Atmospheric loss in giant impacts depends on pre-impact surface conditions

28 Sep 2023  ·  Simon J. Lock, Sarah T. Stewart ·

Earth likely acquired much of its inventory of volatile elements during the main stage of its formation. Some of Earth's proto-atmosphere must therefore have survived the giant impacts, collisions between planet-sized bodies, that dominate the latter phases of accretion. Here we use a suite of 1D hydrodynamic simulations and impedance match calculations to quantify the effect that pre-impact surface conditions (such as atmospheric pressure and presence of an ocean) have on the efficiency of atmospheric and ocean loss from proto-planets during giant impacts. We find that -- in the absence of an ocean -- lighter, hotter, and lower-pressure atmospheres are more easily lost. The presence of an ocean can significantly increase the efficiency of atmospheric loss compared to the no-ocean case, with a rapid transition between low and high loss regimes as the mass ratio of atmosphere to ocean decreases. However, contrary to previous thinking, the presence of an ocean can also reduce atmospheric loss if the ocean is not sufficiently massive, typically less than a few times the atmospheric mass. Volatile loss due to giant impacts is thus highly sensitive to the surface conditions on the colliding bodies. To allow our results to be combined with 3D impact simulations, we have developed scaling laws that relate loss to the ground velocity and surface conditions. Our results demonstrate that the final volatile budgets of planets are critically dependent on the exact timing and sequence of impacts experienced by their precursor planetary embryos, making atmospheric properties a highly stochastic outcome of accretion.

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