Synthetic biology for space exploration

Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. -  Photo courtesy of NASA
Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. – Photo courtesy of NASA

Does synthetic biology hold the key to manned space exploration of Mars and the Moon? Berkeley Lab researchers have used synthetic biology to produce an inexpensive and reliable microbial-based alternative to the world’s most effective anti-malaria drug, and to develop clean, green and sustainable alternatives to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In the future, synthetic biology could also be used to make manned space missions more practical.

“Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and a leading authority on synthetic and systems biology.

“During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare,” Arkin says. “At an extraterrestrial base, synthetic biology could even make more effective use of the catalytic activities of diverse organisms.”

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reports on a techno-economic analysis demonstrating “the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned long-duration space missions.” The paper is titled “Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions.” The lead and corresponding author is Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral scholar in Arkin’s research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Other co-authors are John Cumbers and John Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center.

One of the biggest challenges to manned space missions is the expense. The NASA rule-of-thumb is that every unit mass of payload launched requires the support of an additional 99 units of mass, with “support” encompassing everything from fuel to oxygen to food and medicine for the astronauts, etc. Most of the current technologies now deployed or under development for providing this support are abiotic, meaning non-biological. Arkin, Menezes and their collaborators have shown that providing this support with technologies based on existing biological processes is a more than viable alternative.

“Because synthetic biology allows us to engineer biological processes to our advantage, we found in our analysis that technologies, when using common space metrics such as mass, power and volume, have the potential to provide substantial cost savings, especially in mass,” Menezes says.

In their study, the authors looked at four target areas: fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. They showed that for a 916 day manned mission to Mars, the use of microbial biomanufacturing capabilities could reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by 56-percent, the mass of food-shipments by 38-percent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85-percent. In addition, microbes could also completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, which would provide independence from unmanned re-supply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive.

“Space has always provided a wonderful test of whether technology can meet strict engineering standards for both effect and safety,” Arkin says. “NASA has worked decades to ensure that the specifications that new technologies must meet are rigorous and realistic, which allowed us to perform up-front techno-economic analysis.”

The big advantage biological manufacturing holds over abiotic manufacturing is the remarkable ability of natural and engineered microbes to transform very simple starting substrates, such as carbon dioxide, water biomass or minerals, into materials that astronauts on long-term missions will need. This capability should prove especially useful for future extraterrestrial settlements.

“The mineral and carbon composition of other celestial bodies is different from the bulk of Earth, but the earth is diverse with many extreme environments that have some relationship to those that might be found at possible bases on the Moon or Mars,” Arkin says. “Microbes could be used to greatly augment the materials available at a landing site, enable the biomanufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals, and possibly even modify and enrich local soils for agriculture in controlled environments.”

The authors acknowledge that much of their analysis is speculative and that their calculations show a number of significant challenges to making biomanufacturing a feasible augmentation and replacement for abiotic technologies. However, they argue that the investment to overcome these barriers offers dramatic potential payoff for future space programs.

“We’ve got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off,” says Menezes. “Abiotic technologies were developed for many, many decades before they were successfully utilized in space, so of course biological technologies have some catching-up to do. However, this catching-up may not be that much, and in some cases, the biological technologies may already be superior to their abiotic counterparts.”

###

This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit http://www.lbl.gov.

Asteroid attacks significantly altered ancient Earth

This is an artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. -  Simone Marchi
This is an artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. – Simone Marchi

New research shows that more than four billion years ago, the surface of Earth was heavily reprocessed – or mixed, buried and melted – as a result of giant asteroid impacts. A new terrestrial bombardment model based on existing lunar and terrestrial data sheds light on the role asteroid bombardments played in the geological evolution of the uppermost layers of the Hadean Earth (approximately 4 to 4.5 billion years ago).

An international team of researchers published their findings in the July 31, 2014 issue of Nature.

“When we look at the present day, we have a very high fidelity timeline over the last about 500 million years of what’s happened on Earth, and we have a pretty good understanding that plate tectonics and volcanism and all these kinds of processes have happened more or less the same way over the last couple of billion years,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

But, in the very beginning of Earth’s formation, the first 500 million years, there’s a less well-known period which has typically been called the Hadean (meaning hell-like) because it was assumed that it was wildly hot and volcanic and everything was covered with magma – completely unlike the present day.

