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News Release 117 of 966

July 17, 2012 01:00 PM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2012-28

Why Is Earth So Dry?

July 17, 2012: With large swaths of oceans, rivers that snake for hundreds of miles, and behemoth glaciers near the north and south poles, Earth doesn't seem to have a water shortage. And yet, less than one percent of our planet's mass is locked up in water, and even that may have been delivered by comets and asteroids after Earth's initial formation. Astronomers have been puzzled by Earth's water deficiency. The standard model explaining how the solar system formed from a protoplanetary disk, a swirling disk of gas and dust surrounding our Sun, billions of years ago, suggests that our planet should be a water world. Earth should have formed from icy material in a zone around the Sun where temperatures were cold enough for ices to condense out of the disk. Therefore, Earth should have formed from material rich in water. So why is our planet comparatively dry?

A new analysis of the common accretion-disk model explaining how planets form in a debris disk around our Sun uncovered a possible reason for Earth's comparative dryness. In this study astrophysicists Rebecca Martin and Mario Livio found that our planet formed from rocky debris in a dry, hotter region, inside of the so-called "snow line." The snow line in our solar system currently lies in the middle of the asteroid belt, a reservoir of rubble between Mars and Jupiter; beyond this point, the Sun's light is too weak to melt the icy debris left over from the protoplanetary disk. Previous accretion-disk models suggested that the snow line was much closer to the Sun 4.5 billion years ago, when Earth formed.

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Science Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Martin and M. Livio (STScI)

Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)