Although the second most abundant element in the cosmos is helium, noble gases are also called rare gases. The reason is that they are not abundant on terrestrial planets like the Earth, which is characterized by orders of magnitude depletion of—particularly light—noble gases when compared to the cosmic element abundance pattern. Indeed, geochemical depletion and enrichment processes mean that noble gases are highly versatile tracers of planetary formation and evolution. When our solar system formed—or even before—small grains and first condensates incorporated small amounts of noble gases from the surrounding gas of solar composition, resulting in depletion of light He and Ne relative to heavy Ar, Kr, and Xe, leading to the “planetary type” abundance pattern. Further noble gas depletion occurred during flash heating of mm- to cm-sized objects (chondrules and calcium, aluminum-rich inclusions), and subsequently during heating—and occasionally differentiation—on small planetesimals, which were precursors of planets. Some of these objects are present today in the asteroid belt and are the source of many meteorites. Many primitive meteorites contain very small (micron to sub-micron size) rare grains that are older than our Solar System and condensed billions of years ago in in the atmospheres of different stars, for example, Red Giant stars. These grains are characterized by nucleosynthetic anomalies, in particular the noble gases, such as so-called s-process xenon.
While planetesimals acquired a depleted noble gas component strongly fractionated in favor of heavy noble gases, the Sun and also gas giants like Jupiter attracted a much larger amount of gas from the protosolar nebula by gravitational capture. This resulted in a cosmic or “solar type” abundance pattern, containing the full complement of light noble gases. In contrast, terrestrial planets accreted from planetesimals with only minor contributions from the gaseous component of the protosolar nebula, which accounts for their high degree of depletion and essentially “planetary” elemental abundance pattern. The strong depletion in noble gases facilitates their application as noble gas geo- and cosmochronometers; chronological applications are based on being able to determine noble gas isotopes formed by radioactive decay processes, for example, 40Ar by 40K decay, 129Xe by 129I decay, or fission Xe from 238U or 244Pu decay. Particularly ingrowth of radiogenic xenon is only possible due to the depletion of primordial nuclides, which allows insight into the chronology of fractionation of lithophile parent nuclides and atmophile noble gas daughters. Applied to large-scale planetary reservoirs, this helps to elucidate the timing of mantle degassing and evolution of planetary atmospheres. Applied to individual rocks and minerals, it allows radioisotope chronology using short-lived (e.g., 129I–129Xe) or long-lived (e.g., 40K–40Ar) systems.
The dominance of 40Ar in the terrestrial atmosphere allowed von Weizsäcker to conclude that most of the terrestrial atmosphere originated by degassing of the solid Earth, which is an ongoing process today at mid-ocean ridges, as indicated by outgassing of primordial helium from newly forming ocean crust. Mantle degassing was much more massive in the past, with most of the terrestrial atmosphere probably formed during the first few 100 million years of Earth’s history, in response to major evolutionary processes of accretion, terrestrial core formation, and the terminal accretion stage of a giant impact that formed our Moon. During accretion, solar noble gases were added to the mantle, presumably by solar wind irradiation of the small planetesimals and dust accreting to form the Earth. While the Moon-forming impact likely dissipated a major fraction of the primordial atmosphere, today’s atmosphere originated by addition of a late veneer of asteroidal and possibly cometary material combined with a decreasing rate of mantle degassing over time. As other atmophile elements behave similarly to noble gases, they also trace the origin of major volatiles on Earth, for example, water, nitrogen, and carbon.