October 18, 2017

08.11.09:Does Cometary Mass Extinction Need to be Rewritten?

Comets are cause all mass extinctions in Earth’s history, right? Maybe not, if new research is correct. Simulations run by the scientists at the University of Washington now suggest that the giant planets of Jupiter and Saturn may do a much more through job of cleaning up incoming debris than is generally realized. Short period comets such as Halley’s are generally accepted to be denizens of the Kuiper belt, which extends out to 100 Astronomical Units (A.U.s), while much more numerous populations of long period comets are theorized to come from the Oort cloud, a massive solar system-engulfing sphere at a distance of 1,000 A.U. to up to 3 light years distant. Traditional cometary mass extinction theory states that when a star passes close enough to the shell of the Oort cloud, a rain of comets are pried free and the inner solar system becomes a celestial shooting gallery for a million years or so. Simulations, however, suggest no more than three impacts could have occurred over the last 500 million years or so, fuel for at best maybe a minor extinction event or two. Then there’s the pesky affair of some extinct species shown to exist above the K-T iridium layer… doubtless, the case of mass extinction is a thoroughly messy business. As reported earlier last month in this space, more than one impactor is suspected in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Examination of other inner solar system bodies should pin down the frequency, duration, and average number of killer comets, as the Moon, Mars and even Mercury have relatively little erosion and would be potential targets as well. Any incoming comet stands a 40% chance of having its orbit altered by Jupiter, as happened to Hale-Bopp in the late 90′s. Thanks, Jove!