Terrestrial planet formation models indicate Earth went through a sequence of major growth phases: accretion of planetesimals and planetary embryos over many tens of millions of years; a giant impact that led to the formation of our Moon; and then the late bombardment, when giant asteroids, dwarfing the one that presumably killed the dinosaurs, periodically hit ancient Earth.

While researchers estimate accretion during late bombardment contributed less than one percent of Earth’s present-day mass, giant asteroid impacts still had a profound effect on the geological evolution of early Earth. Prior to four billion years ago Earth was resurfaced over and over by voluminous impact-generated melt. Furthermore, large collisions as late as about four billion years ago, may have repeatedly boiled away existing oceans into steamy atmospheres. Despite heavy bombardment, the findings are compatible with the claim of liquid water on Earth’s surface as early as about 4.3 billion years ago based on geochemical data.

A key part of Earth’s mysterious infancy period that has not been well quantified in the past is the kind of impacts Earth was experiencing at the end of accretion. How big and how frequent were those incoming bombardments and what were their effects on the surface of the Earth? How much did they affect the ability of the now cooling crust to actually form plates and start to subduct and make plate tectonics? What kind of volcanism did it produce that was different from volcanoes today?”

“We are increasingly understanding both the similarities and the differences to present day Earth conditions and plate tectonics,” says Elkins-Tanton. “And this study is a major step in that direction, trying to bridge that time from the last giant accretionary impact that largely completed the Earth and produced the Moon to the point where we have something like today’s plate tectonics and habitable surface.”

The new research reveals that asteroidal collisions not only severely altered the geology of the Hadean Earth, but likely played a major role in the subsequent evolution of life on Earth as well.

“Prior to approximately four billion years ago, no large region of Earth’s surface could have survived untouched by impacts and their effects,” says Simone Marchi, of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute at the Southwest Research Institute. “The new picture of the Hadean Earth emerging from this work has important implications for its habitability.”

Large impacts had particularly severe effects on existing ecosystems. Researchers found that on average, Hadean Earth could have been hit by one to four impactors that were more than 600 miles wide and capable of global sterilization, and by three to seven impactors more than 300 miles wide and capable of global ocean vaporization.

“During that time, the lag between major collisions was long enough to allow intervals of more clement conditions, at least on a local scale,” said Marchi. “Any life emerging during the Hadean eon likely needed to be resistant to high temperatures, and could have survived such a violent period in Earth’s history by thriving in niches deep underground or in the ocean’s crust.

From today, the Earth is around 60 million years older — and so is the moon

Work presented today at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference in Sacramento, California shows that the timing of the giant impact between Earth’s ancestor and a planet-sized body occurred around 40 million years after the start of solar system formation. This means that the final stage of Earth’s formation is around 60 million years older than previously thought.

Geochemists from the University of Lorraine in Nancy, France have discovered an isotopic signal which indicates that previous age estimates for both the Earth and the Moon are underestimates. Looking back into “deep time” it becomes more difficult to put a date on early Earth events. In part this is because there is little “classical geology” dating from the time of the formation of the Earth – no rock layers, etc. So geochemists have had to rely on other methods to estimate early Earth events. One of the standard methods is measuring the changes in the proportions of different gases (isotopes) which survive from the early Earth.

Guillaume Avice and Bernard Marty analysed xenon gas found in South African and Australian quartz, which had been dated to 3.4 and 2.7 billion years respectively. The gas sealed in this quartz is preserved as in a “time capsule”, allowing Avice and Marty to compare the current isotopic ratios of xenon, with those which existed billions of years ago. Recalibrating dating techniques using the ancient gas allowed them to refine the estimate of when the earth began to form. This allows them to calculate that the Moon-forming impact is around 60 million years (+/- 20 m. y.) older than had been thought.

Previously, the time of formation of the Earth’ s atmosphere had been estimated at around 100 million years after the solar system formation. As the atmosphere would not have survived the Moon-forming impact, this revision puts the age up to 40 million years after the solar sytem formation (so around 60 million years older than previously thought).

