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Volatile accretion history of the terrestrial planets and dynamic implications


Accretion left the terrestrial planets depleted in volatile components. Here I examine evidence for the hypothesis that the Moon and the Earth were essentially dry immediately after the formation of the Moon—by a giant impact on the proto-Earth—and only much later gained volatiles through accretion of wet material delivered from beyond the asteroid belt. This view is supported by U–Pb and I–Xe chronologies, which show that water delivery peaked 100 million years after the isolation of the Solar System. Introduction of water into the terrestrial mantle triggered plate tectonics, which may have been crucial for the emergence of life. This mechanism may also have worked for the young Venus, but seems to have failed for Mars.

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Figure 1: Fractionation of Zn isotopes is incompatible with volatilization.
Figure 2: Stepwise accretion of the elements on cooling of the solar nebula, shown as atomization enthalpy versus T50.
Figure 3: Stepwise accretion of the elements upon cooling of the solar nebula, shown as fraction condensed versus temperature.
Figure 4: The thermal structure of the planetary solar nebula: temperature at mid-plane of the nebular disk.
Figure 5: A tentative chronology of the Earth’s accretion.
Figure 6: Galena data and the young age of the Earth.


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I am grateful to J. Blichert-Toft, S. Labrosse and H. Ohmoto for suggestions on the manuscript. Reviews by A. Morbidelli, M. Humayun and M. Drake were particularly helpful. Thanks to A. Levander and C.-T. Lee, I was able to spend enough quiet time at Rice University to bring this work to completion. This work was supported by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche and the Programme National de Planétologie (INSU-CEA).

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Albarède, F. Volatile accretion history of the terrestrial planets and dynamic implications. Nature 461, 1227–1233 (2009).

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