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Earth Space Science

Is Earth's Atmosphere an Import? 114

Posted by Soulskill
from the one-thing-that-wasn't-made-in-china dept.
garg0yle writes "One of the questions about the formation of our planet is: where did the atmosphere come from? One theory is that the oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases were part of the coalescing ball, and 'seeped out' during the final stages of the planet's formation. However, a new article at Wired says isotopic analysis of krypton and xenon indicates that they (and the rest of our atmosphere) may be of extraterrestrial origin, either arriving via comets or being swept up from gas clouds."
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Is Earth's Atmosphere an Import?

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  • ...remove the flying saucers.

  • Rubbish... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 11, 2009 @07:58PM (#30408768)

    I'm an atmosphere skeptic.

    The existence of the atmosphere is a liberal hoax perpetrated on us by the scientific community.

    Can you see it? No. What are they trying to hide?

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Also note how we get no answers refuting these questions brought against it. Seems like they're guilty of something if you ask me.
      • by Arthur Grumbine (1086397) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:56PM (#30409266) Journal
        Did the atmosphere rape and murder a girl in 1990? There are witnesses to the fact that the atmosphere was at the location of multiple rapes and murders in 1990. While the rapes and murders were happening!! At the very least the atmosphere should be charged as an accomplice, as crime scene investigators have conclusively demonstrated that the alleged rapists and murderers in the majority of the cases would have been unable to perform the heinous deed if the atmosphere.had not been present.

        Who is going to take responsibility for answering our questions? The atmosphere has remained eerily quiet in the face of such bold questions! We must demand answers!
        • At the very least, it could have gone for help...

        • by martas (1439879) on Saturday December 12, 2009 @02:14AM (#30411546)
          For a long time now, I have been afraid to come out with my story, but since this issue has been raised, I just can't stay quiet any longer. It is my duty as a citizen to report that for as long as I can remember, the atmosphere has been orally violating me. What's worse, my parents have known about this all along, and they have stood by and let it go on. In fact, as soon as I was born, they let the atmosphere touch me in the most inappropriate places. I also know of many other individuals who have been subjected to similar treatment by the atmosphere, though I won't name any of them - I will leave it up to them whether or not they decide to follow my example and tell the world about this horrible ongoing abuse.

          I hope the authorities will act upon my testimony, and finally put an end to the atmosphere's series of crimes.
          • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Don't tell me you didn't like it, beatch.

            Yours Truly,
            Atmosphere

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by pitchpipe (708843)
      It was totally brought here by liberals to start warming at just the right moment! You see they HATE the US and if they get their way, we'll develop technologies to burn something other than fossil fuels. Don't you see what an evil, ingenious plan that is to bring down the US?! Genius, I tells ya, geni... Oh wait! Crap!
    • Yeah, I just about finished Mike's Nature trick. Our charts of atmospheric content will be sure to hide the oxygen. That'll handle the "burning problem", widely discussed in the literature, about how stuff catches on fire on earth even though there's no oxygen.

      How should we explain away all the other evidence for oxygen in earth's atmosphere though? Perhaps animal respiration works through nitrogen?

    • by Tanman (90298) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:37PM (#30409124)

      First, the Earth is a SPHERE. Now they talk about atmoSPHERE. Coincidence?

      Now, I'm not saying the same yahoos who say the Earth is round also say some magic dust from outer space fills my lungs with every breath, but don't you think it's interesting that I'm the only one at least asking questions about their true intentions?

  • by BlueParrot (965239) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:01PM (#30408810)

    In particular, heavier isotopes of each gas appear in larger proportions in the subterranean samples than they do in the atmosphere.

    This is exactly what I would expect from a diffusion process since heavier atoms would move slower than light ones. Granted the ratios may be too large to be explained in this way, but still.

    Also I dunno how large an effect it would be but in a system the radius of the entire earth, but would the mass difference make a measurable difference due to gravity ?

