of its infrared light. A few bright patches mark where high-altitude methane ice clouds reflect sunlight.

    And then there are the ever-elusive rings. “The rings have lots of ice and dust in them, which are extremely reflective in infrared light,” says Stefanie Milam, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and one of JWST’s project scientists. The enormity of the telescope’s mirror also makes its images extra sharp. “JWST was designed to look at the first stars and galaxies across the universe, so we can really see fine details that we haven’t been able to see before,” Milam says.

    Upcoming JWST observations will look at Neptune with other scientific instruments. That should provide new intel on the rings’ composition and dynamics, as well as on how Neptune’s clouds and storms evolve, Milam says. “There’s more to come.”

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    Saturn’s rings and tilt might have come from one missing moon

    A single, doomed moon could clear up a couple of mysteries about Saturn.

    This hypothetical missing moon, dubbed Chrysalis, could have helped tilt Saturn over, researchers suggest September 15 in Science. The ensuing orbital chaos might then have led to the moon’s demise, shredding it to form the iconic rings that encircle the planet today.

    “We like it because it’s a scenario that explains two or three different things that were previously not thought to be related,” says study coauthor Jack Wisdom, a planetary scientist at MIT. “The rings are related to the tilt, who would ever have guessed that?”

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    Saturn’s rings appear surprisingly young, a mere 150 million years or so old (SN: 12/14/17). If the dinosaurs had telescopes, they might have seen a ringless Saturn.  Another mysterious feature of the gas giant is its nearly 27-degree tilt relative to its orbit around the sun. That tilt is too large to have formed when Saturn did or to be the result of collisions knocking the planet over.

    Planetary scientists have long suspected that the tilt is related to Neptune, because of a coincidence in timing between the way the two planets move. Saturn’s axis wobbles, or precesses, like a spinning top. Neptune’s entire orbit around the sun also wobbles, like a struggling hula hoop.

    The periods of both precessions are almost the same, a phenomenon known as resonance. Scientists theorized that gravity from Saturn’s moons — especially the largest moon, Titan — helped the planetary precessions line up. But some features of Saturn’s internal structure were not known well enough to prove that the two timings were related.

    Wisdom and colleagues used precision measurements of Saturn’s gravitational field from the Cassini spacecraft, which plunged into Saturn in 2017 after 13 years orbiting the gas giant, to figure out the details of its internal structure (SN: 9/15/17). Specifically, the team worked out Saturn’s moment of inertia, a measure of how much force is needed to tip the planet over. The team found that the moment of inertia is close to, but not exactly, what it would be if Saturn’s spin were in perfect resonance with Neptune’s orbit.

    “We argue that it’s so close, it couldn’t have occurred by chance,” Wisdom says. “That’s where this satellite Chrysalis came in.”

    After considering a volley of other explanations, Wisdom and colleagues realized that another smallish moon would have helped Titan bring Saturn and Neptune into resonance by adding its own gravitational tugs. Titan drifted away from Saturn until its orbit synced up with that of Chrysalis. The enhanced gravitational kicks from the larger moon sent the doomed smaller moon on a chaotic dance. Eventually, Chrysalis swooped so close to Saturn that it grazed the giant planet’s cloud tops. Saturn ripped the moon apart, and slowly ground its pieces down into the rings.

    Calculations and computer simulations showed that the scenario works, though not all the time. Out of 390 simulated scenarios, only 17 ended with Chrysalis disintegrating to create the rings. Then again, massive, striking rings like Saturn’s are rare, too.

    The name Chrysalis came from that spectacular ending: “A chrysalis is a cocoon of a butterfly,” Wisdom says. “The satellite Chrysalis was dormant for 4.5 billion years, presumably. Then suddenly the rings of Saturn emerged from it.”

