A journey from the solar nebula to planetary bodies: cycling of heat, water and organics

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Geographical & Earth Sciences


In this research programme, planetary scientists and engineers from the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre have joined forces to answer important questions concerning the origin and evolution of asteroids, the Moon and Mars. The emphasis of our work is on understanding the thermal histories of these planetary bodies over a range of time and distance scales, and how water and carbon-rich molecules have been transported within and between them.

One part of the consortium will explore the formation and subsequent history of asteroids. Our focus is on primitive asteroids, which have changed little since they formed 4500 million years ago within a cloud of dust and gas called the solar nebula. These bodies are far smaller than the planets, but are scientifically very important because they contain water and carbon-rich molecules, both of which are essential to life. We want to understand the full range of materials that went to form these asteroids, and where in the solar nebular they came from. Although they are very primitive, most of these asteroids have been changed by chemical reactions that were driven by liquid water, itself generated by the melting of ice. We will ask whether the heat needed to melt this ice was produced by the decay of radioactive elements, or by collisions with other asteroids. The answer to this question has important implications for understanding how asteroids of all types evolved, and what we may find when samples of primitive asteroids are collected and returned to Earth.

Pieces of primitive asteroids also fall to Earth as meteorites, and bring with them some of their primordial water, along with molecules that are rich in carbon. Many scientists think that much of the water on Earth today was obtained from outer space, and consortium researchers would like to test this idea. In order to understand the nature and volume of water and carbon that would have been delivered by meteorites, we first need to develop reliable ways to distinguish extraterrestrial carbon and water from the carbon and water that has been added to the meteorite after it fell to Earth. We plan to do this by identifying 'fingerprints' of terrestrial water and carbon so that they can be subtracted from the extraterrestrial components. One of the main ways in which this carbon was delivered to Earth during its earliest times was by large meteorites colliding with the surface of our planet at high velocities. Thus we also wish to understand the extent to which the extraterrestrial carbon was preserved or transformed during these energetic impact events.

The formation and early thermal history of the moon is another area of interest for the consortium. In particular, we will ask when its rocky crust was formed, and use its impact history to determine meteorite flux throughout the inner solar system. To answer these questions we will analyse meteorites and samples collected by the Apollo and Luna missions to determine the amounts of chemical elements including argon and lead that these rocks contain. Information on the temperature of surface and sub-surface regions of Mars can help us to understand processes including the interaction of the planet's crust with liquid water. In order to be able to explore these processes using information on the thermal properties of martian rocks that will soon to be obtained by the NASA InSight lander, we will undertake a laboratory study of the effects of heating and cooling on a simulated martian surface. Hot water reaching the surface of Mars from its interior may once have created environments that were suitable for life to develop, and minerals formed by this water could have preserved the traces of any microorganisms that were present. We will assess the possibility that such springs could have preserved traces of past martian life by examining a unique high-altitude hot spring system on Earth.

Planned Impact

Results from our research will be of direct benefit to a wide range of people. These users of our research are described below together with what they will gain, and the actions that we will take to ensure that these benefits happen quickly, are effective and are lasting.

Our research will benefit companies that manufacture and market analytical instruments and novel tools for communicating science to the public. The instrument manufacturers will benefit by working with us to test and develop equipment, the results from which will enable them to refine their products and thereby gain a substantial commercial advantage. Consortium members have excellent working relationships with companies including EDAX, IsotopX, Oxford Instruments, Renishaw, Sonic Systems and ThermoFisher Scientific. For this proposal have set up knowledge exchange agreements with JEOL and FEI. We have also agreed to work together with Pufferfish, an Edinburgh-based SME, to enhance the range and depth of the planetary science content of their spherical projection displays. This partnership will be particularly beneficial to the company by enabling them to show potential customers how useful and effective their displays are for communicating scientific and commercial information in an engaging and effective manner.