According to Guillaume Avice:

“It is not possible to give an exact date for the formation of the Earth*. What this work does is to show that the Earth is older than we thought, by around 60 m.

“The composition of the gases we are looking at changes according the conditions they are found in, which of course depend on the major events in Earth’s history. The gas sealed in these quartz samples has been handed down to us in a sort of “time capsule”. We are using standard methods to compute the age of the Earth, but having access to these ancient samples gives us new data, and allows us to refine the measurement”.

The xenon gas signals allow us to calculate when the atmosphere was being formed, which was probably at the time the Earth collided with a planet-sized body, leading to the formation of the Moon. Our results mean that both the Earth and the Moon are older than we had thought”.

Bernard Marty added

“This might seem a small difference, but it is important. These differences set time boundaries on how the planets evolved, especially through the major collisions in deep time which shaped the solar system”

Scientists may have identified echoes of ancient Earth

A group of scientists believe that a previously unexplained isotopic ratio from deep within the Earth may be a signal from material from the time before the Earth collided with another planet-sized body, leading to the creation of the Moon. This may represent the echoes of the ancient Earth, which existed prior to the proposed collision 4.5 billion years ago. This work is being presented at the Goldschmidt conference in Sacramento, California.

The currently favoured theory says that the Moon was formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the Earth collided with a Mars-sized mass, which has been given the name “Theia”. According to this theory, the heat generated by the collision would have caused the whole planet to melt, before some of the debris cooled and spun off to create the Moon.

Now however, a group of scientists from Harvard University believe that they have identified a sign that only part of the Earth melted, and that an ancient part still exists within the Earth’s mantle.

According to lead researcher Associate Professor Sujoy Mukhopadhyay (Harvard):

“The energy released by the impact between the Earth and Theia would have been huge, certainly enough to melt the whole planet. But we believe that the impact energy was not evenly distributed throughout the ancient Earth. This means that a major part of the impacted hemisphere would probably have been completely vaporised, but the opposite hemisphere would have been partly shielded, and would not have undergone complete melting”.

The team has analysed the ratios of noble gas isotopes from deep within the Earth’s mantle, and has compared these results to isotope ratios closer to the surface. The found that 3He to 22Ne ratio from the shallow mantle is significantly higher than the equivalent ratio in the deep mantle.

Professor Mukhopadhyay commented, “This implies that the last giant impact did not completely mix the mantle and there was not a whole mantle magma ocean”.

Additional evidence comes from analysis of the 129-Xenon to 130-Xenon ratio. It is known that material brought to the surface from the deep mantle (via mantle plumes) has a lower ratio than that normally found nearer the surface, for example in the basalts from mid-ocean ridges. Since 129-Xenon is produced by radioactive decay of 129-Iodine, these xenon isotopes put a time stamp on the formation age of the ancient parcel of mantle to within the first 100 million years of Earth’s history.

Professor Mukhopadhyay continued “The geochemistry indicates that there are differences between the noble gas isotope ratios in different parts of the Earth, and these need to be explained. The idea that a very disruptive collision of the Earth with another planet-sized body, the biggest event in Earth’s geological history, did not completely melt and homogenize the Earth challenges some of our notions on planet formation and the energetics of giant impacts. If the theory is proven correct, then we may be seeing echoes of the ancient Earth, from a time before the collision”.

Commenting, Professor Richard Carlson (Carnegie Institute of Washington), Past President of the Geochemical Society said:

“This exciting result is adding to the observational evidence that important aspects of Earth’s composition were established during the violent birth of the planet and is providing a new look at the physical processes by which this can occur”.

New isotopic evidence supporting moon formation via Earth collision with planet-sized body

A new series of measurements of oxygen isotopes provides increasing evidence that the Moon formed from the collision of the Earth with another large, planet-sized astronomical body, around 4.5 billion years ago. This work will be published in Science* on 6th June, and will be presented to the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in California on 11th June.

