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Fresh evidence for how water reached Earth found in asteroid debris

Last Updated on Thursday, 07 May 2015 12:53
Published on Thursday, 07 May 2015 05:01

Water delivery via asteroids or comets is likely taking place in many other planetary systems, just as it happened on Earth, according to new research. In work led by Dr Roberto Raddi of the University of Warwick, a team of astronomers find evidence that numerous planetary bodies, including asteroids and comets, contain large amounts of water. The research appears in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The findings add further support to the possibility that water can be delivered to Earth-like planets via such bodies to create a suitable environment for the formation of life.  

wateryasteroidscience smallArtist's impression of a rocky and water-rich asteroid being torn apart by the strong gravity of the white dwarf star. Similar objects in the Solar System likely delivered the bulk of water on Earth and represent the building blocks of the terrestrial planets. Credit: Mark A. Garlick,, University of Warwick. Click for to enlarge.

Commenting on the results, Dr Raddi said: "Our research has found that, rather than being unique, water-rich asteroids similar to those found in our Solar System appear to be commonplace. Accordingly, many planets may contain, or have contained, a volume of water comparable to that found in the Earth.

"It is believed that the Earth was initially dry, but our research strongly supports the view that the oceans we have today were created as a result of impacts by water-rich comets or asteroids."

In observations obtained at the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands, the Warwick astronomers detected a large quantity of hydrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere of a white dwarf (known as SDSS J1242+5226), the compact remnant of a Sun-like star at the end of its life.

This is direct evidence that a water-rich exo-asteroid was disrupted and eventually delivered the water it contained onto the star. This world, the researchers discovered, was comparable in size to Ceres – at 900km across, the largest asteroid in the Solar System.

"The amount of water found in SDSS J1242+5226 is equivalent to 30-35% of the oceans on Earth", explained Dr Raddi.

The impact of water-rich asteroids or comets onto a planet or white dwarf results in the mixing of hydrogen and oxygen into their atmospheres. Both elements were detected in large amounts in SDSS J1242+5226.

Research co-author Professor Boris Gänsicke, also of the University of Warwick, explained: "Oxygen, which is a relatively heavy element, will sink deep down into the white dwarf over time, and hence a while after the disruption event is over, it will no longer be visible.

"In contrast, hydrogen is the lightest element; it will always remain floating near the surface of the white dwarf where it can easily be detected. There are many white dwarfs that hold large amounts of hydrogen in their atmospheres, and this new study suggests that this is evidence that water-rich asteroids or comets are common around other stars."


Further information

The new work appears in R. Raddi et al., "Likely detection of water-rich asteroid debris in a metal-polluted white dwarf", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. 450, pp. 2083-2093, 2015, published by Oxford University Press.

The research was funded under the ERC Grant Agreement n. 320964 (WDTracer).


Media contact

Lee Page
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0)247 657 4255
Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221
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Science contacts

Dr Roberto Raddi
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0)24 765 73869
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Prof. Boris Gänsicke
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0)247 657 4741
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Notes for Editors

The Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) consists of the 4.2 metre William Herschel Telescope and the 2.5 metre Isaac Newton Telescope. The ING is owned by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) of the United Kingdom, and it is operated jointly with the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO) of the Netherlands and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) of Spain. The telescopes are located in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma, Canary Islands, which is operated by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC).

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow the RAS on Twitter via @royalastrosoc.