- Rainer WielerRainer WielerInstitute for Geochemistry and Petrology, Department of Earth Sciences, ETH Zurich
Cosmogenic nuclides are produced by the interaction of energetic elementary particles of galactic (or solar) cosmic radiation and their secondaries with atomic nuclei in extraterrestrial or terrestrial material. Cosmogenic nuclides usually are observable only for some noble gas isotopes, whose natural abundances in the targets of interest are exceedingly low; some radioactive isotopes with half-lives mostly in the million-year range; and a few stable nuclides of elements, such as Gd and Sm, whose abundance is sizably modified by reactions with low energy secondary cosmic ray neutrons. In solid matter, the mean attenuation length of galactic cosmic ray protons is on the order of 50 cm. Therefore, cosmogenic nuclides are a major tool in studying the history of small objects in space and of matter near the surfaces of larger parent bodies. A classical application is to measure “exposure ages” of meteorites, namely the time they spent as a small body in interplanetary space. In some cases, also the previous history of the future meteorite in its parent-body regolith can be constrained. Such information helps to understand delivery mechanisms of meteorites from their parent asteroids or parent planets and to constrain the number of ejection events responsible for the collected meteorites. Cosmogenic nuclides in lunar samples from known depths of up to ~2 m serve to study the deposition and mixing history of the lunar regolith over hundreds of millions of years, as well as to calibrate nuclide production models. Present and future sample return missions rely on cosmogenic nuclide measurements as important tools to constrain the sample’s exposure history or loss rates of their parent body surfaces to space. The first data from cosmogenic noble gas isotopes measured on the surface of Mars demonstrate that the exposure and erosional history of planetary bodies can be obtained by in-situ analyses. For the foreseeable future, exposure ages of presolar grains in meteorites are presumably the only means to quantitatively constrain their presolar history. In some cases, irradiation effects of energetic particles from the early sun can be detected in early solar system condensates, confirming that the early sun was likely much more active than today, as expected from observations of young stars. The ever-increasing precision of isotope analyses also reveals tiny isotopic anomalies induced by cosmic-ray effects in several elements of interest in cosmochemistry, which need to be recognized and corrected for.
Cosmogenic nuclide studies rely on the knowledge of their production rates, which depend on the elemental composition of a sample and its “shielding” during irradiation, that is, its position within an irradiated object and for meteorites their preatmospheric size. The physics of cosmogenic nuclide production is basically well understood and has led to sophisticated production models. They are most successful if a sample’s shielding can be constrained by the analyses of several cosmogenic nuclides with different depth dependencies of their production rates.
Cosmogenic nuclides are also an important tool in Earth Sciences. The foremost example is 14C produced in the atmosphere and incorporated into organic material, which is used for dating. Cosmogenic radionuclides and noble gases produced in-situ in near surface samples, mostly by secondary cosmic-ray neutrons, are an important tool in quantitative geomorphology and related fields.