    • by FatdogHaiku (978357) on Friday December 11, 2009 @11:09PM (#30410344)
      Gravity is a lie perpetrated to keep the people down!
    • would the mass difference make a measurable difference due to gravity ?

      My guess would be yes since there is a well established method to measure the historic ocean temperature using the ratio of Oxygen-18 to Oxygen-16. O-16 preferentially evaporates due to its smaller mass and so during ice ages the oceans are depleted of O-16 because it evaporates and forms glacial ice.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      in any vertical column region of the atmosphere there is a distribution of the molecules of a gas which should be exponential in density and a function of the partial pressure and molecular mass of the gas.

  • Who cares? (Score:2, Insightful)

    Honestly who cares?

    This has zero relevance to our basic understanding of the formation of the planets. The atmosphere is from some part of space. Whether it is from asteroids more recently than the late stages of the earths formation is kind of useless information.

    • Re:Who cares? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Kerrigann (1401847) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:11PM (#30408914)

      Maybe it would give us hints about what to look for in other solar systems when looking for rocky planets with similar atmospheres?

      Maybe it would tell us something about whether or not our type of atmosphere is rare in the universe?

      Who knows, it might be useful. It should be at least as useful as studying the mating habits of the short-tailed horned lizard, or a million other things scientists study.

      • Re:Who cares? (Score:4, Informative)

        by TimSSG (1068536) on Friday December 11, 2009 @09:14PM (#30409430)

        FYI:

        The is only a single Solar System in this universe.
        That is the name out our star system. Please use star system instead of Solar System when not referring to our star system.

        Tim S.

        • You're right, of course. This is something I did know, but had a momentary lapse in thinking. Thank you for pointing it out.

          That being said...

          I understand completely, but it can get a little silly. If you're sitting on another planet, and that planet's moon eclipses the star, is it called a star eclipse? An extrasolar eclipse? If we send a rover to an exoplanet, will it be powered by star power, from star panels (As opposed to solar power, from solar panels?)

          [Thousands of years in the future, in some

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Kerrigann (1401847)

            Wow, 'expoplanet'. Dunno how I typed that.

            It's like the sales-convention planet.

            It will be the first to be nuked out of existence from orbit.

          • I would assume those would be: a stellar eclipse, stellar power, stellar panels and so on.
            • Or perhaps, given whatever name those stars would have, people would adjectivialize the names of extrasolar stars and use those in combination, depending on which one they would be near; 'solar', however, has in the popular lingo become unto itself not just the name of our sun, but equivalent to 'Stellar'; among nerds and scientists, however, we should keep the precision, 'Solar' (capitalized, by the way, indicating its 'Sol' origin).
      • Maybe it would give us hints about what to look for in other solar systems when looking for rocky planets with similar atmospheres?

        How is the specific order of events that lead to the creation of our planet going to tell us anything about the creation of other planets?

        Maybe it would tell us something about whether or not our type of atmosphere is rare in the universe?

        I had to think about this one for a minute, but I realised that if we are having trouble figuring out what happened here how are we going to even begin to hazard a guess about what happened light years away?

        Sure it might be useful, but this was a waste of funding and time. There are far more useful ways to spend research money.

        • How is the specific order of events that lead to the creation of our planet going to tell us anything about the creation of other planets?

          I don't know but I do know that I'm glad you weren't around in the 18th century to question why on Earth anyone would ever want to waste time studying electricity. Knowing how planets form might appear useless to you today but who's to say that in 300 years time it is not extremely useful for targeting interstellar probes or identifying planets and asteroids with useful ore deposits.

          We would not be where we are today if we only researched topics for which we can see the immediate applications. That's no

        • by brusk (135896)

          How is the specific order of events that lead to the creation of our planet going to tell us anything about the creation of other planets?

          If, for example, certain conditions are needed for a planet to develop a substantial atmosphere, we could look for star systems with those conditions.

          Another potential use of this information: it might be helpful data for future terraforming projects, since it could provide a model for the introduction of new gases to a planet.