Most planetary scientists believe that the Moon formed from an impact between the Earth and a planet-sized body, which has been given the name Theia. Efforts to confirm that the impact had taken place had centred on measuring the ratios between the isotopes of oxygen, titanium, silicon and others. These ratios are known to vary throughout the solar system, but their close similarity between Earth and Moon conflicted with theoretical models of the collision that indicated that the Moon would form mostly from Theia, and thus would be expected to be compositionally different from the Earth.

Now a group of German researchers, led by Dr. Daniel Herwartz, have used more refined techniques to compare the ratios of 17O/16O in lunar samples, with those from Earth. The team initially used lunar samples which had arrived on Earth via meteorites, but as these samples had exchanged their isotopes with water from Earth, fresher samples were sought. These were provided by NASA from the Apollo 11, 12 and 16 missions; they were found to contain significantly higher levels of 17O/16O than their Earthly counterparts.

Dr Herwartz said
“The differences are small and difficult to detect, but they are there. This means two things; firstly we can now be reasonably sure that the Giant collision took place. Secondly, it gives us an idea of the geochemistry of Theia. Theia seems to have been similar to what we call E-type chondrites**.If this is true, we can now predict the geochemical and isotopic composition of the Moon, because the present Moon is a mixture of Theia and the early Earth. The next goal is to find out how much material of Theia is in the Moon”.

Most models estimate that the Moon it is composed of around 70% to 90% material from Theia, with the remaining 10% to 30% coming from the early Earth. However, some models argue for as little as 8% Theia in the Moon. Dr Herwartz said that the new data indicate that a 50:50 mixture seems possible, but this needs to be confirmed.

The team used an advanced sample preparation technique before measuring the samples via stable isotope ratio mass spectrometry, which showed a 12 parts per million (± 3 ppm) difference in 17O/16O ratio between Earth and Moon.

How productive are the ore factories in the deep sea?

About ten years after the first moon landing, scientists on earth made a discovery that proved that our home planet still holds a lot of surprises in store for us. Looking through the portholes of the submersible ALVIN near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in 1979, American scientists saw for the first time chimneys, several meters tall, from which black water at about 300 degrees and saturated with minerals shot out. What we have found out since then: These “black smokers”, also called hydrothermal vents, exist in all oceans. They occur along the boundaries of tectonic plates along the submarine volcanic chains. However, to date many details of these systems remain unexplained.

One question that has long and intensively been discussed in research is: Where and how deep does seawater penetrate into the seafloor to take up heat and minerals before it leaves the ocean floor at hydrothermal vents? This is of enormous importance for both, the cooling of the underwater volcanoes as well as for the amount of materials dissolved. Using a complex 3-D computer model, scientists at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel were now able to understand the paths of the water toward the black smokers. The study appears in the current issue of the world-renowned scientific journal “Nature“.

In general, it is well known that seawater penetrates into the Earth’s interior through cracks and crevices along the plate boundaries. The seawater is heated by the magma; the hot water rises again, leaches metals and other elements from the ground and is released as a black colored solution. “However, in detail it is somewhat unclear whether the water enters the ocean floor in the immediate vicinity of the vents and flows upward immediately, or whether it travels long distances underground before venting,” explains Dr. Jörg Hasenclever from GEOMAR.

This question is not only important for the fundamental understanding of processes on our planet. It also has very practical implications. Some of the materials leached from the underground are deposited on the seabed and form ore deposits that may be of economically interest. There is a major debate, however, how large the resource potential of these deposits might be. “When we know which paths the water travels underground, we can better estimate the quantities of materials released by black smokers over thousands of years,” says Hasenclever.

Hasenclever and his colleagues have used for the first time a high-resolution computer model of the seafloor to simulate a six kilometer long and deep, and 16 kilometer wide section of a mid-ocean ridge in the Pacific. Among the data used by the model was the heat distribution in the oceanic crust, which is known from seismic studies. In addition, the model also considered the permeability of the rock and the special physical properties of water.

The simulation required several weeks of computing time. The result: “There are actually two different flow paths – about half the water seeps in near the vents, where the ground is very warm. The other half seeps in at greater distances and migrates for kilometers through the seafloor before exiting years later.” Thus, the current study partially confirmed results from a computer model, which were published in 2008 in the scientific journal “Science”. “However, the colleagues back then were able to simulate only a much smaller region of the ocean floor and therefore identified only the short paths near the black smokers,” says Hasenclever.

