Accretion rate of cosmic spherules measured at the South Pole

Abstract

Micrometeorites are terrestrially collected, extraterrestrial particles smaller than about 1 mm, which account for most of the mass being accreted to the Earth1,2. Compared with meteorites, micrometeorites more completely represent the Earth-crossing meteoroid complex3,4 and should include fragments of asteroids, comets, Mars and our Moon, as well as pre-solar and interstellar grains3,6. Previous measurements of the flux of micrometeoroids that survive to the Earth's surface have large uncertainties owing to the destruction of particles by weathering7,8,9, inefficiencies in magnetic collection or separation techniques7,8,9, low particle counts10,11, poor age constraint7,8,9,12,13 or highly variable concentrating processes12,13. Here we describe an attempt to circumvent these problems through the collection of thousands of well preserved and dated micrometeorites from the bottom of the South Pole water well, which supplies drinking water for the Scott–Amundsen station. Using this collection, we have determined precise estimates of the flux and mass distribution for 50–700-µm cosmic spherules (melted micrometeorites). Allowing for the expected abundance of unmelted micrometeorites14 in the samples, our results indicate that about 90% of the incoming mass of submillimetre particles evaporates during atmospheric entry. Our data indicate the loss of glass-rich and small stony spherules from deep-sea deposits7,8, and they provide constraints for models describing the survival probability of micrometeoroids15,16.

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Figure 1: Approximate size and shape of the South Pole water well in December 1995.
Figure 2: Size and mass distribution of SPWW spherules.
Figure 3: Circulation pattern in the SPWW.
Figure 4: SPWW spherule flux compared with the flux measured above the atmosphere1 and in Greenland12.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Rand, J. Govoni and M. Shandrick for their help with our field work, and C. Engrand, D. Joswiak, S. Kuehner, D. Brownlee, M. Maurette, G. Kurat and C. Daghlian for their help with particle analysis. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation with additional support from CRREL.

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Correspondence to James H. Lever.

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Taylor, S., Lever, J. & Harvey, R. Accretion rate of cosmic spherules measured at the South Pole. Nature 392, 899–903 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31894

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