      • Re:Who cares? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by TapeCutter (624760) * on Friday December 11, 2009 @09:20PM (#30409488) Journal
        The entire Earth came from dust and gas. Sure some of it may have arrived a little late in big chunks or clouds but the reason our atmosphere has the composition it does now is that life changed it from something like Titan's atmosphere to what we see today. In otherwords life and the atmosphere co-evolved on this planet and they continue to do so, neither would exist in their current form without the other.

        The atmosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere are collectively know as the biosphere. If we find a spectra from another planet's atmosphere that has a similar composition to ours then our current state of knowledge would demand the conclusion that life created it. And yeah, it's worthwhile looking. IIRC scientists have already determined the atmospheric composition of several exoplanets.
        • by Locutus (9039)
          I'd read that our atmosphere was once mostly CO2 and nothing could live in it until something triggered some plant life which could and the plants generated the O2 while storing the Carbon in their structures. Massive plant growth absorbed massive amounts of the CO2 and that's where our oil comes from. We're now putting that CO2 back in the atmosphere by burning that oil. If there's anything to that then the question should be, what put so much CO2 in our atmosphere and at what point will the CO2 levels n
          • Plants change H2O into O2 during photosynthesis, using electrons from water to replenish those lost in the photosystems during photosynthesis and using the hydrogen ions for chemiosmosis to produce ATP. For land plants, any water they "give off" to the atmosphere is simply water they picked up from the ground but did not use.

          • Yes, welcome to a new geologic age the Anthropocene [wikipedia.org]. The changes may seem inignificant to a human but the onset of the sixth great extinction has been faster than anything found in the geologic record save a direct hit from a large space rock. However I don't think we can wipe out "life as we know it", extromophiles already exist in the bizzare environments, anything short of a runaway greehouse effect that boils the oceans is unlikely to wipe them all out. That senario is extremely unlikely so after the an
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by kraydel (1697506)
      I don't know about that being irrelevant information. The formation of our planet seems like something we may want to get as much information as possible about, because it may explain the development of other features, which, in turn, may lead to deeper knowledge about how other planets work.
      • by Narpak (961733)

        I don't know about that being irrelevant information. The formation of our planet seems like something we may want to get as much information as possible about

        Indeed, and I'd go so far that to claim that the atmosphere is a part of any planet that has one; and as such how it developed, and which factors contributed to it's evolution, is highly relevant.

        I wont claim any sort of knowledge, or particular interest, in how our atmosphere came to be, but I welcome any thesis, in any field, that challenges current theories. In so far as it forces scientists and researchers to dispute and discuss; ensuring that established theories are as consistent with available data

    • by Narpak (961733) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:38PM (#30409134)

      Honestly who cares?

      Atmospheric scientists?

    • Re:Who cares? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by martas (1439879) on Saturday December 12, 2009 @02:16AM (#30411558)
      the full implications of knowledge cannot be predicted.
    • by drsquare (530038)

      This has zero relevance to our basic understanding of the formation of the planets. The atmosphere is from some part of space. Whether it is from asteroids more recently than the late stages of the earths formation is kind of useless information.

      Have I misread, or have I've just heard someone say that knowledge of the origin of our planet is 'useless information'?

  • The early Earth as it was forming was probably hit with quite a few objects like comets that had volatiles like Water, Ammonia and Carbon Dioxide so it is quite possible that a great deal of the water and other volatiles found on Earth have cometary or otherwise other-worldly origins. Water and Carbon Dioxide are not rare substances in our solar system. There are entire moons with more than half of their mass consisting of water or other volatiles and comets are huge sources of volatiles in general.

    • Re:comets (Score:5, Funny)

      by noidentity (188756) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:14PM (#30408942)
      You forgot to capitalize an instance of "water" in your first and last sentences. I also think you should capitalize "moons", "worldly", and "substances", for good measure.
      • by mdmarkus (522132)
        > You forgot to capitalize an instance of "water" in your first and last sentences. I also think you should capitalize "moons", "worldly", and "substances", for good measure.