The current study is based on fundamental work on the modeling of the seafloor, which was conducted in the group of Professor Lars Rüpke within the framework of the Kiel Cluster of Excellence “The Future Ocean”. It provides scientists worldwide with the basis for further investigations to see how much ore is actually on and in the seabed, and whether or not deep-sea mining on a large scale could ever become worthwhile. “So far, we only know the surface of the ore deposits at hydrothermal vents. Nobody knows exactly how much metal is really deposited there. All the discussions about the pros and cons of deep-sea ore mining are based on a very thin database,” says co-author Prof. Dr. Colin Devey from GEOMAR. “We need to collect a lot more data on hydrothermal systems before we can make reliable statements”.

Scientists reconstruct ancient impact that dwarfs dinosaur-extinction blast

A graphical representation of the size of the asteroid thought to have killed the dinosaurs, and the crater it created, compared to an asteroid thought to have hit the Earth 3.26 billion years ago and the size of the crater it may have generated. A new study reveals the power and scale of the event some 3.26 billion years ago which scientists think created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt. -  American Geophysical Union
A graphical representation of the size of the asteroid thought to have killed the dinosaurs, and the crater it created, compared to an asteroid thought to have hit the Earth 3.26 billion years ago and the size of the crater it may have generated. A new study reveals the power and scale of the event some 3.26 billion years ago which scientists think created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt. – American Geophysical Union

Picture this: A massive asteroid almost as wide as Rhode Island and about three to five times larger than the rock thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs slams into Earth. The collision punches a crater into the planet’s crust that’s nearly 500 kilometers (about 300 miles) across: greater than the distance from Washington, D.C. to New York City, and up to two and a half times larger in diameter than the hole formed by the dinosaur-killing asteroid. Seismic waves bigger than any recorded earthquakes shake the planet for about half an hour at any one location – about six times longer than the huge earthquake that struck Japan three years ago. The impact also sets off tsunamis many times deeper than the one that followed the Japanese quake.

Although scientists had previously hypothesized enormous ancient impacts, much greater than the one that may have eliminated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, now a new study reveals the power and scale of a cataclysmic event some 3.26 billion years ago which is thought to have created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt. The research has been accepted for publication in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The huge impactor – between 37 and 58 kilometers (23 to 36 miles) wide – collided with the planet at 20 kilometers per second (12 miles per second). The jolt, bigger than a 10.8 magnitude earthquake, propelled seismic waves hundreds of kilometers through the Earth, breaking rocks and setting off other large earthquakes. Tsunamis thousands of meters deep – far bigger than recent tsunamis generated by earthquakes — swept across the oceans that covered most of the Earth at that time.

“We knew it was big, but we didn’t know how big,” Donald Lowe, a geologist at Stanford University and a co-author of the study, said of the asteroid.

Lowe, who discovered telltale rock formations in the Barberton greenstone a decade ago, thought their structure smacked of an asteroid impact. The new research models for the first time how big the asteroid was and the effect it had on the planet, including the possible initiation of a more modern plate tectonic system that is seen in the region, according to Lowe.

The study marks the first time scientists have mapped in this way an impact that occurred more than 3 billion years ago, Lowe added, and is likely one of the first times anyone has modeled any impact that occurred during this period of the Earth’s evolution.

The impact would have been catastrophic to the surface environment. The smaller, dino-killing asteroid crash is estimated to have released more than a billion times more energy than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The more ancient hit now coming to light would have released much more energy, experts said.

The sky would have become red hot, the atmosphere would have been filled with dust and the tops of oceans would have boiled, the researchers said. The impact sent vaporized rock into the atmosphere, which encircled the globe and condensed into liquid droplets before solidifying and falling to the surface, according to the researchers.

The impact may have been one of dozens of huge asteroids that scientists think hit the Earth during the tail end of the Late Heavy Bombardment period, a major period of impacts that occurred early in the Earth’s history – around 3 billion to 4 billion years ago.

