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Why Study Comets?
by Don Yeomans, July 2008

Comet Hyakutake soars over a beautiful mesa

Hyakutake soars over a beautiful mesa. Courtesy: NASA

Life on Earth began at the end of a period called the late heavy bombardment, some 3.9 billion years ago. Before this time, the influx of interplanetary debris that formed the Earth was so strong that the proto-Earth was far too hot for life to have formed. Under this heavy bombardment of asteroids and comets, any surface water on Earth would have been vaporized and the fragile carbon-based molecules, upon which life is based, could not have survived. The earliest known fossils on Earth date from 3.5 billion years ago and there is evidence that biological activity took place even earlier- just at the end of the period called the "late heavy bombardment." So the window when life began was very short. As soon as life could have formed on our planet, it did. But if life formed so quickly on Earth and there was little in the way of water and carbon-based molecules on the Earth's surface, then how were these building blocks of life delivered to the Earth's surface so quickly? Once the late heavy bombardment let up, less frequent collisions of comets with Earth could provide the answer since comets contain abundant supplies of both water and carbon-based molecules.

As the primitive, leftover building blocks of the outer solar system formation process, comets offer clues to the chemical mixture from which the giant planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago. If we wish to know the composition of the primordial mixture from which the major planets formed, then we must determine the chemical constituents of the leftover debris from this formation process - the comets. Comets are composed of significant fractions of water ice, dust, and carbon-based compounds. Since their orbital paths often cross that of the Earth, cometary collisions with the Earth have occurred in the past and additional collisions are forthcoming. It is not a question of whether a comet will strike the Earth, it is a question of when the next one will hit. It now seems likely that a comet (or perhaps an asteroid) struck near the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico some 65 million years ago and caused a massive extinction of more than 75% of the Earth's living organisms, including the dinosaurs.

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“When we see comets up in the sky they're really spectacular. But unless you get close to a comet, you can't really figure out what's going on.”

-Joe Veverka