Earth's mass extinctions not likely caused by crashing comets

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Washington, July 31 (ANI): A new University of Washington research indicates it is highly unlikely that comets have caused any of Earth's mass extinctions or have been responsible for more than one minor extinction event.

The work also shows that many long-period comets that end up in Earth-crossing orbits likely originate from a region astronomers have long believed could not produce observable comets.

A long-period comet takes from 200 years to tens of millions of years to make a single orbit of the sun.

"It was thought the long-period comets we see just tell us about the outer Oort Cloud, but they really give us a murky picture of the entire Oort Cloud," said Nathan Kaib, a University of Washington doctoral student in astronomy and lead author of a paper on the work.

The Oort Cloud is a remnant of the nebula from which the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. It begins about 93 billion miles from the sun (1,000 times Earth's distance from the sun) and stretches to about three light years away (a light year is about 5.9 trillion miles).

The Oort Cloud could contain billions of comets, most so small and distant as to never be observed.

In the new research, Kaib and co-author Thomas Quinn, a UW astronomy professor and Kaib's doctoral adviser, used computer models to simulate the evolution of comet clouds in the solar system for 1.2 billion years.

They found that even outside the periods of comet showers, the inner Oort Cloud was a major source of long-period comets that eventually cross Earth's path.

By assuming the inner Oort Cloud as the only source of long-period comets, they were able to estimate the highest possible number of comets in the inner Oort Cloud.

The actual number is not known.

But by using the maximum number possible, they determined that no more than two or three comets could have struck Earth during what is believed to be the most powerful comet shower of the last 500 million years.

With three major impacts taking place nearly simultaneously, it had been proposed that the minor extinction event about 40 million years ago resulted from a comet shower.

Kaib and Quinn's research implies that if that relatively minor extinction event was caused by a comet shower, then that was probably the most-intense comet shower since the fossil record began.

"That tells you that the most powerful comet showers caused minor extinctions and other showers should have been less severe, so comet showers are probably not likely causes of mass extinction events," Kaib said. (ANI)

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