Debate continues about many issues concerning the evolution of the Earth. These issues include the degree of outgassing, the cooling of the planet, the heterogeneity of the mantle, the conditions necessary for plate tectonics, continental growth and crustal recycling, the creation and persistence of stable continental cratons, and the generation of the magnetic field. In the face of this array of questions, it would help greatly to have at least one other planet to use for comparison.
The planet Venus differs less than 20 percent from the Earth in mass; in mean density; and, as far as can be detected, in content of chemically active volatiles. Yet in secondary properties related to its interior, it is very different from the Earth. Radar imagery from the recent Magellan probe reveals a planet surface scarred by volcanic activity and bombardment from space, as well as deformation, but plate motions are not evident and the mountain-building processes contrast greatly with those of the Earth. Faults can be traced, and broad elliptical areas spanning hundreds of kilometers may represent mantle plumes rising beneath the Venerian lithosphere. With no apparent plate tectonics, heat may have to escape from deep within Venus in other ways. The comparative study has just begun, and it should be greatly enhanced by continuing analyses of data from the Magellan project.
Obviously, any extraterrestrial impact capable of creating the Moon would have major consequences for the early evolution of the Earth. Computer simulations of giant impacts indicate that the energy released is sufficient to raise the temperature of the whole Earth by 3000 to 10000°C—more than enough to cause total melting of the planet.
Recent advances in high-pressure instrumentation have made possible studies of phase equilibria and element partitioning at pressures as high as 500 Gigapascals—5 million times atmospheric pressure—and temperatures up to 6000°C. These new limits allow experimental analyses over pressure and temperature ranges covering the entire interior of the Earth. In the next decade, integration of high-pressure experimental studies of earth materials and enhanced theoretical understanding of the dynamic behavior of the planet should provide dramatic advances in understanding these earliest stages of the Earth's evolution.
A hot early Earth accommodates speculations about formation of the Earth's large iron-metal core. Compared to the silicate minerals that make up the major portion of Earth, iron metal has a relatively low melting point. During the growth of the early Earth, the molten iron coalesced into masses of increasing size that eventually began to sink toward the center because of their high densities. The excess heat energy stored in the core is released slowly as the molten core crystallizes. At the present time, only about 5 percent of the core has crystallized, which indicates that continued crystallization of the liquid outer core may be a significant source of heat within the Earth. In addition, the heat released as the outer core crystallizes, and the transfer of that heat into the overlying mantle may provide the driving force for the convection in the outer core that is responsible for producing the magnetic field.
During their early histories, the Earth and Moon were subject to a high flux of relatively large impactors. Because the Earth is an active planet, no record of this flux is recorded, but evidence from the Moon suggests that the flux had died away by about the time of preservation of the oldest rocks exposed on Earth. The discovery of high iridium contents in some rocks a few hundred-million-years younger than the 3.8-billion-year age usually considered to mark a sharp drop in impactor flux indicates that this question may need reexamination.
Since that time in the earliest recorded history of the Earth, the flux of impactors has been slow, although the record of impacts is too poor to show whether it has been anything other than steady. Roughly 100 craters more than 1 km in diameter have been identified on the continents. The precise count depends on which criteria are regarded as strong evidence of impact. Some impacts are as old as 2-billion-years, and the largest craters are 100 km or more across, perhaps indicating the impact of a 10-km-diameter object. Both asteroids and comets are likely to have been involved.
The distribution, characteristics, and possible consequences of impact in the more recent geological record are all active topics of research. The innovative suggestion about a decade ago that the great biological extinction 66-million-years ago, which included extermination of the dinosaurs, resulted from impact has proved very stimulating. Evidence of impact at that time in the form of widespread high iridium concentrations, shocked quartz, and wildfire is persuasive. The giant crater at Chixulub in Yucatan is a strong candidate for the main impact. The possibility that other large craters, such as that at Manson in Iowa, are associated