    The story hangs together, says planetary scientist Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado Boulder, who was not involved in the new work. But he’s not entirely convinced. “I think it’s all plausible, but maybe not so likely,” he says. “If Sherlock Holmes is solving a case, even the improbable explanation may be the right one. But I don’t think we’re there yet.” More

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    Passing through the Milky Way’s arms may have helped form Earth’s solid ground

    Earth’s journey through the Milky Way might have helped create the planet’s first continents.

    Comets may have bombarded Earth every time the early solar system traveled through our galaxy’s spiral arms, a new study suggests. Those recurring barrages in turn helped trigger the formation of our planet’s continental crust, researchers propose August 23 in Geology.

    Previous theories have suggested that such impacts might have played a role in forming Earth’s landmasses. But there has been little research explaining how those impacts occurred, until now, the team says.

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    It’s an intriguing hypothesis, other scientists say, but it’s not the last word when it comes to explaining how Earth got its landmasses.

    To peer back in time, geochronologist Chris Kirkland and his colleagues turned to geologic structures known as cratons (SN: 12/3/10). These relics of Earth’s ancient continental crust are some of the planet’s oldest rocks. Using material from cratons in Australia and Greenland that are billions of years old, the team measured the chemistry of more than 2,000 bits of rock. The analysis let the researchers determine the exact ages of the rocks, and whether they had formed anew from molten material deep within the Earth or from earlier generations of existing crust.

    When Kirkland and his colleagues looked for patterns in their measurements, the team found that new crust seemed to form in spurts at roughly regular intervals. “Every 200 million years, we see a pattern of more crust production,” says Kirkland, of Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

    That timing rang a bell: It’s also the frequency at which the Earth passes through the spiral arms of the Milky Way (SN: 12/30/15). The solar system loops around the center of the galaxy a bit faster than the spiral arms move, periodically passing through and overtaking them. Perhaps cosmic encounters with more stars, gas and dust within the spiral arms affected the young planet, the team suggests.

    The idea makes sense, the researchers say, since the higher density of material in the spiral arms would have led to more gravitational tugs on the reservoir of comets at our solar system’s periphery (SN: 8/18/22). Some of those encounters would have sent comets zooming into the inner solar system, and a fraction of those icy denizens would have collided with Earth, Kirkland and his team propose.

    Earth was probably covered mostly by oceans billions of years ago, and the energy delivered by all those comets would have fractured the planet’s existing oceanic crust — the relatively dense rock present since even earlier in Earth’s history — and excavated copious amounts of material while launching shock waves into the planet. That mayhem would have primed the way for parts of Earth’s mantle to melt, Kirkland says. The resulting magma would have naturally separated into a denser part — the precursor to more oceanic crust — and a lighter, more buoyant liquid that eventually turned into continental crust, the researchers suggest.

    That’s one hypothesis, but it’s far from a slam dunk, says Jesse Reimink, a geoscientist at Penn State who was not involved in the research. For starters, comet and meteorite impacts are notoriously tough to trace, especially that far back in time, he says. “There’s very few diagnostics of impacts.” And it’s not well-known whether such impacts, if they occurred in the first place, would have resulted in the release of magma, he says.

    In the future, Kirkland and his colleagues hope to analyze moon rocks to look for the same pattern of crust formation (SN: 7/15/19). Our nearest celestial neighbor would have been walloped by about the same amount of stuff that hit Earth, Kirkland says. “You’d predict it’d also be subject to these periodic impact events.” More

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    Oort cloud comets may spin themselves to death

    Comets from the solar system’s deep freezer often don’t survive their first encounter with the sun. Now one scientist thinks he knows why: Solar warmth makes some of the cosmic snowballs spin so fast, they fall apart.

    This suggestion could help solve a decades-old mystery about what destroys many “long-period” comets, astronomer David Jewitt reports in a study submitted August 8 to Long-period comets originate in the Oort cloud, a sphere of icy objects at the solar system’s fringe (SN: 8/18/08). Those that survive their first trip around the sun tend to swing by our star only once every 200 years.

