October 2, 2023


Epicurean Science & Tech

An ancient exploding comet may have melted Chilean sand into glass

4 min read

Scattered across a swath of the Atacama Desert in Chile lie twisted chunks of black and eco-friendly glass. How the glass finished up there, sprinkled along a 75-kilometer-long corridor, has been a mystery.

Now, analyses of area dust in the glass display that the glass probably shaped when a comet, or its remnants, exploded about the desert 12,000 decades in the past, scientists report November 2 in Geology.

This corridor is the greatest evidence yet of a comet impact web page on Earth, suggests Peter Schultz, a planetary geologist at Brown College in Providence, R.I.

There are only about 190 known impact craters on Earth (SN: 12/18/18). Slipping space rocks carved out these websites, but none are regarded to have been developed by a comet. That’s mainly because comets, which are produced of largely ice and some rock, are likely to explode right before achieving the ground, a fate they share with some little asteroids. These fiery gatherings — identified as airbursts — are extraordinary, making significant amounts of warmth and solid winds. But the outcomes are short term and usually fall short to go away long lasting imprints, like craters, behind.

That’s primarily real in wet environments. In 1908, an airburst from an asteroid or comet more than a distant aspect of Russia flattened trees and produced a shock wave that knocked people today off their toes hundreds of kilometers away. The trees have given that developed back around the web-site of what is now recognized as the Tunguska blast, leaving just a marsh (SN: 6/5/08). “If it hadn’t been noticed, no a person would know it happened,” states Mark Boslough, a physicist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who wasn’t concerned in the new investigation.

The Atacama, the world’s driest desert, is superior suited to preserving effects sites. And it’s whole of sand — the raw content for producing glass, which varieties when sand is heated to high temperatures. Heat from volcanic exercise is responsible for almost all of the by natural means derived glass on Earth.

The desert’s glass corridor, nonetheless, is kilometers away from the closest volcano, suggesting the glass shaped in a different kind of heating event, this sort of as an airburst. But radiocarbon relationship of historic vegetation in the soil around the glass appeared to show that the items didn’t all variety at the same time. Simply because airbursts seldom occur in the exact same put 2 times, the evidence led some researchers to propose that the glass fashioned for the duration of various large grass fires.

That thought, Schultz claims, “seemed genuinely weird to us for the reason that there just wasn’t ample grass for fires,” even very long back when the region in all probability had far more greenery than it does these days. Following inspecting some of the glass, he and colleagues identified that it experienced fashioned at temperatures exceeding 1700° Celsius — considerably hotter than grass fires.

What’s more, the group found out embedded in the glass compounds located in comets sampled all through NASA’s Stardust mission but practically hardly ever in asteroids (SN: 1/7/04). The only way for this room dust to have manufactured its way into the glass is if a incredibly previous chunk of area particles, this kind of as a comet, exploded at the minute that the glass fashioned, the scientists say.

microscope image of folds in glass
Powerful winds from an historical comet’s explosion folded glass as it fashioned in what is now the Atacama Desert, a research finds. Folds in the glass are noticeable in a microscope picture (left) of a section from a more substantial chunk of glass (appropriate). The yellow dot marks exactly where the section was taken.Scott Harris/Fernbank Science Heart

“It’s really apparent that this is an impact,” Boslough claims. “And in this situation, there is no evidence for a crater, so this event was a pure airburst.”

An airburst would also aid reveal why the glass appears twisted. “It was obvious the glass experienced been thrown around and rolled. It was fundamentally kneaded like bread,” Schultz says. Grass fires may possibly soften the ground, but they almost never fling it close to. Like Tunguska, the airburst almost certainly produced potent winds that flung the glass as it fashioned, producing the folded look.

The violence of the affect would have scattered glass far throughout the desert and onto distinct layers of sediment. Due to the fact those layers fashioned at distinctive moments, that might have developed the illusion that the glass was established through multiple events. Looking at the courting of plants that arrived in immediate speak to with the glass authorized the scientists to pin down the day of the possible comet strike to about 12,000 decades ago.

That timing locations the event about 800 several years after a mysterious time period of speedy cooling acknowledged as the Young Dryas, which coincided with the extinction of numerous large animals. Some experts have suggested that a comet exploding around the Northern Hemisphere established off a collection of functions that led to the frigid disorders, although the idea is controversial (SN: 6/26/18).

The timing of the Atacama comet strike displays that it wasn’t similar to the Youthful Dryas event, Schultz says, but the finding does lay the groundwork for pinpointing other possible comet sites on Earth.

Even with no a connection to the Younger Dryas, the Atacama affect would have still left a robust effect on anybody who noticed it. Archaeological evidence suggests that men and women lived in the location at the time and therefore may well have witnessed the airburst (SN: 11/30/15). “It would have appeared like the entire horizon was on fire,” Schultz states. “If you weren’t religious before, you would be after.”

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