What was the Volatile Composition of the Planetesimals that Formed the Earth?

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Abstract

Is there an asteroid type or meteorite class that best exemplifies the materials that went into the Earth? Carbonaceous chondrites were once the objects of choice, and in the minds of many this choice is still valid. However, the origin of primitive chondritic meteorites is unclear. At the extremes they could either be fragments of very small parent bodies that never became hot enough to undergo geochemical modification other than mild lithification, or remnants of the uppermost layers of a body that had undergone a significant degree of internal differentiation, while the top layers remained cool due to radiative heat loss or loss of volatiles to space. This latter case is problematic if one considers these objects as precursors to the Earth since the timescale for the evolution of such a small body could be longer than the timescale for the accretion of the Earth. Large-scale circulation of materials in the primitive solar nebula could greatly increase the diversity of materials near 1 AU while also making the entire inner solar system both more homogeneous and much wetter than previously expected. The total mass of the nebula is an important, but poorly constrained factor controlling the growth of planetesimals. There is also a selection effect that dominates our sampling of the planetesimals that may have existed 4.5 billion years ago; namely, small fragile bodies are more likely to be lost from the system or ground down by collisions between small bodies, yet these are precisely those that may have dominated the population from which the Earth accreted. The composition of these aggregates could have played a very important role in the early chemical evolution of the Earth. In particular, the Earth may have been much wetter and richer in hydrocarbons and other reducing materials than previously suspected.

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