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Scientists discover the remains of an ancient planet deep within the Earth

[Nov. 2, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Geophysicists, using the Earth's own seismic whisperings, unveiled the existence of two behemoths lurking near the heart of our planet. (CREDIT: Hernán Cañellas)

In the twilight of the 20th century, a revelation from the depths of the Earth's churning mantle challenged the established symphony of geological processes. Geophysicists, using the Earth's own seismic whisperings, unveiled the existence of two behemoths lurking near the heart of our planet - vast continent-sized anomalies, each dwarfing our Moon in size.

These regions, deep beneath the African continent and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, bore unusual signatures, distinguished from their surroundings by their unique composition and seismic shadows. They were christened Large Low-Velocity Provinces (LLVPs), titans hidden in the planet's interior, their origins shrouded in mystery.


Fast-forward to a groundbreaking study spearheaded by Caltech's brightest, offering a narrative as colossal as the features it sought to explain. Researchers, under the intellectual banner of Caltech's esteemed academicians - the geologist and geochemist Paul Asimow and geophysicist Michael Gurnis, alongside the emerging talent of Qian Yuan, have stitched together a saga of cosmic proportions.

Their work, crystallized in the prestigious journal Nature, paints a portrait of our Moon's birth intertwined with these subterranean giants, offering answers to riddles that have long perplexed planetary scientists.


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The genesis of this celestial detective story lies in a violent cataclysm from the distant past - a time when the nascent Earth collided with a wandering planetesimal, Theia. The aftermath of this colossal event scattered debris across the void, material that would eventually coalesce to form the silvery guardian of our night sky, the Moon.

Yet, for decades, Theia itself seemed to have vanished without a trace, eluding detection in the asteroid belt's rocky populace or within the meteoric remnants that occasionally grace our skies.


Enter the LLVPs, these enigmatic, iron-rich behemoths, lying in repose by Earth's core. Could the answer to Theia's disappearance lie within them? The new study suggests so, proposing that Earth's violent embrace absorbed the bulk of Theia, with its remains now identified as these deep mantle provinces. This theory is poised to revolutionize our understanding of planetary formation and evolution.

This revelation was seeded during a lecture attended by Qian Yuan in 2019, wherein Mikhail Zolotov, a professor at Arizona State University, expounded upon the giant-impact hypothesis. As Zolotov pondered the elusive Theia, Yuan's moment of epiphany struck - could the LLVPs be the final resting place of this ancient impactor?


Fuelled by this insight, Yuan and a cohort of multidisciplinary experts embarked on a journey of simulation and analysis. They delved into the cataclysmic dance between Earth and Theia, exploring the myriad possibilities of their chemical compositions and the violent ballet of their collision.

Illustration of the location of the two large, dense "blobs" of iron-rich material near the Earth's core. One is underneath the African continent while the other is across the globe beneath the Pacific Ocean. Each blob is nearly twice the size of the Moon. Earth's core is illustrated as a gray sphere. (Credit: Edward Garnero)

The data spoke volumes, confirming that the physics of that primordial impact was capable of birthing both the LLVPs and our Moon. Some of Theia's mantle, the simulations indicated, amalgamated with Earth's own, eventually solidifying into the detectable anomalies we observe today; the rest contributed to the Moon's genesis.


But why did Theia's remains not disperse evenly throughout Earth's interior, instead forming the discrete LLVPs? The team's sophisticated models offered a scenario reminiscent of a switched-off lava lamp. In the cooler recesses of the lower mantle, spared the full fury of Theia's kinetic onslaught, the iron-rich fragments from Theia remained relatively intact, descending and eventually settling like the colorful wax blobs at the lamp's base. Had the lower mantle absorbed more of the impact's energy, it would have stirred Theia's remnants more homogeneously, like paint swirling to uniformity.

This discovery opens new frontiers in our understanding of Earth's formative years. The early presence of Theia's disparate materials within our planet's bowels may have played a crucial role in shaping its interior workings, potentially influencing phenomena as fundamental as plate tectonics.


As Asimow notes, the antiquity of the LLVPs, if indeed they are relics of Theia, beckons further investigation into their impact on Earth's earliest evolutionary chapters. This entails probing into the precursors of modern plate tectonics, the crafting of the first continents, and the origins of Earth's oldest surviving minerals.

As scientific inquiry marches forward, these findings offer a tantalizing glimpse into our planet's ancient history, a history marked by cosmic collisions and the silent, monumental structures that bear witness to these events deep within Earth's mantle. The story of the LLVPs and Theia is far from over; it has just begun to unfold, challenging us to reimagine the violent and spectacular origins of our world and its celestial companion.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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