Friday, January 30, 2009

Serving Up the Cosmic Leftovers

What’s the oldest stuff in your refrigerator (aside from that rubbery celery you bought but never ate)? Leftovers! The same is true in the solar system. The fragmentary leftovers of the formation of the sun and planets are some of the oldest objects in the solar system. For a long time, few scientists paid much attention to this debris or knew much about it. More recently, however, astronomers have come to realize that many significant clues to the origin and early evolution of the solar system are to be found not in the planets, but in the smaller bodies, the planetary moons and solar system debris. For the most part, the planets are very active places. Atmospheres have produced erosion, and internal geological activity has erased ancient surfaces. On the earth, weather, water, and tectonic motion have long since “recycled” the earth’s original surface.
So studying the planets reveals relatively little about the origins of the solar system. However, on moons and asteroids, atmospheres are sparse or nonexistent, and geological activity is minimal or absent. The result? Many of these bodies have changed little since the solar system was born. They are, in effect, cosmic leftovers.

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