A huge glacial erratic versus a small human on the Superior Hiking Trail this week. Photo: Bob King
Wait a minute. What is this thing? Asteroid, alien spacecraft, rock of doom? No, it’s only a 20-foot-high glacial erratic astride the Superior Hiking Trail 5 miles east of Finland, Minn. The guidebook indicated its location but I wasn’t prepared for the sight of this behemoth. Erratics are boulders plucked by glaciers and deposited miles from their source. This one , composed of the mineral anorthosite, appeared to have been dropped in the middle of nowhere, hence it’s otherworldly appearance.
A very tight closeup of lichens (center) and crystal structure (right) on a small patch of the erratic. Photo: Bob King
When seen up close up, the bland, gray exterior of the rock proved to be composed of coarse crystals. Tiny patches of tough lichens hid parts of the weathered surface.
The boulder probably parted company with the glacier 10,000 years ago. Anything around that long in one place becomes a time machine into the past. Through its dark crystal panes, we glimpse a long-gone world of mile-thick ice and numbing cold. Given enough time, life’s tiny fungal tentacles, working in tandem with nature’s freeze-thaw cycle, will reduce this titan to shards and finally soil.
The Dawn spacecraft used its gamma ray and neutron detectors to discover hydrogen hot spots on the asteroid Vesta this past year. Red indicates the greatest amount of hydrogen; gray the lowest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Another big rock – this one in the asteroid belt – shares an even more ancient past than my erratic. Rather than rocks dropped by ice, Dawn was hit with hunks of water-rich asteroids from the asteroid belt called carbonaceous chondrites. The probe found Vesta’s equatorial zone laced with hydrogen from water chemically bound to the rocks as -OH, also called hydroxyl. Free water’s formula is OHH, described more simply as H2O.
“The source of the hydrogen within Vesta’s surface appears to be hydrated minerals delivered by carbon-rich space rocks that collided with Vesta at speeds slow enough to preserve their volatile content,” said Thomas Prettyman, the lead scientist for Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.
Hundreds of small pits inside Vesta’s crater Marcia may have formed when late bombardment heated earlier materials deposited by water-rich asteroids. Heated by impact, water bound in rocks escaped to create the pits. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/MPS/DLR/IDA/JHUAPL
If any ice itself were to survive, you’d think Vesta’s polar regions would be the best places for preservation just as on the moon. The moon’s rugged terrain and an axis tipped just 1.5 degrees to the plane of Earth’s orbit create permanently shadowed havens for ice in craters at its north and south poles. Unlike the moon, Vesta’s axis has a considerable 29-degree tilt. As it rotates and orbits the sun, both north and south polar regions are repeatedly exposed to sunlight just as they are on Earth. If ice once languished there, it’s long gone.
The Sutter’s Mill carbonaceous chondrite, which fell on April 22, 2012 in California, is dark colored like most of its class. Photo: Bob King
In fact, most of the hydrogen was found in darker-colored rocks encircling the equator. Since carbonaceous chondrites are themselves dark and water-rich compared to other meteorites, they’re a good match for what Dawn found on Vesta.
More evidence for ancient water comes from strange clusters of pits measuring about 100-800 feet across discovered in the 40-mile diameter crater Marcia. They resemble similar features on Mars that likely formed when water within the rocks vaporized explosively during an impact leaving behind pothole-shaped depressions.
Similar pits on Mars from water boiling from the surface by the heat of impact. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s thought that a second round of high-speed impacts accomplished the same on Vesta. Marcia’s center is pocked with pits and has very low levels of hydrogen, consistent with water boiling off into space when the crater was formed.
Water. It’s always at the center of the story when it comes to space exploration. Earth’s water is believed to have arrived the same way as Vesta’s through comet and “wet” asteroid bombardment. Much later, water would build the glacier that plucked the boulder that now reposes alongside a woodland trail. You never know what adventures may lie ahead when you go with the flow.