Squabbling sibling planets may have hurled space rocks when they were young.
Simulations suggest that space rocks the size of baby planets struck both the newborn Earth and Venus, but many of the rocks that only grazed Earth went on to hit — and stick — to Venus. That difference in early impacts could help explain why Earth and Venus are such different worlds today, researchers report September 23 in the Planetary Science Journal.
“The pronounced differences between Earth and Venus, in spite of their similar orbits and masses, has been one of the biggest puzzles in our solar system,” says planetary scientist Shigeru Ida of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the new work. This study introduces “a new point that has not been raised before.”
Scientists have typically thought that there are two ways that collisions between baby planets can go. The objects could graze each other and each continue on its way, in a hit-and-run collision. Or two protoplanets could stick together, or accrete, making one larger planet. Planetary scientists often assume that every hit-and-run collision eventually leads to accretion. Objects that collide must have orbits that cross each other’s, so they’re bound to collide again and again, and eventually should stick.
But previous work from planetary scientist Erik Asphaug of the University of Arizona in Tucson and others suggests that isn’t so. It takes special conditions for two planets to merge, Asphaug says, like relatively slow impact speeds, so hit-and-runs were probably much more common in the young solar system.
Asphaug and colleagues wondered what that might have meant for Earth and Venus, two apparently similar planets with vastly different climates. Both worlds are about the same size and mass, but Earth is wet and clement while Venus is a searing, acidic hellscape (SN: 2/13/18).
“If they started out on similar pathways, somehow Venus took a wrong turn,” Asphaug says.
The team ran about 4,000 computer simulations in which Mars-sized protoplanets crashed into a young Earth or Venus, assuming the two planets were at their current distances from the sun. The researchers found that about half of the time, incoming protoplanets grazed Earth without directly colliding. Of those, about half went on to collide with Venus.
Unlike Earth, Venus ended up accreting most of the objects that hit it in the simulations. Hitting Earth first slowed incoming objects down enough to let them stick to Venus later, the study suggests. “You have this imbalance where things that hit the Earth, but don’t stick, tend to end up on Venus,” Asphaug says. “We have a fundamental explanation for why Venus ended up accreting differently from the Earth.”
If that’s really what happened, it would have had a significant effect on the composition of the two worlds. Earth would have ended up with more of the outer mantle and crust material from the incoming protoplanets, while Venus would have gotten more of their iron-rich cores.
The imbalance in impacts could even explain some major Venusian mysteries, like why the planet doesn’t have a moon, why it spins so slowly and why it lacks a magnetic field — though “these are hand-waving kind of conjectures,” Asphaug says.
Ida says he hopes that future work will look into those questions more deeply. “I’m looking forward to follow-up studies to examine if the new result actually explains the Earth-Venus difference,” he says.
The idea fits into a growing debate among planetary scientists about how the solar system grew up, says planetary scientist Seth Jacobson of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Was it built violently, with lots of giant collisions, or calmly, with planets growing smoothly via pebbles sticking together?
“This paper falls on the end of lots of giant impacts,” Jacobson says.
Each rocky planet in the solar system should have very different chemistry and structure depending on which scenario is true. But scientists know the chemistry and structure of only one planet with any confidence: Earth. And Earth’s early history has been overwritten by plate tectonics and other geologic activity. “Venus is the missing link,” Jacobson says. “Learning more about Venus’ chemistry and interior structure is going to tell us more about whether it had a giant impact or not.”
Three missions to Venus are expected to launch in the late 2020s and 2030s (SN: 6/2/21). Those should help, but none are expected to take the kind of detailed composition measurements that could definitively solve the mystery. That would take a long-lived lander, or a sample return mission, both of which would be extremely difficult on hot, hostile Venus.
“I wish there was an easier way to test it,” Jacobson says. “I think that’s where we should concentrate our energy as terrestrial planet formation scientists going forward.”