One part of the consortium's work has the aim of developing a novel technique called focused ion beam tomography, which is highly relevant to the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons (e.g., shale gas) from terrestrial rocks via hydraulic fracturing ('fracking'). We will ensure that this work has impact through our knowledge exchange partnership with FEI, whereby we will collaborate with the company to optimise the technique for quantifying porosity and permeability. We will then work together with the British Geological Survey to apply the technique to rocks in northern England that are being investigated for their shale gas potential. Given that the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons has revolutionised the global energy market, although is also controversial as regards to its environmental effects, this work has the potential to have very significant economic and social/political impacts.

The consortium will use its planetary science research to educate and inspire the general public. These impacts will happen through our workshops at national science festivals, via events and displays with our partners at the Hunterian Museum and Glasgow Science Center, and also by seeking out groups that do not attend such events by holding workshops in locations such as shopping centers and public houses. In addition to these outreach activities, we will use print and social media to announce our results to audiences in the UK and internationally, and link it to information on our website: http://solarsystemrocks.org.

Our work will have an impact on school age children and undergraduate university students by highlighting to them the exciting and important careers that they can follow by studying science and engineering. The school children will be engaged both through our science outreach events, but also via summer schools at the University of Glasgow, and we will specifically target pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The undergraduate students will be reached through involving them in research projects as part of their degree programmes, but also through initiatives such as the annual 'Global Balloon Challenge'.

National space agencies (e.g., NASA, UKSA, ESA, JAXA), will benefit from the consortium research through our new insights into the properties of primitive asteroids, natural satellites and Mars. These impacts will be especially pronounced given the current and forthcoming missions to explore these bodies. We will ensure that our work is communicated to these user groups in a timely and effective manner by presentations at international conferences, and high impact papers, all of which will be freely available.


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Description Asteroids are the remains of proto-planets that formed during the birth of the Solar System 4600 million years ago. The most primitive of these asteroids contain water and organic molecules and so are very important for understanding how life started on Earth, and potentially other planets. Fragments of these asteroids have been falling to Earth throughout its history as carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. We studied some of these meteorites to determine how the primitive asteroids formed and evolved. One of the meteorites that we analysed is among the most primitive rocks every found, and so can tell us much about the nature of water and organic matter in the early Solar System. It has also shown us that the carbonaceous chondrite meteorites in our museum collections come from at least two asteroids. Our work on water in these meteorites has enable us to show that it is contained within clay minerals and organic matter. Importantly our results have also shown that the meteorites are contaminated by the atmosphere once they fall to Earth.
Exploitation Route Outcomes of this work are highly relevant to current space missions to collect samples of primitive asteroids and return them to Earth. These missions are by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Our work will help scientists to interpret the samples that they are analysing, and in particular highlight the potential for these samples to rapidly adsorb water when they come in contact with Earth's atmosphere.
Sectors Education

Description Public communication film 
Organisation Cairn Production
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The team worked closely with Cairn Production to make a film in connection with the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, 2016
Collaborator Contribution Cairn Production made the film, which was funded by the UK Space Agency
Impact The film is available on the Royal Society website (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKWef-zWQuQ&list=PLg7f-TkW11iUygUJrvdEB8yucldgBiwxV?dex=6), youtube, and out own webpage (http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/researchandimpact/earthsystemsresearch/solarsystemvolatiles/).
Start Year 2016
Description Royal Society Summer Exhibition 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The School of Geographical and Earth Sciences led an event at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition entitled "Breaking the greenhouse: storing sky as stone". It was co-sponsored by the UK Space Agency and Natural history Museum. The event as a whole was attended by 14,000 people over one week, and even if only 10% visited our exhibit we would have interacted with over 1000. the main outcomes were informing visitors of the importance of space science and research, both for planetary exploration, but also in the context of understanding climate change on Earth.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKWef-zWQuQ&list=PLg7f-TkW11iUygUJrvdEB8yucldgBiwxV&index=6