The Moon And Chalk

Cathleen’s talking faster near the end of the class. “OK, we’ve seen how Venus, Earth and Mars all formed in the same region of the protosolar disk and have similar overall compositions. We’ve accounted for differences in their trace gasses. So how come Earth’s nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere is so different from the CO2-nitrogen environments on Venus and Mars? Let’s brainstorm — shout out non-atmospheric ways that Earth is unique. I’ll record your list on Al’s whiteboard.”

“Oceans!”

“Plate tectonics!”

“Photosynthesis!”

“Limestone!”

“The Moon!”

“Wombats!” (That suggestion gets a glare from Cathleen. She doesn’t write it down.)

“Goldilocks zone!”

“Magnetic field!”

“People!”

She registers the last one but puts parentheses around it. “This one’s literally a quickie — real-world proof that human activity affects the atmosphere. Since the 1900s gaseous halogen-carbon compounds have seen wide use as refrigerants and solvents. Lab-work shows that these halocarbons catalyze conversion of ozone to molecular oxygen. In the 1970s satellite data showed a steady decrease in the upper-atmosphere ozone that blocks dangerous solar UV light from reaching us on Earth’s surface. A 1987 international pact banned most halocarbon production. Since then we’ve seen upper-level ozone concentrations gradually recovering. That shows that things we do in quantity have an impact.”

“How about carbon dioxide and methane?”

“That’s a whole ‘nother topic we’ll get to some other day. Right now I want to stay on the Mars-Venus-Earth track. Every item on our list has been cited as a possible contributor to Earth’s atmospheric specialness. Which ones link together and how?”

Adopted from image by Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronomer-in-training Jim volunteers. “The Moon has to come first. Moon-rock isotope data strongly implies it condensed from debris thrown out by a huge interplanetary collision that ripped away a lot of what was then Earth’s crust. Among other things that explains why the Moon’s density is in the range for silicates — only 60% of Earth’s density — and maybe even why Earth is more dense than Venus. Such a violent event would have boiled off whatever atmosphere we had at the time, so no surprise the atmosphere we have now doesn’t match our neighbors.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes takes it from there. “That could also account for why only Earth has plate tectonics. I ran the numbers once to see how the Moon’s volume matches up with the 70% of Earth’s surface that’s ocean. Assuming meteor impacts grew the Moon by 10% after it formed, I divided 90% of the Moon’s present volume by 70% of Earth’s surface area and got a depth of 28 miles. That’s nicely within the accepted 20-30 mile range for depth of Earth’s continental crust. It sure looks like our continental plates are what’s left of the Earth’s original crust, floating about on top of the metallic magma that Earth held onto.”

Jeremy gets excited. “And the oceans filled up what the continents couldn’t spread over.”

“That’s the general idea.”

Al’s not letting go. “But why does Earth have so much water and why is it the only one of the three with a substantial magnetic field?”

Cathleen breaks in. “The geologists are still arguing about whether Earth’s surface water was delivered by billions of incoming meteorites or was expelled from deep subterranean sources. Everyone agrees, though, that our water is liquid because we’re in the Goldilocks zone. The water didn’t steam away as it probably did on Venus, or freeze below the surface as it may have on Mars. Why the magnetic field? That’s another ‘we’re still arguing‘ issue, but we do know that magnetic fields protect Earth and only Earth from incoming solar wind.”

“So we’re down to photosynthesis and … limestone?”

“Photosynthesis was critical. Somewhere around two billion years ago, Earth’s sea-borne life-forms developed a metabolic pathway that converted CO2 to oxygen. They’ve been running that engine ever since. If Earth ever did have CO2 like Venus has, green things ate most of it. Some of the oxygen went to oxidizing iron but a lot was left over for animals to breathe.”

“But what happened to the carbon? Wouldn’t life’s molecules just become CO2 again?”

“Life captures carbon and buries it. Chalky limestone, for instance — it’s calcium carbonate formed from plankton shells.”