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    “These things are stable out there in the Oort cloud where nothing ever happens. When they come toward the sun, they heat up, all hell breaks loose, and they fall apart,” Jewitt says.

    The Dutch astronomer Jan Oort first proposed the Oort cloud as a cometary reservoir in 1950. He realized that many of its comets that came near Earth were first-time visitors, not return travelers. Something was taking the comets out, but no one knew what.

    One possibility was that the comets die by sublimating all of their water away as they near the heat of the sun until there’s nothing left. But that didn’t fit with observations of comets that seemed to physically break up into smaller pieces. The trouble was, those breakups are hard to watch in real time.

    “The disintegrations are really hard to observe because they’re unpredictable, and they happen quickly,” Jewitt says.

    He ran into that difficulty when he tried to observe Comet Leonard, a bright comet that put on a spectacular show in winter 2021–2022. Jewitt had applied for time to observe the comet with the Hubble Space Telescope in April and June 2022. But by February, the comet had already disintegrated. “That was a wake-up call,” Jewitt says.

    So Jewitt turned to historical observations of long-period comets that came close to the sun since the year 2000. He selected those whose water vapor production had been indirectly measured via an instrument called SWAN on NASA’s SOHO spacecraft, to see how quickly the comets were losing mass. He also picked out comets whose movements deviating from their orbits around the sun had been measured. Those motions are a result of water vapor jets pushing the comet around, like a spraying hose flopping around a garden.

    That left him with 27 comets, seven of which did not survive their closest approach to the sun.

    Jewitt expected that the most active comets would disintegrate the fastest, by puffing away all their water. But he found the opposite: It turns out that the least active comets with the smallest dirty snowball cores were the most at risk of falling apart.

    “Basically, being a small nucleus near the sun causes you to die,” Jewitt says. “The question is, why?”

    It wasn’t that the comets were torn apart by the sun’s gravity — they didn’t get close enough for that. And simply sublimating until they went poof would have been too slow a death to match the observations. The comets are also unlikely to collide with anything else in the vastness of space and break apart that way. And a previous suggestion that pressure builds up inside the comets until they explode like a hand grenade doesn’t make sense to Jewitt. Comets’ upper few centimeters of material would absorb most of the sun’s heat, he says, so it would be difficult to heat the center of the comet enough for that to work.

    The best remaining explanation, Jewitt says, is rotational breakup. As the comet nears the sun and its water heats up enough to sublimate, jets of water vapor form and make the core start to spin like a catherine wheel firework. Smaller cores are easier to push around than a larger one, so they spin more easily.

    “It just spins faster and faster, until it doesn’t have enough tensile strength to hold together,” Jewitt says. “I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening.”

    That deadly spin speed is actually quite slow. Spinning at about half a meter per second could spell curtains for a kilometer-sized comet, he calculates. “You can walk faster.”

    But comets are fragile. If you held a fist-sized comet in front of your face, a sneeze would destroy it, says planetary astronomer Nalin Samarasinha of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, who was not involved in the study.

    Samarasinha thinks Jewitt’s proposal is convincing. “Even though the sample size is small, I think it is something really happening.” But other things might be destroying these comets too, he says, and Jewitt agrees.

    Samarasinha is holding out for more comet observations, which could come when the Vera Rubin Observatory begins surveying the sky in 2023. Jewitt’s idea “is something which can be observationally tested in a decade or two.” More

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    Asteroid impacts might have created some of Mars’ sand

    Sand on Earth is continuously being created by the slow erosion of rocks. But on Mars, violent asteroid impacts may play an important role in making new sand.

    As much as a quarter of Martian sand is composed of spherical bits of glass forged in the intense heat of impacts, a new study shows. Since windblown sand sculpts the Martian landscape, this discovery reveals how asteroid impacts contribute to shaping Mars, even long after the collisions occur, Purdue University planetary scientist Briony Horgan and colleagues suggest. The team will present their results August 18 at the 85th Annual Meeting of the Meteoritical Society in Glasgow, Scotland.

