Was there ever a time before time

The beginnings of the earth

We would not recognize the earth immediately after its formation. It was an extremely uncomfortable planet: there were neither continents nor oceans, but a seething surface of glowing hot, viscous magma. Why couldn't the earth's crust form for a long time?

A good 4.5 billion years ago comets, asteroids, gas and dust condensed to form our planet. Its own gravity pressed these individual parts together so that they were subjected to strong pressure. This pressure was of course highest in the earth's core, on which the weight of the entire outer layers weighed. As a result of the high pressure, the rock was heated up and melted. Outwardly, the pressure and thus also the temperature became less. Even so, the surface of the earth remained very hot for several hundred million years and could not cool down and solidify.

In order to understand the reason for this, the scientists had to look at the moon: Ancient lunar craters from the time the solar system was formed tell us that the moon was hit by numerous meteorites when it was young. It is therefore assumed that the earth was also exposed to a real rock bombardment from space at the same time. The lumps fell to the earth at high speed - and the impacts were correspondingly violent: Even lumps of a few hundred tons could easily cause an explosion the strength of an atomic bomb!

So the earth's surface continued to heat up for a long time, stirred up again and again and remained so fluid. Only when the impacts gradually subsided after a few hundred million years did the temperatures on the earth's surface drop. The rock could slowly solidify and form an earth crust that became thicker and thicker over the course of millions of years. But to this day it is only a very thin layer that floats on a viscous, hot interior of the earth.

The geological ages

The earth has changed a lot since its formation: mountains, seas and continents have arisen and passed, animal and plant species have spread and become extinct. Most of these changes happened very slowly, over many millions of years. But every now and then there were decisive events: within a few thousand years the environmental conditions changed drastically.

For the scientists studying the history of the earth, these drastic changes are like a new chapter in a book: they divide the earth's history into different sections, the Eons to be named.

At the beginning, 4.5 billion years ago, the earth was completely uninhabitable. It emerged as a hot ball of glowing molten rock, surrounded by hot, caustic and poisonous gases. That sounds like a description of hell - and the name of this time comes from the Greek word "Hades" for hell: Hadaikum. It ended about four billion years ago with the first big change: The earth had cooled down so much that the surface became solid - the earth got a crust.

The earth continued to cool, so that liquid water could collect on the crust: seas were formed. And life began in these seas around 3.8 billion years ago - but initially only in the form of the simplest bacteria. The Greek word for origin or beginning is in the name of this time: Archean. An important climate change about 2.5 billion years ago marked the transition to the next epoch: primitive living things began to influence the environment. They produced oxygen that was previously almost completely absent from the atmosphere.

The early unicellular life forms became more complex over time, they formed cell nuclei. Later, some began to work together on a permanent basis in alliances - this ultimately resulted in the first multicellular organisms. However, they did not yet have solid shells or skeletons, so that hardly any fossils have survived from this period. This epoch owes its name to this time before the fossils were formed: Proterozoic.

The Proterozoic ended with an explosion of life 550 million years ago: within a short period of time, the primitive forms of life developed into an enormous biodiversity. These species were built much more complex - and some already had hard shells, which were first preserved as fossils. Therefore, the history of life only becomes really visible to scientists from this point in time. And this epoch is named after the Greek term for "visible": Phanerozoic.

This age of life has lasted for 550 million years until today. However, life did not develop evenly either: After the explosive spread of life, there were two devastating mass extinctions. These mark further important turning points in the history of the earth, so that scientists divide the age of life, the Phanerozoic, into three sections, Eras called, divide.

The oldest era of the Phanerozoic began 550 million years ago with the mass emergence of new species. They are called that Antiquity or Paleozoic. At first life only took place in the oceans. Then the plants colonized the land, later the animal world followed suit: first the amphibians developed, which could already feel their way a little on land, and finally also reptiles, which became independent of the water and conquered the land. The ancient world ended about 251 million years ago with the greatest mass extinction of all time: Over 90 percent of all animal and plant species died out, especially in the oceans. The reason has not yet been finally clarified. Scientists suspect that an ice age was to blame, possibly as a result of a meteorite impact.

When the surviving animal and plant species had to get used to their new environment, it broke Earth Middle Ages or Mesozoic at. It is primarily the age of the dinosaurs: giant lizards evolved and ruled life for almost 200 million years. But the Middle Ages also ended with a decisive event: about 65 million years ago a large meteorite hit the earth. So much dust and ash was thrown into the air that the sky darkened and the climate changed for a long time. The dinosaurs and many other species became extinct.

Small mammals in particular benefited from this, as they were best able to adapt to climate change. They had already developed in the Mesozoic, but remained in the shadow of the dinosaurs. Now they were able to spread rapidly, conquer the most varied of habitats and keep developing. Humans also descend from this group. This most recent age continues to this day and therefore becomes the Earth New Age or Cenozoic called.

This rough division of the earth's history is based on very drastic changes in life: explosive multiplication or mass extinction. In between, however, there were further upheavals due to various other influences - changes in the seas and continents due to continental drift, climate change between ice ages and warm periods, the composition of the air and much more. The new conditions always favored individual species and disadvantaged others. So the three sections of the Phanerozoic (Age of Life) can each be divided into several periods.

What is our solar system and how did it come about?

The earth is not alone in space: people have been observing the sun, moon and stars in the sky for a long time. They discovered early on that some stars are moving. These wandering stars were observed and their paths followed. But for a long time they did not understand their movements - until about five hundred years ago a man by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus solved the riddle: The earth and the "wandering stars" are actually planets that all orbit the sun at different distances.

