I’ve often discussed the origin of various elements and compounds on Earth – most notably the isotopic ratio of water, and what that might tell us about the origin of terrestrial water (1). Data about this can help provide evidence for the Earth’s early history, and often the data is inconsistent with the general theories of oceanic origin, like the ‘late veneer theory’, for instance, where the bulk of terrestrial waters were supposed to have been supplied by comets. It turns out that the water was on this planet all along (2,3), raising questions about why the Sun’s heat had not driven this relatively volatile resource away from the primordial Earth during the early history of the solar system.
Despite such evidence, the ‘late veneer theory’ continues to hold ground for many scientists, and tends to go unchallenged within the science media. This is apparent within the following excerpt about a new paper on the mysterious presence of a particular isotope of the noble gas xenon found in ancient terrestrial water encased in rock:
“The scientists have been analysing tiny samples of ancient air trapped in water bubbles found in the mineral, quartz, which dates back more than three billion years. The team found that the air in the rocks is partly made up of an extremely rare form of the chemical element, xenon. It is known as U-Xe and what makes it so rare is that it isn’t usually found on Earth. The component is not present in the Earth’s mantle, nor is it found in meteorites.
“Therefore, the team believe that the U-Xe must have been added to the Earth after a primordial atmosphere had developed. Simply put, comets are the best candidates for carrying the U-Xe to the planet. Co-author, Prof Ray Burgess, from Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences explains: “The Earth formed too close to the Sun for volatile elements, such as U-Xe, to easily condense and they would have rapidly boiled off the surface and been lost to space.
“”The reason that oceans and an atmosphere exist at all is because volatiles were still being added after the Earth formed. The puzzle is in identifying where the volatiles came from and what objects carried them to the early Earth. The difficulty is that many of the different volatile ingredients that were originally added have been thoroughly mixed together by geological processes during Earth’s long geological history.”” (4)
It turns out that xenon, in general, is mostly absent from the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly compared to other noble gases like argon. No one knows why. Perhaps the missing xenon is encapsulated within rocks buried deep within the Earth. Or perhaps, conversely, it has been driven off the Earth because it is not easily captured by rocks like perovskite (5). Xenon is missing from Mars, too, which may allude to its propensity for loss from a weak atmosphere.