Age of Earth and Age of the Universe

How do scientists determine the ages of the Earth and the Universe? –Peyami

Earth

Age of Earth

Planet Earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old. But how did scientists determine this? With the radiometric dating of meteorites and the ages of the oldest known minerals. While the oldest meteorites found on Earth are approximately 4.5 billion years old, the oldest known mineral, zircon, discovered by Jack Hills in Australia is at least 4.4 billion years old. One meteorite used was the Canyon Diablo meteorite (4.55 billion years old) aged by C. C. Patterson. Since most of Earth’s minerals have undergone change in the core, mantle, and crust by plate tectonics, weathering, and hydrothermal circulation (circulation of hot water), scientists usually cannot use them in dating Earth. However, scientists used ancient Archaean lead ores of galena (natural mineral form of lead II sulfide), the earliest formed homogenous lead isotope, which very precisely dated Earth at 4.54 billion years. Furthermore, inclusions rich in calcium and aluminum in meteorites were formed within the solar system about 4.567 billion years age. As the oldest known solid component of meteorites, these Ca-Al inclusions determine the age of the solar system and set the upper limit of the age of Earth. Scientists do not known the time of Earth’s accretion (growth by gravitationally attracting more matter), but believe it started some after the Ca-Al inclusions formed.

In fact, scientists have long debated over and calculated the age of Earth. People had estimated Earth at just hundred of thousands of years! Later, scientists extended their estimates with more evidence. However, it wasn’t until Charles Darwin, who proposed the theory of natural evolution, that scientists began to make closer estimates. Using the molecular clock and the rate of genetic divergence, scientists estimate the last universal ancestor of all organisms at 3.5-3.8 billion years old.

Expansion of the Universe

Age of the Universe

The age of the Universe is 13.75 billion years old. People long thought the Universe as much younger— millions, let alone billion of years old. Edwin Hubble’s observations in the 1920s showed that the Universe has a finite age. Using Doppler Shift, Hubble discovered that the Universe was expanding. Every galaxy seemed to be moving away from each other, showing red shifts in their spectral lines. In 1958, Allan Sandage made the first calculation of a value called the Hubble’s constant, which determines the rate of the Universe’s expansion. With the Hubble’s constant, Sandage made the first accurate (closer than before) estimate of the age of the Universe at ~20 billion years. Discovered in 1965, the microwave cosmic background radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang, confirmed the expanding Universe theory. As the Universe expanded, it gradually cooled. The CBR shows the Universe at 2.7 K. In fact, scientists have recently discovered dark energy. Dark energy accelerates the expansion of the Universe, reducing earlier estimates of >14 billion years to 13.75 billion years.

Graph of Expansion: Expansion is Accelerating!

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Meteors, Meteorites, and Meteoroids

Meteors

Meteors, Meteorites, and Meteoroids

Meteoroids are debris in space from comets or asteroids; meteors are shooting stars or fire balls in air; meteorites are meteoroids that invade Earth’s atmosphere and impact the ground; micrometeorites are perfect shiny spheres microscopic in size and the major cause of small-scale erosion on the moon. The three major types of meteoroids are stony, stony iron, and iron.

  • Several meteors can be seen per hour on any given night; when this number increases dramatically, these events are called “meteor showers” that occur annually or at regular intervals as the Earth passes through the trail of dusty debris left by a comet
  • The Perseids peak around August 12 every year; each Perseid meteor part of the comet Swift-Tuttle that swings around the Sun every 135 years
  • Other meteor showers and their associated comets: Leonids (Tempe-Tuttle), the Aquarids and Orionids (Halley), and the Taurids (Encke)
  • Comet dust in meteor showers burns up in the atmosphere before reaching the ground
  • Most meteorites no bigger than an average Earth rock
  • Large meteorites can cause extensive destruction: Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona (1,000 meters, 50,000 years old), asteroid impact which created the 300 km Chicxulub crater on Yucatan Peninsula (65 million years ago)
  • Ann Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama was severely bruised by a 3.6 kilogram stony meteorite that crashed through her roof in November, 1954
  • Meteorites have a “burned” exterior, formed as the meteorite is melted by friction as it passes through the atmosphere
  • Three types of meteorites: “irons,” “stones,” “stony-irons”
  • More than 30,000 meteorites found on Earth, 99.8% came from asteroids
  • Evidence for an asteroid origin includes: orbits calculated from photographic observations of meteorite falls project back to the asteroid belt, spectra of several classes of meteorites match those of some asteroid classes
  • All but rare lunar and Martian meteorites are very old, 4.5-4.6 million years
  • Only one group of meteorites can be traced to a specific asteroid; eucrite, diogenite, and howardite igneous meteorites traced to third largest asteroid Vesta
  • Meteorites and asteroids that fall on Earth are of the original diverse materials from which planets formed; tells the conditions and processes during the formation and earliest history of the solar system
  • Remaining 0.2% of meteorites split equally between meteorites from the Moon and Mars
  • 35 known Martian meteorites blasted off Mars by meteoroid impacts; all igneous rocks crystallized by magma
  • Controversy of whether structures in meteorite ALH84001 might be evidence of fossil Martian bacteria
  • 36 lunar meteorites similar in mineralogy and composition to Apollo Moon rocks, but come from other parts of the Moon

TIMELINE

4.55 billion years ago: Formation age of most meteorites, age of the solar system

65 million years ago: Chicxulub impact leads to the extinction of dinosaurs and 75 percent of animals on Earth

50,000 years ago: Age of Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona

1478 BC: First recorded observation of meteors

1794 AD: Ernst Friedrick Chladni publishes first book on meteorites

1908 (Tunguska), 1947 (Sikote Alin), 1969 (Allende and Muchison), 1976 (Jilin): Important 20th century meteor falls

1969: Discovery of meteorites in a small area of Antarctica leads to annual expeditions by US and Japanese teams

1982-1983: Meteorites from the Moon and Mars are identified in Antarctic collections

1996: A team of NASA scientists suggests that Martian meteorite ALH 84001 may contain evidence of microfossils from Mars

2005: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity finds an iron meteorite on Mars

References: NASA <www.nasa.gov>