Jim grins. “We owe it all to the Moon.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Helios versus Mars, Planetary Version

Al waves me over the moment I step through the door of his coffee shop.  “Sy, ya gotta squeeze into the back room.  The grad students are holding another Crazy Theory contest and they’re having a blast.  I don’t know enough science to keep up with ’em but you’d love it.  Here’s your coffee.”

“Thanks, Al.  I’ll see what’s going on.”

The Crazy Theory contest is a hallowed Al’s Coffee Shop tradition — a “seminar” where grad students present their weirdest ideas in competition.  Another tradition (Al is strong on this one) is that the night’s winner has to sweep up the thrown spitballs and crumpled paper napkins at the end of the presentations.  I weave my way in just as the girl at the mic finishes her pitch with, “… and that’s why Spock and horseshoe crabs both have green blood!”

Some in the crowd start chanting “Amanda!  Amanda!  Amanda!”  She’s already reaching for the Ceremonial Broom when Jim steps up to the mic and waves for quiet.  “Wanna hear how the Sun oxidized Mars and poisoned it for us?”

Helios and Mars
Helios and Mars
Mars image adopted from photo by Mark Cartwright
Creative Commons license
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Voice from the crowd — <“The Sun did what?”>

“You remember titration from school chem lab?”

.——<“Yeah, you put acid in a beaker and you drip in a base until the solution starts to turn red.”>

“What color is Mars?”

.——<“Red!”>

“Well, there you are.”

.——<“Horse-hockey!  What’s that got to do with the Sun or what you said about poison?”>

“Look at what our rovers and orbiters found on Mars — atmosphere only 1% of Earth’s but even that’s mostly CO2, no liquid water at the surface, rust-dust everywhere, soil’s loaded with perchlorate salts.  My Crazy Theory can explain all of that.”

.——<“Awright, let’s hear it!”>

“Titration’s all about counting out chemical species.  Your acid-base indicator pinked when you’d neutralized your sample’s H+ ions by adding exactly the right number of OH ions to turn them all into H2O, right?  So think about Mars back in the day when it had liquid water on the ground and water vapor in the atmosphere.  Along comes solar radiation, especially the hard ultra-violet that blows apart stratospheric H2O molecules.  ZOT!  Suddenly you’ve got two free hydrogen atoms and an oxygen floating around.  Then what happens?”

It’s a tough crowd.  <“We’re dying to hear!  Get on with it!”>

“The hydrogens tie up as an H2 molecule.  The escape velocity on Mars is well below the speed of H2 molecules at any temperature above 40K, so those guys abandon Mars for the freedom of Space.  Which leaves the oxygen atom behind, hungry for electrons and ready to oxidize anything it can get close to.”

They’re starting to come along.  <“Wouldn’t the oxygen form O2 and fly away too?”>

“Nowhere near as quickly.  An O2 molecule is 16 times heavier than an H2 molecule.  At a given temperature it moves 1/4 as fast and mostly stays on-planet where it can chew up the landscape.”

.——<“How could an atom do that?”>

“It’s a chain process.  First step for the O is to react with something else in the atmosphere — make an oxidizing molecule like ozone or hydrogen peroxide.  That diffuses down to ground level where it can eat rocks.”

.——<“Wait, ‘eat rocks’!!?!  How does that happen?”>

“Look, most rocks are basically lattices of double-negative oxide ions with positive metal ions tucked in between to balance the charge.  Surface oxide ions can’t be oxidized by an ozone molecule, but they can transmit electron demand down to the metal ions immediately underneath.  An iron2+ ion gets oxidized to iron3+, one big step towards rust-dust.  The charge change disrupts the existing oxide lattice pattern and that piece of the rock erodes a little.”

.——<“What about the poison?”>

“Back when Mars had oceans, they had to have lots of chloride ions floating around to be left behind when the ocean dried up.  Ozone converts chloride to perchlorate, ClO4, which is also a pretty good oxidizer.  Worse, it’s the right size and charge to sneak into your thyroid gland and mess it up.  Poison for sure.  Chemically, solar radiation raised the oxidation state of the whole planet.”

One lonely voice — “Nice try, Jim” — but then the chant returns…

.——<“Amanda!  Amanda!  Amanda!”>

~~ Rich Olcott