6. Water in the heavens

This is the sixth in a series of short articles (summarised here) that make the case that asteroids, routinely interpreted as evidencing the birth of the solar system, attest the exact opposite: its destruction. Recent space exploration has revealed a metamorphosed creation that matches the pre-scientific account of primeval history in several respects.

Meteorites, asteroids and comets

Europa - a moon orbiting Jupiter - is covered in water to a depth of 100 kmUnexpectedly, many meteorites, of every type, contain minerals that formed through reaction with liquid water (‘aqueous alteration’). In some cases the minerals hydrated before the particles making up the meteorites coalesced. Water vapour was suspended in space, wetting the grain surfaces and making them stickier, thereby accelerating the process by which grains accreted. Another interesting point is that the amount of water tends to be in inverse proportion to the chondrules [see part 3]. Some meteorites that lack chondrules consist entirely of aqueous minerals. Apparently, the source of the heat that prevented hydration was the chondrules themselves. If conditions were cool enough, hydration almost always occurred.

Hydrated minerals have also been detected remotely in comets and asteroids and directly recovered by NASA’s Deep Impact probe from the short-period comet Tempel 1. Comets, of course, contain copious amounts of frozen water.

Interplanetary space seems to have been wet. Evidence for this doesn’t just come from asteroids and comets. All the terrestrial planets show signs of having once been drenched by water – even Mercury. One of the most astonishing findings of the Messenger mission was that in areas untouched by solar radiation (under the walls of high-latitude craters) water abounds. Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt, is estimated to be 50% ice and 50% rock by volume.

Venus

Perhaps the most surprising instance is Venus. Although the planet today has a hot dry surface and is shrouded under clouds of carbon dioxide and sulphuric acid, the high ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in its atmosphere suggests that it once hosted a substantial ocean, subsequently evaporated (or blasted) away. Deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, can combine with oxygen to produce a heavy form of water, and the inference is that ultraviolet radiation from the sun split the evaporated water into hydrogen, deuterium and oxygen. The lightest gas, hydrogen, escaped into space, as did most of the deuterium, but a proportion remained in the atmosphere. The heavier oxygen oxidised the crust.

The Moon

Until recently, the Moon was believed to be devoid of water. Then in October 2010 it was announced that the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission had discovered larger quantities of water when it drove a spacecraft into a crater close to the permanently shadowed south pole. Five months after that, it was announced that millions of tons of ice were hidden deep within craters around the northern pole. The polar ice also had to be very ancient. Finally, in May 2011 came the news that water had been discovered in volcanic melt inclusions – tiny pockets of magma trapped in the growing crystals while the magma was as yet unerupted – suggesting that the interior also contained appreciable amounts. Indeed, the proportions were similar to those within the Earth’s upper mantle. Because of the difficulty of understanding where the water might have come from, scientists have continued to be doubtful. Hence it still made the news when in August 2018 a paper analysing data gathered by India’s Chandrayaan-1 probe in 2008-09 claimed the first definitive proof of water ice on the surface.

The Earth

Oceans of water cover most of the Earth’s surface, to an average depth of almost 4 km. According to the nebula hypothesis, Earth, like Venus, should not have had oceans to start with, since it lies within the ‘snow line’ within which the infant Sun’s heat would have prevented volatiles from condensing into liquid. Yet water has been abundant on or in the Earth from as far back as datable minerals can take us, in geological time as early as 4.4 billion years ago. At the beginning of the Archaean, around 3.9 billion years ago, the entire planet was under water, and it was to remain largely submerged for another 1300 million years (Flament et al 2008). Water has dominated the planet throughout its known history.

Mars

12-mile-wide Bacolor crater, Mars, with lobate splash ejectaMars’s early history is no less puzzling. Its surface is both cold and dry, yet there is evidence of former water wherever one looks. The ancient impact-gouged depression in its northern hemisphere once contained an ocean more than 400 metres deep, covering a third of its surface. Deltas and valley networks – the ancient conduits of water from the highlands – fringe the basin. Within the basin one can still see the faint outlines of smaller craters whose walls were eroded by the ocean and whose floors received thick sheets of diluvial sediment. In other regions, ejecta splashes surround the craters, showing that the ground had (or was shock-heated to) a mud-like consistency. When asteroids bombarded the planet, the surface was wet. Condensing clouds continued to rain on the lowlands for many years, repeating their cycles of evaporation, re-precipitation and runoff, until gradually the water seeped into the ground. It is now locked up as subsurface ice.