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    Using data collected by spacecraft orbiting Mars, Horgan and collaborators looked at different wavelengths of visible and infrared light reflected from the planet’s surface to determine the minerals present in Martian sand. The team found signatures of glass all over the planet, particularly at higher latitudes.

    One explanation for all that glass is volcanic eruptions, which are known to produce glass when magma mixes with water. But the most glass-rich swath of Mars — the planet’s northern plains — is conspicuously bereft of volcanoes, the researchers note. That rules out volcanic eruptions as the culprit in that location and instead suggests that far more cataclysmic events — asteroid impacts — might be involved.

    That’s a plausible argument, says Steven Goderis, a geochemist at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium who was not involved in the research. “Often Mars is seen as a volcanic planet. But there’s also a very strong impact component, and this is often overlooked.”

    When an asteroid moving at several kilometers per second slams into a rocky planet like Mars, the energy of the event melts nearby rocks and launches them skywards. That molten shrapnel fragments and produces sand grain–sized pieces that are roughly spherical. Those bits of glass — called impact spherules — eventually rain back onto the planet (SN: 3/31/21).

    Martian sand, imaged by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, contains dark, spherical grains that were most likely created by asteroid impacts.Briony Horgan/ICL/UA/JPL/NASA

    Over the last 3 billion years, asteroid impacts could have plausibly blanketed the surface of Mars in a layer of impact spherules roughly half a meter thick, Horgan and her colleagues calculate. All that material added to the sand on Mars that formed through normal erosion. “Impacts helped supply sand to the surface continuously over time,” Horgan says.

    Scientists might have the opportunity to analyze Martian impact spherules in the future. NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently storing samples of Martian sand and rocks for eventual return to Earth (SN: 9/10/21). That’s exciting, Horgan says. “The record of all this is in the sand.” More

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    Astronauts might be able to use asteroid soil to grow crops

    Astronauts might one day dine on salad grown in asteroid soil.

    Romaine lettuce, chili pepper and pink radish plants all grew in mixtures of peat moss and faux asteroid soil, researchers report in the July Planetary Science Journal.  

    Scientists have previously grown crops in lunar dirt (SN: 5/23/22). But the new study focuses on “carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, known to be rich in volatile sources — water especially,” says astroecologist Sherry Fieber-Beyer of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. These meteorites, and their parent asteroids, are also rich in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus — key agricultural nutrients. Pulverizing these types of asteroids, perhaps as part of space mining efforts, could potentially provide a ready supply of farming material in space.

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    Fieber-Beyer purchased a material that mimics the space rocks’ composition and gave it to her graduate student Steven Russell. “I said, ‘All right, grow me some plants.’”

    Russell, now an astrobiologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, chose a type of radish, lettuce and chili pepper — all of which have grown aboard the International Space Station. He, Fieber-Beyer and their colleague Kathryn Yurkonis, also of the University of North Dakota, compared how the plants grew in only faux asteroid soil, only peat moss and various mixes of the two.

    Peat moss keeps soil loose and improves water retention. In all mixtures with peat moss, the plants grew. Faux asteroid soil on its own, however, compacted and couldn’t retain water, and so plants couldn’t grow.

    Next, Fieber-Beyer will try growing hairy vetch seeds in that faux asteroid dirt, let the plants decay and then mix the dead plant matter throughout the soil. That, she says, could ensure that the soil doesn’t compact. Plus, seeds weigh a lot less than peat moss, making them easier to carry to space to help with any future farming attempts. More

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    A new look at the ‘mineral kingdom’ may transform how we search for life

    If every mineral tells a story, then geologists now have their equivalent of The Arabian Nights.

    For the first time, scientists have cataloged every different way that every known mineral can form and put all of that information in one place. This collection of mineral origin stories hints that Earth could have harbored life earlier than previously thought, quantifies the importance of water as the most transformative ingredient in geology, and may change how researchers look for signs of life and water on other planets. 

