chemistry, cosmic dust, phosphorus

Without phosphorus, there’s no life. It’s a necessary part of DNA, RNA, and other biological molecules like ATP, which helps cells transport energy. But any phosphorus that was present when Earth formed would’ve been sequestered in the center of the molten planet.

So where did phosphorus come from?

It might have come from cosmic dust.

When Earth formed, phosphorus was part of the materials that coalesced into the planet. But a property of phosphorus means that much of the initial element is gathered in the Earth’s core, rather than the Earth’s crust. Phosphorus is a siderophile element, meaning it likes to dissolve in iron. Since so much of Earth’s iron sank to form the planet’s core, it took much of the phosphorus with it.

Because of that, no phosphorus was available for life when Earth formed, and it had to come from somewhere else. It also had to arrive on Earth over a long period of time. Previously, scientists hypothesized that meteorites and comets might be the source. But a new study suggests that phosphorus might come from cosmic dust.

The new study is titled “Phosphorus Chemistry in the Earth’s Upper Atmosphere” and it’s published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Space Physics. The lead author is John Plane, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Leeds.

Each year, thousands of tons of cosmic dust reach the Earth’s surface. Most cosmic dust is tiny particles only a few hundred micrometres in size. A lot of it is silicate minerals, the most common type of minerals on Earth, including quartz, olivine, and feldspar. Some cosmic dust includes carbonaceous material, sulphides, metals, and other minerals and compounds, including phosphorus. Almost any object in space—but especially asteroids and comets— can produce it through processes like volcanism and outgassing, or by impacts.

chemistry, cosmic dust, phosphorus

Moonlight and zodiacal light lights up the skies over ESO’s La Silla observatory. Zodiacal light is thought to be sunlight reflected from dust concentrated in the plane of the zodiac or ecliptic. (Credit: Alan Fitzsimmons/ESO)

Before phosphorus is useful to living things, it must be in the form of phosphates or metal phosphites. In the paper, the authors show that cosmic dust can go through a series of chemical reactions as it travels through the atmosphere, eventually stabilizing and settling to the Earth’s surface.

When cosmic dust, or interplanetary dust grains (IDP) strike Earth’s atmosphere, they heat up. The heat causes them to melt and vaporize, a process called ablation. Previous laboratory studies have flash heated dust-sized fragments of meteorites and detected the release of molecules containing phosphorus. Modelling based on these experiments showed that IDPs could be a significant source of phosphorus over long time scales.

In this new work, the authors wanted to deepen the understanding of cosmic dust, and how ablation and chemical processes could deliver biologically useful forms of phosphorus—phosphides and phosphites—to Earth. To do that, they took the lab results from previous experiments and combined them with theoretical predictions for other chemical reactions that haven’t been studied in the laboratory. With that reaction model in hand, they incorporated it into a global climate model.

chemistry, cosmic dust, phosphorus

This figure from the study shows how cosmic dust can create important forms of phosphorus through a process initiated by ablation. The process takes place in Earth’s mesosphere and lower thermosphere. Note the two compounds at the bottom. On the left, the green arrows show the important pathway from OPO to H3PO3 (Phosphorus Acid.) On the right, the red arrows show the pathway from OPO to H3PO4 (Phosphoric Acid.) Image Credit: Plane et al 2021.

The results supported the idea of cosmic dust as the source for much of Earth’s biologically useful phosphorus. With their global climate model, they were also able to show what regions on Earth might receive the most phosphorus: the Southern Andes, the Northern Rockies, and the Himalayas. The team also found that the Earth might be encircled by a narrow atmospheric layer of a phosphorus-containing molecule called OPO at an altitude of about 90 km (56 mi.)

chemistry, cosmic dust, phosphorus

This figure from the study shows the deposition of meteor-ablated phosphorus over the Earth. Note the larger amounts (red) over the northern Rocky Mountains, the southern Andes, and the Himalayas. Image Credit: Plane et al 2021.

Not all of the phosphorus that enters Earth’s atmosphere becomes biologically useful phosphorus. The researchers estimate that about 11% forms metal phosphites which become meteoric smoke and eventually settle to the Earth’s surface.

Though much of this work is theoretical, the authors point out the utility of their study. “Nevertheless,” they write in their paper’s conclusion, “two important conclusions can be drawn.”

“First, the ablation of phosphorus from IDPs provides a substantial and continuous source of oxidized P to the surface in the form of submicron-sized smoke particles. Second, a not-insignificant fraction of the phosphorus is likely to be in the form of bioavailable phosphites rather than phosphates…”

If they’re correct, their results have important implications in our understanding of the history of life on Earth. Firstly, initial phosphorus was sequestered in the Earth’s core, unavailable for life. Their model shows how cosmic dust could be a continuous source of biologically-available phosphorus.

