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Just as wise men are said to have brought gold to baby Jesus, huge asteroids may have brought gold and other precious metals to infant Earth, new research suggests. Scientists have long known that there's a mysterious amount of siderophile ("iron-loving") metals in Earth's mantle. Such metals, including gold, tend to affiliate with iron in their liquid forms.
The best explanation has been that some sort of space object brought the elements to the planet just after it formed its core, but the exact nature of the impactor has been a matter of debate. Based on computer simulations, the new study says that a small number of enormous, random impacts roughly 4.5 billion years ago are the sources of Earth's iron-loving materials.
These impactors were rocky objects left over from our solar system's planet-formation phase. The largest one that hit Earth was roughly the size of Pluto—up to 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) wide, the study suggests. And young Earth wasn't the only recipient: Cataclysmic collisions delivered iron-loving metals to the moon and Mars around the same time, the study authors say. What's more, the impacts may have been the source of water on the moon.
Moon rocks brought back during the Apollo missions led to the now widely accepted theory that the moon formed when a Mars-size object crashed into early Earth. Energy from the impact would have spurred the still forming Earth to develop its mostly iron core. When this happened, iron-loving metals should have followed molten iron down from the planet's mantle and into the core. But we know that gold and other iron-lovers are found in modest abundances in Earth's mantle.