        What are You, German?

        • by peater (1422239)
          Can't you read? He has "no identity". Do you want him to spell that out for you? Oh wait...
  • Wha...? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:16PM (#30408972)

    It's hard to understand how you can extrapolate a whole atmosphere's origins by looking at a couple of very rare gases like krypton and xenon.

    Given that all the elements that make up the Earth were manufactured in the same solar furnace(s) why is it necessary that some originated separately from others? How do you then explain the huge atmospheres of the Gas Giants? It would take an unlikely number of very large asteroids to do the job.

    This hypothesis suffers from the same shortcomings as the Transpermia idea. It just moves the problem elsewhere, at best.

    • Re:Wha...? (Score:4, Informative)

      by wizardforce (1005805) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:32PM (#30409100) Journal

      Incorrect. Isotopic ratios vary depending on the conditions in the planetary nebula that formed our solar system. The disk tends to fractionate into "layers" with refractory materials tending to be toward the sun and volatiles tending to be fairly far away from the sun. Volatiles like Hydrogen and Helium would be expected to accumulate around large terrestrial masses ~50 Earth masses out around Jupiter and beyond. Volatiles like Hydrogen and Helium don't accumulate as significantly near terrestrial planets as close as the Earth is due to the fact that the Earth and similar terrestrials were of insufficient mass to retain significant Hydrogen and Helium. This is due in large part to the density of the nebula which formed our solar system.

      • Re:Wha...? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Friday December 11, 2009 @09:52PM (#30409770)

        Oh, dear me. I can *see* the little propellers tied to your wrists helping you wave your hands.

        In this case, the isotopic ratios are small fractions of the differences between the masses of different actual elements. The profound mass differences and related escape velocities of different gaseous _elements_ far overwhelms the differences in masses between the distinct isotopes: thus, any atomic weight related differences are nearly irrelevant. The possible exceptions are tritium and deuterium, which are respectively 3 and 2 times the mass of hydrogen atoms, but they're unstable enough that they're unlikely to come from ancient sources. Rather, they arise as byproducts of certain types of fission, especially tritium. In their cases, plain hydrogen ions or molecules can be lost to interplanetary or interstellar space relatively easily. Deuterium lasts, tritium has a half-life of 12.5 years, so it's long-gone.

        But do _not_ confuse the "density of the nebula" with the mass or the atmosphere of Earth and other planets. I can see where that would be dominated by the overall mass of the nebula from which they formed, but the proximity of the planets to the Sun influences the elimination of atmospheric hydrogen and light chemicals by keeping the planets warmer and allowing them to lose their lighter chemicals to space.

        Some Krypton isotopes are stable and thus more likely to reflect ancient conditions than tritium, for example. And refinement via normal, chemical means available on a planetary mass or its crust are unlikely to refine the isotopes, so it's reasonable to make some guesses about the original materials of the atmosphere's creation from the isotopic ratios.

        • low density regions of the nebula produce smaller planets, denser regions tend to produce larger gas giant like planets. As for isotopes, even on Earth we can detect variations in isotope ratios caused by reasonably small changes in climate let alone fractionation and other processes that occur in planetary formation.

    • by raovq (999171)
      These gases were used because they are rare. To be of any value, the gas has to be inert, so it doesn't undergo a natural fractionation (all biological systems favour lighter isotopes). We also need a very old reliably dated source. These gases are used as an indicator for the atmosphere as a whole, and provide the best proxy. Isotope data can be difficult to interpret at the best of times, it's best to take these hypothesis with a grain of salt.
    • So uh...how *do* you explain the huge atmospheres of the Gas Giants?

      You say that like it's a known, or that there is a whole lot other "known" information on this subject.  There is not.  And therefore your off the cuff skepticism is quite premature.  At this point we're still in the stage of needing to consider all the possibilities, with all the creativity that entails.

