Research by international scientists concluded that giant asteroids, similar or larger than the one believed to have killed the dinosaurs, hit Earth billions of years ago with more frequency than previously thought, U.S. space agency NASA announced Wednesday.
To cause the dinosaur extinction, the killer asteroid that impacted Earth 65 million years ago would have been almost six miles (10 kilometers) in diameter. By studying ancient rocks in Australia and using computer models, researchers estimate that approximately 70 asteroids the same size or larger impacted Earth 1.8 to 3.8 billion years ago. During the same period, approximately four similarly-sized objects hit the moon.
Evidence for these impacts on Earth comes from thin rock layers that contain debris of nearly spherical, sand-sized droplets called spherules. These millimeter-scale clues were formerly molten droplets ejected into space within the huge plumes created by mega-impacts on Earth. The hardened droplets then fell back to Earth, creating thin but widespread sedimentary layers known as spherule beds.
The new findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
"The beds speak to an intense period of bombardment of Earth," said William Bottke, principal investigator of the impact study team at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. "Their source long has been a mystery."
The team's findings support the theory Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune formed in different orbits nearly 4.5 billion years ago, migrating to their current orbits about four billion years ago from the interplay of gravitational forces in the young solar system. This event triggered a solar system-wide bombardment of comets and asteroids called the "Late Heavy Bombardment."
In the paper, the team created a model of the ancient main asteroid belt and tracked what would have happened when the orbits of the giant planets changed. They discovered the innermost portion of the belt became destabilized and could have delivered numerous big impacts to Earth and the moon over long time periods.