Future research might explain this in more detail. Future research might also be able to find out if the amount of phosphorus from cosmic dust varied before and after the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), a critical period in Earth’s deep history.

If there is a link between the GEO and cosmic dust phosphorus, then it’s just one more example of how so many things had to happen for life to do what it’s done.

More:

  • Press Release: Cosmic Dust May Be Key Source of Phosphorus for Life on Earth
  • Research: Phosphorus Chemistry in the Earth’s Upper Atmosphere
  • Universe Today: Solid Phosphorus has been Found in Comets. This Means They Contain All the Raw Elements for Life

TECH NEWS RELATED

Three startups win prize money from U.S. Space Force accelerator

WASHINGTON — Space industry startups focused on satellite propulsion, in-orbit manufacturing and debris tracking won prize money from a business accelerator funded by the U.S. Space Force. The accelerator known as Hyperspace Challenge, run by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Space Force’s SpaceWERX program, announced Dec. 2 ...

View more: Three startups win prize money from U.S. Space Force accelerator

Using green tea as reducing reagent for the preparation of nanomaterials to synthesize ammonia

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain Researchers have shown that green tea can be used as a reducing reagent for the preparation of nanomaterials to synthesize ammonia. Compared with bulk graphitic carbon nitride, the optimal sample had 2.93-fold photocatalytic nitrate reduction to ammonia activity (2.627 mg/h/gcat), and the NH3 selectivity increased from ...

View more: Using green tea as reducing reagent for the preparation of nanomaterials to synthesize ammonia

Milky Way galaxy: Facts about our galactic home

The Milky Way galaxy is our home in space We live in the golden era of Milky Way research.

View more: Milky Way galaxy: Facts about our galactic home

Giant black hole inside a tiny satellite galaxy of our Milky Way defies explanation

"There is no explanation for this kind of black hole in dwarf spheroidal galaxies."

View more: Giant black hole inside a tiny satellite galaxy of our Milky Way defies explanation

The only total solar eclipse of 2021 will cross Antarctica early Saturday. Here are its stages explained.

jQuery(function(){ if (typeof jwplayer_load == typeof indefined) { var jwplayer_load = 1; jQuery(window).load(function(){ jQuery(".sc_video_shortcode_jwplayer").each(function(){ var _this = $(this); jQuery.get(jQuery(this).attr("url"), function(data, status){ if (typeof data.split("\n") !== typeof undefined) { var src = data.split("\n")[4]; src = src.replace(".m3u8", ""); _this.attr("src", src); } }); }); }); } }); On Saturday, Dec. 4, a ...

View more: The only total solar eclipse of 2021 will cross Antarctica early Saturday. Here are its stages explained.

Tour Stunning Hubble Images of Incredible Nebulae in This New NASA Video

Supernova remnants, such as the Crab Nebula, are made of debris from exploded stars. Over the years, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken hundreds of images of different kinds of incredible nebulae in our universe. A nebula is a giant cloud of dust and gas in space. There are ...

View more: Tour Stunning Hubble Images of Incredible Nebulae in This New NASA Video

Tory Bruno: ULA won’t get engines by Christmas, BE-4s coming in early 2022

“We’re in the end game now,” Tory Bruno said Dec. 3 on CNBC WASHINGTON — Blue Origin is performing “final testing” of the BE-4 engines that will boost United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno said Dec. 3. “We’re in the end game now,” Bruno told ...

View more: Tory Bruno: ULA won’t get engines by Christmas, BE-4s coming in early 2022

Tesla confirms Cybertruck Quad-Motor variant with diagonal ‘Crab’ drive mode

Tesla CEO Elon Musk confirmed that the all-electric Cybertruck will have a Quad-motor variant, which will take production priority at Gigafactory Texas when manufacturing begins. Musk also stated that, thanks to the Cybertruck’s front and rear-wheel drive modes, the pickup will be able to move diagonally “like a crab.” ...

View more: Tesla confirms Cybertruck Quad-Motor variant with diagonal ‘Crab’ drive mode

A World Of Metal? Astronomers Found A New Planet, Says It’s Entirely Made Of Iron

Human Blood Detected in Bright Red Paint on 1,000-Year-Old Gold Mask From Peru

Space station dodges space debris from decades-old Pegasus rocket

Russia might levy fines on Google, Meta annual turnover

Iron selenide film reveals clues about superconductivity

Don’t Miss the Total Solar Eclipse 2021 – Where To See It in Person & How To Watch a Live Stream

Using machine learning and computationally derived descriptors to find special classes of catalysts

U.S. Air Force Secretary Kendall: Short-term funding an ‘unfortunate’ reality for defense programs

Planetary Scientists Discover That Water Was Once Present in Arabia Terra on Mars

Hot, dense planet with eight-hour year

NASA awards funding to three commercial space station concepts

How would we give aliens directions to Earth?

OTHER TECH NEWS

;