The Kuiper Belt
The furthest of the eight known planets is Neptune, named after the Roman god of the Ocean. Beyond Neptune is the Kuiper Belt, a region of small diffuse bodies between 30 and 55 AU (Earth distances) from the Sun. The space occupied is greater than that containing all the planets, so the belt represents far more than merely the edge of the solar system. In the standard model, the belt is presumed to be the volatile-rich remains of the protoplanetary disc, but the actual story appears to be more complicated. Complications include:
  • its fragmentary nature, it is estimated to contain more than 100,000 objects over 50 km in size and, wildly contrary to computer models, quadrillions of objects 10–100 metres in size (Cooray 2006);The Kuiper Belt
  • the belt’s low overall density, this is not satisfactorily explained by the nebula hypothesis and is known as the ‘missing mass problem’, though the problem may be partly alleviated by the quantity of the 10-100 metre-size objects;
  • the ‘surprisingly high level of dynamical excitation’ of the objects – they have highly elliptical orbits at various angles to the ecliptic plane, not, as expected, circular orbits all close to the plane;
  • the existence of more such bodies, known as the “scattered disc”, that extend in similarly erratic orbits beyond the Kuiper Belt and are essentially a continuation of it.

The largest Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) are Pluto, Makemake and Eris, all classified as dwarf planets. Several others are suspected to be of similar size. The icy moons of Neptune and Uranus may also have been former members of the Kuiper Belt, as may some of the Centaurs. As with the asteroid belt, the vast number of bodies is thought to reflect the outcome of collisions between larger bodies. Thus the present state of the Kuiper Belt does not reflect its primeval state, and its more recent history may be one of disaggregation rather than aggregation.

The composition of the KBOs has to be inferred from their surface composition. This is not straightforward, since a variety of events and influences, such as interaction with the interstellar medium and polymer-producing cosmic rays, has complicated the chemistry. Pluto is one third water and two-thirds rock.

In simple terms, the surfaces of the largest bodies are mainly nitrogen and methane (CH4) whereas the surfaces of the small to medium-sized objects are mainly water-ice. Most of the smaller bodies are fragments of larger ones and therefore younger. Some of the water ice is crystalline and must have formed in temperatures well above those now prevailing. This may not have been long ago, for cosmic rays will reduce crystalline ice to an amorphous state within 0.1–1.0 million years.

The atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune also contain substantial amount of ammonia (NH3), methane and water (as do all moons large and cold enough to retain such volatiles).

Traditions about the creation of celestial water

In view of the problems associated with the nebula hypothesis, it is reasonable to ask whether a creation-based approach might not offer a better interpretation. One alternative would be to understand the Kuiper Belt as consisting of rocky material from an exploded planet plus the remnant of a created aqueous cocoon around the solar system.

It is noteworthy that many pre-scientific peoples had a tradition that a celestial ocean existed above the terrestrial one. The Egyptians, for example, visualised the sun as travelling through the sky in a boat. The creation myth of Babylon, Enuma Elish, visualised the goddess of the deep being split in two to form an upper ocean and a lower one. According to the Hebrews, the space encompassing the solar system was created by separating the primordial deep into one body of water under the firmament and another above it.

Combining ancient tradition and modern astronomical knowledge, we could surmise that these waters initially existed in the gas phase, forming a protective, nebulous, slowly rotating circumambient shell not unlike the spherical shape postulated for the ‘Oort cloud’. Over time, much of this water diffused inwards under the influence of the Sun’s gravity, the shell contracting into an annular disc. By 4.568 Ga ago in geological time interplanetary space may have hosted a substantial volume of water. In the course of diffusion, some of this water showered onto the planets, hence the large volume of water attracted by Mars in its Noachian period and the evidence of ubiquitous water elsewhere. Further out, cooling and electrostatic sticking caused the droplets to consolidate into small bodies of ice.

Creation theory postulates a nebulous spherical envelope, evolution theory, a spherical cloud. For ease of calculation, and because of the ‘metre-size barrier’, simulations within the latter framework begin at the point where orbiting objects are 1–10 km in size. The bodies merge and grow on relatively short timescales, with the orbits of the smallest increasing in eccentricity, after which accretion proceeds more slowly. Only a few objects reach the size of Pluto. Collisions between the smaller bodies remaining then produce debris instead of mergers, grinding away until eventually 90% or more of the initial material is eliminated. Such reconstructions leading up to the Kuiper Belt’s present form, which seem reasonable enough, are equally valid within a creation framework.

The Deluge waters from above

Shock fronts from planetary explosions will have entrained water, or ice, as well as rock fragments. If so, when the fragments hit Venus, Mars and Earth, the bombardment would have been accompanied by considerable rainfall. Earth’s case was slightly different, since its dry upper atmosphere had previously absorbed the water diffusing through space, retarding precipitation. As asteroids ripped through the atmosphere, the stored water added to the deluge. At the same time the pillars supporting the dry land collapsed. Vast amounts of subterranean water surged to the surface. By the end of the cataclysm the whole planet was submerged, and, as we noted, was to remain mostly submerged throughout the Archaean.

There is a strong argument, therefore, that much of the water discovered around the lunar poles in 2009 was water from the event popularly known as Noah’s Flood.