Just 14 million years after the start of the solar system, Earth and the rest of the inner planets were inundated with water, setting back the clock for when life could have evolved, a new study shows.
Analysis of meteorites from the mini-planet Vesta, located in the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, show hydrogen isotope ratios that match what has been found in ancient, unaltered meteorites known as carbonaceous chrondrites.
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Scientists already had a match between the chemical fingerprints of Earth's hydrogen and the carbonaceous chrondites, but what they didn't know is when the water would have been available to accrete into Earth.
The new analysis pushes water's first appearance in Vesta and presumably on other rocky, planet-like bodies including Earth to just 14 million years after the start of the solar system.
"All the the planets could have gotten their water very early, which means the planets could have been habitable immediately after they formed. They weren't just sitting there and looking at their watch, waiting for water to come," Adam Sarafian, a geophysics doctorate student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told Discovery News.
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Water is necessary for life as we know it.
Geologic activity on Earth has destroyed the earliest records of the planet's formation, with its oldest rocks dating back to about 200 million years after the formation of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.
Analysis of rocks from the moon, retrieved during the 1969-1972 Apollo missions, show water was available in the inner solar system about 150 million years after the solar system's formation.
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The Vesta meteorites, known as eukrites, date back to 14 million years after the start of the solar system. Sarafian and collegues measured a mineral called apatite in the samples to determine their water content.
"This is the oldest water that anyone has measured that has accreted to something that resembles a planet," Sarafian said.