Flash heating on the early earth

James R. Lyons, Ashwin R. Vasavada

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


It has been suggested that very large impact events (~ 500 km diameter impactors) sterilized the surface of the young Earth by producing enough rock vapor to boil the oceans. Here, we consider surface heating due to smaller impactors, and demonstrate that surface temperatures conducive to organic synthesis resulted. In particular, we focus on the synthesis of thermal peptides. Previously, laboratory experiments have demonstrated that dry heating a mixture of amino acids containing excess Asp, Glu, or Lys to temperatures ~ 170 °C for ~ 2 hours yields polypeptides. It has been argued that such temperature conditions would not have been available on the early Earth. Here we demonstrate, by analogy with the K/T impact, that the requisite temperatures are achieved on sand surfaces during the atmospheric reentry of fine ejecta particles produced by impacts of bolides ~10-20 km in diameter, assuming ~ 1 - 100 PAL CO2. Impactors of this size struck the Earth with a frequency of ~ 1 per 104 - 105 y at 4.2 Ga. Smaller bolides produced negligible global surface heating, whereas bolides > 30 km in diameter yielded solid surface temperatures > 1000 K, high enough to pyrolyze amino acids and other organic compounds. Thus, peptide formation would have occurred globally for a relatively narrow range of bolide sizes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-138
Number of pages16
JournalOrigins of life and evolution of the biosphere
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Flash heating on the early earth'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this