Cometary delivery of organic molecules to the early Earth

Christopher F. Chyba, Paul J. Thomas, Leigh Brookshaw, Carl Sagan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

476 Scopus citations


It has long been speculated that Earth accreted prebiotic organic molecules important for the origins of life from impacts of carbonaceous asteroids and comets during the period of heavy bombardment 4.5 × 109 to 3.8 × 109 years ago. A comprehensive treatment of cometasteroid interaction with the atmosphere, surface impact, and resulting organic pyrolysis demonstrates that organics will not survive impacts at velocities greater than about 10 kilometers per second and that even comets and asteroids as small as 100 meters in radius cannot be aerobraked to below this velocity in 1-bar atmospheres. However, for plausible dense (10-bar carbon dioxide) early atmospheres, we find that 4.5 × 109 years ago Earth was accreting intact cometary organics at a rate of at least ∼106 to 107 kilograms per year, a flux that thereafter declined with a half-life of ∼108 years. These results may be put in context by comparison with terrestrial oceanic and total biomasses, ∼3 × 1012 kilograms and ∼6 × 1014 kilograms, respectively.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)366-373
Number of pages8
Issue number4967
StatePublished - Jul 27 1990
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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