Making an Iron Planet: The Case for Repeated Hit and Run Collisions
Abstract:Earth, Venus, Mars and some of the largest asteroids have massive silicate mantles surrounding iron cores, and chondritic compositions. Against this backdrop are anomalies like the iron planet Mercury, and the Moon with almost no core, and metallic asteroids like Psyche. The Moon can be explained by giant impact, but for Mercury a giant impact (Benz et al., Icarus 1988) is problematic. Mercury must retain substantial volatiles after its obliteration (e.g. Peplowski et al., Science 2011), and must somehow avoid accreting its ejected silicates (Gladman and Coffey, MAPS 2009).
SPH simulations have shown (Asphaug and Reufer, Nature Geosciences 2014; Sarid et al., LPSC 2014) that a differentiated chondritic proto-Mercury about 3 times its present mass can be stripped of its mantle in one energetic hit and run collision with a larger planet (proto-Venus or proto-Earth). To preserve Mercury's volatiles we also consider the scenario of lower energy hit and runs, in succession. We show that if 20 Mars-like planets accreted stochastically to form Venus and the Earth, then the statistics of attrition is likely to lead to one planet (Mercury) expressing repeated mantle stripping, and another planet (Mars) relatively undisturbed.
For iron asteroids the "missing mantle paradox" likewise looms prominent. Where does it go, and how do we strip away so much mantle rock (in some cases down to a bare iron core; Yang et al., Nature 2007, Moskovitz et al., EPSL 2011) while leaving asteroids like Vesta presumably intact? According to the hit and run hypothesis, the sink for all this missing silicate is the larger accreted bodies at the top of the feeding chain, as they win the pairwise dynamical competition for stripped materials. This exotic origin of relics is only relevant to those few pairwise encounters that do not accrete both bodies. So the small survivors are lucky, and how they are lucky -- their attrition bias -- is manifested as compositional diversity and a preponderance of iron relics.