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    “This is just going to be an explosion,” says Robert Hazen, a mineralogist and astrobiologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. “You can ask a thousand questions now that we couldn’t have answered before.”

    For over 100 years, scientists have defined minerals in terms of “what,” focusing on their structure and chemical makeup. But that can make for an incomplete picture. For example, though all diamonds are a kind of crystalline carbon, three different diamonds might tell three different stories, Hazen says. One could have formed 5 billion years ago in a distant star, another may have been born in a meteorite impact, and a third could have been baked deep below the Earth’s crust.

    Diamonds have the same carbon structure, but they can form in different ways. This particular gem originated deep within the Earth.Rob Lavinsky/ARKENSTONE

    So Hazen and his colleagues set out to define a different approach to mineral classification. This new angle focuses on the “how” by thinking about minerals as things that evolve out of the history of life, Earth and the solar system, he and his team report July 1 in a pair of studies in American Mineralogist. The researchers defined 57 main ways that the “mineral kingdom” forms, with options ranging from condensation out of the space between stars to formation in the excrement of bats. 

    The information in the catalog isn’t new, but it was previously scattered throughout thousands of scientific papers. The “audacity” of their work, Hazen says, was to go through and compile it all together for the more than 5,600 known types of minerals. That makes the catalog a one-stop shop for those who want to use minerals to understand the past.

    The compilation also allowed the team to take a step back and think about mineral evolution from a broader perspective. Patterns immediately popped out. One of the new studies shows that over half of all known mineral kinds form in ways that ought to have been possible on the newborn Earth. The implication: Of all the geologic environments that scientists have considered as potential crucibles for the beginning of life on Earth, most could have existed as early as 4.3 billion years ago (SN: 9/24/20). Life, therefore, may have formed almost as soon as Earth did, or at the very least, had more time to arise than scientists have thought. Rocks with traces of life date to only 3.4 billion years ago (SN: 7/26/21). 

    “That would be a very, very profound implication — that the potential for life is baked in at the very beginning of a planet,” says Zachary Adam, a paleobiologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved in the new studies.

    The exact timing of when conditions ripe for life arose is based on “iffy” models, though, says Frances Westall, a geobiologist at the Center for Molecular Biophysics in Orléans, France, who was also not part of Hazen’s team. She thinks that scientists need more data before they can be sure. But, she says, “the principle is fantastic.”

    The new results also show how essential water has been to making most of the minerals on Earth. Roughly 80 percent of known mineral types need H2O to form, the team reports.

    “Water is just incredibly important,” Hazen says, adding that the estimate is conservative. “It may be closer to 90 percent.”

    Some minerals would not form in certain ways without the influence of life. Photosynthesizing bacteria helped bring about the oxygen-rich conditions needed for this azurite (left), while the opalized ammonite (right) was created by the mineral opal filling the space where an ammonite shell used to be.Rob Lavinsky/ARKENSTONE

    Taken one way, this means that if researchers see water on a planet like Mars, they can guess that it has a rich mineral ecosystem (SN: 3/16/21). But flipping this idea may be more useful: Scientists could identify what minerals are on the Red Planet and then use the new catalog to work backward and figure out what its environment was like in the past. A group of minerals, for example, might be explainable only if there had been water, or even life.

    Right now, scientists do this sort of detective work on just a few minerals at a time (SN: 5/11/20). But if researchers want to make the most of the samples collected on other planets, something more comprehensive is needed, Adam says, like the new study’s framework.

    And that’s just the beginning. “The value of this [catalog] is that it’s ongoing and potentially multigenerational,” Adam says. “We can go back to it again and again and again for different kinds of questions.” 

    “I think we have a lot more we can do,” agrees Shaunna Morrison, a mineralogist at the Carnegie Institution and coauthor of the new studies. “We’re just scratching the surface.” More