Many of the sites where these asteroids landed were destroyed by erosion, movement of the Earth’s crust and other forces as the Earth evolved, but geologists have found a handful of areas in South Africa, and Western Australia that still harbor evidence of these impacts that occurred between 3.23 billion and 3.47 billion years ago. The study’s co-authors think the asteroid hit the Earth thousands of kilometers away from the Barberton Greenstone Belt, although they can’t pinpoint the exact location.

“We can’t go to the impact sites. In order to better understand how big it was and its effect we need studies like this,” said Lowe. Scientists must use the geological evidence of these impacts to piece together what happened to the Earth during this time, Lowe said.

The study’s findings have important implications for understanding the early Earth and how the planet formed. The impact may have disrupted the Earth’s crust and the tectonic regime that characterized the early planet, leading to the start of a more modern plate tectonic system, according to the paper’s co-authors.

The pummeling the planet endured was “much larger than any ordinary earthquake,” said Norman Sleep, a physicist at Stanford University and co-author of the study. He used physics, models, and knowledge about the formations in the Barberton greenstone belt, other earthquakes and other asteroid impact sites on the Earth and the moon to calculate the strength and duration of the shaking that the asteroid produced. Using this information, Sleep recreated how waves traveled from the impact site to the Barberton greenstone belt and caused the geological formations.

The geological evidence found in the Barberton that the paper investigates indicates that the asteroid was “far larger than anything in the last billion years,” said Jay Melosh, a professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who was not involved in the research.

The Barberton greenstone belt is an area 100 kilometers (62 miles) long and 60 kilometers (37 miles) wide that sits east of Johannesburg near the border with Swaziland. It contains some of the oldest rocks on the planet.

The model provides evidence for the rock formations and crustal fractures that scientists have discovered in the Barberton greenstone belt, said Frank Kyte, a geologist at UCLA who was not involved in the study.

“This is providing significant support for the idea that the impact may have been responsible for this major shift in tectonics,” he said.

Reconstructing the asteroid’s impact could also help scientists better understand the conditions under which early life on the planet evolved, the paper’s authors said. Along with altering the Earth itself, the environmental changes triggered by the impact may have wiped out many microscopic organisms living on the developing planet, allowing other organisms to evolve, they said.

“We are trying to understand the forces that shaped our planet early in its evolution and the environments in which life evolved,” Lowe said.

Researchers shed new light on supraglacial lake drainage

Supraglacial lakes – bodies of water that collect on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet – lubricate the bottom of the sheet when they drain, causing it to flow faster. Differences in how the lakes drain can impact glacial movement’s speed and direction, researchers from The City College of New York (CCNY), University of Cambridge and Los Alamos National Laboratory report in “Environmental Research Letters.”

“Knowledge of the draining mechanisms allows us to improve our understanding of how surface melting can impact sea-level rise, not only through the direct contribution of meltwater from the surface, but also through the indirect contribution on the mass loss through ice dynamics,” says Dr. Marco Tedesco, the principal investigator and lead author.

Dr. Tedesco is an associate professor in CCNY’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at CCNY and is currently serving as temporary program director for the National Science Foundation’s Polar Cyberinfrastructure Program. The research described in the paper was funded before Dr. Tedesco accepted the position at NSF.

NSF supported the research along with NASA’s cryosphere program, the Natural Environment Research Council, the U.S. Department of Energy’s earth systems modeling program, St. Catherine’s College (Cambridge), the Scandinavian Studies Fund and the B.B. Roberts Fund.

Over the past decade, surface melting in Greenland has increased considerably.

Previous research already suggested that the water injected from the rapid draining of the supraglacial lakes controlled sliding of ice over the bed beneath it. However, there was no evidence of the impact of the slow draining mechanism, which the paper identified.

Professor Tedesco and colleagues documented that supraglacial lakes have two different drainage mechanisms that cause them to empty rapidly or slowly. The findings are based on analysis of data collected in 2011 from five GPS stations the team installed around two supraglacial lakes in the Paakistoq region of West Greenland.

The smaller of the two lakes, Lake Half Moon, overflowed its banks and drained from the side to reach a moulin. It took approximately 45 hours to empty. The larger lake, Lake Ponting, drained through a crack in the ice beneath it and was voided in around two hours.

