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Philos Trans A Math Phys Eng Sci. 2008 Nov 28;366(1883):4205-38. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2008.0111.

Collisional erosion and the non-chondritic composition of the terrestrial planets.

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  • 1Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.


The compositional variations among the chondrites inform us about cosmochemical fractionation processes during condensation and aggregation of solid matter from the solar nebula. These fractionations include: (i) variable Mg-Si-RLE ratios (RLE: refractory lithophile element), (ii) depletions in elements more volatile than Mg, (iii) a cosmochemical metal-silicate fractionation, and (iv) variations in oxidation state. Moon- to Mars-sized planetary bodies, formed by rapid accretion of chondrite-like planetesimals in local feeding zones within 106 years, may exhibit some of these chemical variations. However, the next stage of planetary accretion is the growth of the terrestrial planets from approximately 102 embryos sourced across wide heliocentric distances, involving energetic collisions, in which material may be lost from a growing planet as well as gained. While this may result in averaging out of the 'chondritic' fractionations, it introduces two non-chondritic chemical fractionation processes: post-nebular volatilization and preferential collisional erosion. In the latter, geochemically enriched crust formed previously is preferentially lost. That post-nebular volatilization was widespread is demonstrated by the non-chondritic Mn/Na ratio in all the small, differentiated, rocky bodies for which we have basaltic samples, including the Moon and Mars. The bulk silicate Earth (BSE) has chondritic Mn/Na, but shows several other compositional features in its pattern of depletion of volatile elements suggestive of non-chondritic fractionation. The whole-Earth Fe/Mg ratio is 2.1+/-0.1, significantly greater than the solar ratio of 1.9+/-0.1, implying net collisional erosion of approximately 10 per cent silicate relative to metal during the Earth's accretion. If this collisional erosion preferentially removed differentiated crust, the assumption of chondritic ratios among all RLEs in the BSE would not be valid, with the BSE depleted in elements according to their geochemical incompatibility. In the extreme case, the Earth would only have half the chondritic abundances of the highly incompatible, heat-producing elements Th, U and K. Such an Earth model resolves several geochemical paradoxes: the depleted mantle occupies the whole mantle, is completely outgassed in (40)Ar and produces the observed (4)He flux through the ocean basins. But the lower radiogenic heat production exacerbates the discrepancy with heat loss.

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