      There could be some real merit to this theory, even if not on the surface.
  • Why can't we do something to return the planet to it's natural state - before it was violated and exploited by these cosmic phenomena? Whose children did they destroy and what of their future?

  • Vegetation on this planet has been here a huge amount of time. How much time? If all of human existence, in it's entirety, were a single pixel, the age of the earth would be nearly 6000 pixels long. Vegetation have been here for 1300 pixels. That's an awful long time for the plants (completely unencumbered by man) to create oxygen.
    • Sorry, I meant since the big bang would be nearly 6000 pixels long. The earth itself would be a mere 1900 pixels long... but still a very long time.
    • by Gerafix (1028986)
      That explains why real life is High Definition.
  • or maybe (Score:2, Funny)

    by quickpick (1021471)
    God created the earth?
    • You are correct, God created the earth, which was then bombarded by comets provding the atmosphere.

      Or maybe God created the atmosphere by throwing comets at earth?

      Whoa...

    • It's more likely Earth created God.
  • Science? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jwiegley (520444) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:37PM (#30409122)

    How the HELL did this article get filed under "science".

    Venus has a significant atmosphere. Saturn has an atmosphere. Neptune... atmosphere. Jupiter... ALL atmosphere. Hey, look at that! All the planets larger than Mars have a significantly thick atmosphere.

    Maybe it's as simple as their gravity is sufficient to trap gasses.

    Please refile this article under "Intellectually Bankrupt" instead.

    • Re:Science? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MightyMartian (840721) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:47PM (#30409188) Journal

      None of the planets you list have the proportionally large amounts of O2 that Earth does. It's not that Earth has a large atmosphere, it's that the atmosphere is in so many ways different from even the other Earth-like bodies (hint Venus and Mars' atmospheres are dominated by CO2). The gas giants are a totally different creature; they are largely made up of hydrogen.

      • Was the atmosphere significantly different before geological or life processes started to alter it?

        Admittedly this is probably an academic exercise; though I freely admit I know practically fuck-all about the subject it seems doubtful that data for these epochs could be found in core samples, isotopic analyses or what have you.

      • by Jeff Carr (684298)
        A sufficient amount of water or any other oxygen containing substance found in greater quantities on the other planets would explain the why the earth has so much atmospheric oxygen. Granted, that we know of, there is very little, but our understanding of what is contained on our planets is very limited. In addition, we're beginning to find evidence of oxygen in the form of water everywhere we look in areas where we hadn't found any before.

        As far as Mars and Venus is concerned, CO2 has a pretty high co
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TapeCutter (624760) *
        Life is reponsible for the O2 we see today, it's the waste product of plants photosynthesisng CO2. It's not that farfetched to think we could terraform the venutian atmosphere to contain a lot more O2 by simply sprinkling airborne photosynthetic micro-oganisimis on it.
        • Life is reponsible for the O2 we see today, it's the waste product of plants photosynthesisng CO2. It's not that farfetched to think we could terraform the venutian atmosphere to contain a lot more O2 by simply sprinkling airborne photosynthetic micro-oganisimis on it.

          Granted, if the time frame were to match that of what it took on earth, it would take a billion years or two. But, yes, the high oxygen content of Earth's atmosphere is due to life, and at one point every O2 used to be two water molecules.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by TapeCutter (624760) *
            "Granted, if the time frame were to match that of what it took on earth, it would take a billion years or two."

            Modern micro-organisims are many orders of magnitute more effcient at breeding and CO2 cracking than ancient stromatolites [wikipedia.org] but yes it would still be a fairly slow process compared to a human life span.
          • I'm not sure if there is enough hydrogen or hydrogen compounds in the venutian atmosphere to support such organisims. The idea is something I read as a kid back in the 60's, I don't know if anyone has investigated it further.
      • by jwiegley (520444)

        Umm... None of the others developed plant-life. Earth was all CO2 as well, until it developed plant-life. Having Photosynthesis metabolize CO2 into O2 over many millions of years yields our O2 rich atmosphere.

