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Why Study Comets?

Don Yeomans
Jet Propulsion Lab
April 1998

Life on Earth began at the end of a period called the late heavy bombardment, some 3.8 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, the early Earth's oceans 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 of 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? The answer may involve the collision of comets with the Earth, 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 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.

Comets have this strange duality whereby they first brought the building blocks of life to Earth some 3.8 billion years ago and subsequent cometary collisions may have wiped out many of the developing life forms, allowing only the most adaptable species to evolve further. Indeed, we may owe our preeminence at the top of Earth's food chain to cometary collisions. A catastrophic cometary collision with the Earth is only likely to happen at several million year intervals on average, so we need not be overly concerned with a threat of this type. However, it is prudent to mount efforts to discover and study these objects, to characterize their sizes, compositions and structures and to keep an eye upon their future trajectories.

As with asteroids, comets are both a potential threat and a potential resource for the colonization of the solar system in the twenty first century. Whereas asteroids are rich in the mineral raw materials required to build structures in space, the comets are rich resources for the water and carbon-based molecules necessary to sustain life. In addition, an abundant supply of cometary water ice can provide copious quantities of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, the two primary ingredients in rocket fuel. One day soon, comets may serve as fueling stations for interplanetary spacecraft.

Ron Baalke, STARDUST Webmaster,
Last Updated Wednesday, 07-Jun-2000 13:50:32 PDT