“At first, a crack in the ice beneath the lake may be small, but it deepens as water enters it because the pressure of the water overcomes the compressive action of the ice, which is trying to close the crack,” Professor Tedesco explains. “When the crack reaches the bed beneath the glacier, which could be 1,000 meters or more below the surface, the lake empties rapidly, like a bathtub after its plug is pulled.”

Drainage from both lakes accelerated glacial movement. However, water from Lake Ponting caused the glacier to move faster and further. While the slower drainage from Lake Half Moon caused the glacial pace to increase from baseline values of 90 – 100 meters per year to a maximum of around 420 meters a year, glacial movement in the area affected by Lake Ponting reached maximum velocities of 1,500 – 1,600 meters per year, nearly four times greater.

The drainage of the two lakes impacted the glacier’s trajectory differently, as well. The emptying of Lake Half Moon via the moulin did not change the direction of glacial movement. However, when Lake Ponting drained a slight southerly shift in the glacier’s direction was detected.

“Because the different draining mechanisms affect ice velocity, they could also affect the amount of ice lost through calving of glaciers, which results in icebergs,” Professor Tedesco points out. “Because what happens on a glacier’s surface impacts what is going on below, researchers are trying to look at glaciers as a system instead of independent components,” he adds.

“The surface is like the skin of a tissue and the subglacial and englacial channels that develop because of the surface water act like arteries or veins that redistribute this water internally.”

The Earth and moon formed later than previously thought

The Earth and Moon were created as the result of a giant collision between two planets the size of Mars and Venus. Until now it was thought to have happened when the solar system was 30 million years old or approx. 4,537 million years ago. But new research from the Niels Bohr Institute shows that the Earth and Moon must have formed much later – perhaps up to 150 million years after the formation of the solar system. The research results have been published in the scientific journal, Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“We have determined the ages of the Earth and the Moon using tungsten isotopes, which can reveal whether the iron cores and their stone surfaces have been mixed together during the collision”, explains Tais W. Dahl, who did the research as his thesis project in geophysics at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen in collaboration with professor David J. Stevenson from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Turbulent collisions

The planets in the solar system were created by collisions between small dwarf planets orbiting the newborn sun. In the collisions the small planets melted together and formed larger and larger planets. The Earth and Moon are the result of a gigantic collision between two planets the size of Mars and Venus. The two planets collided at a time when both had a core of metal (iron) and a surrounding mantle of silicates (rock). But when did it happen and how did it happen? The collision took place in less than 24 hours and the temperature of the Earth was so high (7000º C), that both rock and metal must have melted in the turbulent collision. But were the stone mass and iron mass also mixed together?

Until recently it was believed that the rock and iron mixed completely during the planet formation and so the conclusion was that the Moon was formed when the solar system was 30 million years old or approximately 4,537 million years ago. But new research shows something completely different.

Dating with radioactive elements

The age of the Earth and Moon can be dated by examining the presence of certain elements in the Earth’s mantle. Hafnium-182 is a radioactive substance, which decays and is converted into the isotope tungsten-182. The two elements have markedly different chemical properties and while the tungsten isotopes prefer to bond with metal, hafnium prefers to bond to silicates, i.e. rock.

It takes 50-60 million years for all hafnium to decay and be converted into tungsten, and during the Moon forming collision nearly all the metal sank into the Earth’s core. But did all the tungsten go into the core?

“We have studied to what degree metal and rock mix together during the planet forming collisions. Using dynamic model calculations of the turbulent mixing of the liquid rock and iron masses we have found that tungsten isotopes from the Earth’s early formation remain in the rocky mantle”, explains Tais W. Dahl, Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

The new studies imply that the moon forming collision occurred after all of the hafnium had decayed completely into tungsten.

“Our results show that metal core and rock are unable to emulsify in these collisions between planets that are greater than 10 kilometres in diameter and therefore that most of the Earth’s iron core (80-99 %) did not remove tungsten from the rocky material in the mantle during formation”, explains Tais W. Dahl.

The result of the research means that the Earth and the Moon must have been formed much later than previously thought – that is to say not 30 million years after the formation of the solar system 4,567 million years ago but perhaps up to 150 million years after the formation of the solar system.