        And before the next idiot replies with "Why did plant-life only appear on earth? That MUST be aliens/comets/magic/voo-doo!"... The atmospheres of the other planets is rather extremely harsh towards plants, to hot, to cold. too acidic, etc.

        Christ, What are they teaching you people in school these days?

      • None of the planets you list have the proportionally large amounts of O2 that Earth does. It's not that Earth has a large atmosphere, it's that the atmosphere is in so many ways different from even the other Earth-like bodies (hint Venus and Mars' atmospheres are dominated by CO2).

        The Oxygen i our atmosphere is believed to be the result of photosynthesis in plants. Given the amount of CO2 in Venus' atmosphere it would probably also be very oxygen rich if it was not too hot for life to live there.

        Similar rea

      • As I recall, Earth's atmosphere didn't have much oxygen either until it was altered by early life which metabolised carbon dioxide and produced oxygen as a result, same way plants and many microbes still do.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by repepo (1098227)

      How the HELL did this article get filed under "science".

      Venus has a significant atmosphere. Saturn has an atmosphere. Neptune... atmosphere. Jupiter... ALL atmosphere. Hey, look at that! All the planets larger than Mars have a significantly thick atmosphere.

      Maybe it's as simple as their gravity is sufficient to trap gasses.

      Please refile this article under "Intellectually Bankrupt" instead.

      I think the question is the origin of the gases, not the mechanism that keeps them trapped.

    • I believe that the point of the article was that the isotopic composition of Krypton and Xenon indicated that this was possibly not the case. It may be intuitive to believe that outgassing is responsible for our atmosphere in its entirety but that doesn't mean that it is correct. Science only progresses by challenging ideas even if they seem to be likely or even correct at first glance.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Did you read the article, or just decide to post some random complaint? Even the summary isn't half bad.

      The question is whether the gasses in the atmosphere outgas from the planet or whether they were delivered to Earth from space after the planet was more or less formed.

      Your entire post is basically irrelevant - the story has nothing to do with whether planets can "trap gasses" or not.

      Worst of all, you got modded as insightful.

  • by david.emery (127135) on Friday December 11, 2009 @08:49PM (#30409202)

    ... indicates that they (and the rest of our atmosphere) may be of extraterrestrial origin..

    Duh. Why do you suppose they call it "krypton," Kal-El?

  • But, I cannot remember on which day...

    -Todd
    • by Gerafix (1028986)
      I think it was after the glass sphere she put around the Earth, forever foiling those naughty astronauts. So the second day.
  • According to current theory, absolutely everything on Earth, heavier than lithium, came from extraterrestrial origin rather than from the initial Big Bang. Without supernova's there would simply be no Earth, so I fail to see any productive insight to be taken from this article. It must be a slow 'science news day' at Wired.com. Either that or they now only employ 'slow' writers that have forgotten to check their facts with any 'real' scientists.
  • Aren't we observing the volcanoes of Enceladus spewing gases that are forming an atmosphere? Could that be how our atmospheric elements got to the surface as well?
  • In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. ~Genesis 1:1

    • by Arimus (198136)

      That assumes you believe in that particular diety and that particular religious book.

      Plenty of other dieties out there lay claim to being responsible for the world. Which kind of makes it awkward to sue them for the mess its in... and for the obvious and fundamental design flaws of humans.

  • Earth itself is made out of materials from outer space. Some super novae transported the heavy metals to our solar system. And even that was not there all the time. Hell no. And even some people think that happened on Tuesday. I am absolutely sure the whole Earth creation stuff happened on Monday as God rested on Saturday. And on Monday he made a loud noise.

  • If you go back far enough. This is a non-story and just an excuse to get research grants.

  • I'm getting in my time machine right now... I'm back. The cowboy aliens, I ran into, said large scale matter transporters were used. Who knew?

Dennis Ritchie is twice as bright as Steve Jobs, and only half wrong. -- Jim Gettys

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