Today we know eight planets. To remember their names in the correct order, the first letters of the sentence "M.a V.ater eclarifies mir jEden S.monday uurens Nachthimmel. “- or in short: M-V-E-M-J-S-U-N.

M.Erkur is the planet that orbits closest to the sun. Then come V.enus, E.rde and M.ars. These four inner planets have a solid surface made of rock and are still relatively close to the sun - only a few hundred million kilometers.

They are circling further out, at a distance of about one to 4.5 billion kilometers from the sun outer planets: Jupiter, S.aturn with his rings, Uranus and all the way outside Neptun. They are made of gas (mostly hydrogen and helium) and are much larger than the inner planets. Jupiter and Saturn are about ten times the size of the earth, that's why they are also called that Gas giants.

And finally there are asteroids, comets, and clouds of dust that also orbit the sun. The gravitational pull of the sun holds all these heavenly bodies together and forces them to fly in a circle like on a long line. Everything together is called that Solar system. The moons are one of them - but they are held in place by the gravitational pull of the planets.

But why does the sun even have planets? This has to do with how the sun came into being: a cloud of gas and dust contracted by its own gravity and became a star. But not all of the material in this cloud was "built into" the star - around one percent was left over. And when the sun began to shine, the radiation pushed the remaining matter outwards again.

The light gases were pushed far outwards, the heavier dust and rocks remained close to the sun. From these clouds of dust and gas, the planets emerged over time. Therefore there are the gas planets outside in the solar system, further inside the rock planets - including our earth - and in the very center the sun. It contains 99% of the mass of the solar system and holds everything together with its gravity.

What are asteroids, meteorites and comets?

On some nights you can observe a special moment in the sky: it looks like a star is falling from the sky. Superstitious people even think that whoever sees such a shooting star could wish for something. But what is really behind it and where do the shooting stars come from?

In our solar system there are not only the sun, planets and moons. Many small pieces of rock and metal have also been discovered. They are much smaller and not as nicely round as planets, hence they are called minor planets or Asteroids. Like their big siblings, they circle the sun in regular orbits. Most asteroids can be found in the "asteroid belt" between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Every now and then two of these asteroids collide. A crash like this creates a lot of debris and splinters. These fly away from the previous orbit, across the solar system. Some of them get close to the earth, are attracted to it and fall to the earth. These falling chunks are also called meteorite.

On earth they would literally fall like a stone from the sky - if it weren't for the atmosphere. Because the meteorites are so fast that the air cannot move to the side quickly enough. The air in front of the falling rock is compressed and therefore extremely hot. The air begins to glow and the meteorite begins to evaporate. We can then see that as a shining streak that moves across the sky - a shooting star.

Most meteorites are so small that they burn up completely as they travel through the air. The trail then simply ends in the sky. Larger debris also lose mass on the way, but does not completely evaporate. They reach the ground and strike there.

What these meteorites do to Earth depends on how big they are. Small meteorites a few centimeters in diameter, for example, just leave a dent in a car roof.

The largest known meteorite hit about 65 million years ago. It was several kilometers in diameter and tore a crater 180 kilometers in diameter. The impact threw so much dust into the air that the sun was eclipsed for hundreds of years. As a result, plants and animals all over the world died out - this was the end of the dinosaurs.

Fortunately, such large meteorites are very rare so we don't have to worry. In addition, unlike the dinosaurs, we can observe the sky with telescopes and discover such large asteroids long before the impact.

While a shooting star burns up in a few seconds, another phenomenon remains visible longer: Comets with its tail there are days or weeks in the sky. In the past, people also attributed many properties to them - as divine signs, heralds of calamity or harbingers of happy events. But the truth is a little less spectacular.

Astronomers also call comets "dirty snowballs". They come from the outer solar system, far from the warming power of the sun. It's so cold there that water immediately freezes to ice. This is how lumps of ice and dust form - dirty snowballs.

Even a comet initially travels far away from the sun - until it is deflected by a collision and flies in the direction of the inner solar system. It gets closer to the sun and over time receives more and more light and warmth. This will cause the frozen surface to begin to thaw and even to evaporate. This creates an envelope of water vapor and dust around the comet.

At the same time, the comet gets to feel the “solar wind” - tiny particles that fly out of the sun at high speed. They hit the comet's vapor envelope. This will blow away the comet's vapor envelope, creating an elongated cloud that points away from the sun. When this cloud is then hit by sunlight, it appears as a glowing streak - the comet's tail.

The comet makes an arc around the sun and then moves away again. When it is far enough away from the sun, thawing and evaporation will also stop. The tail disappears and the comet moves like a dirty snowball through the vastness of the outer solar system. Depending on the comet's orbit, it will take many decades or even centuries before it comes close to the sun again.

Why is the earth round?

“What happens if you keep going in the same direction? Will one come to the edge of the world at some point or is the world infinitely large? ”More than 2300 years ago, the famous Greek scientist Aristotle was certain: Neither one nor the other. Because the earth is not flat like a disk, but a sphere - but why?

To understand this, one has to go back to the time when the earth was created. The force that was responsible for this is gravity - all massive objects attract each other. This force made chunks of rock collide and combine to form a planet. And it gave shape to the planet. Because gravity acts equally strong in all directions.

Since the earth was hot and liquid at the beginning, the material was able to flow into the shape dictated by gravity. If a piece of earth protruded further out, it was attracted by the rest until the surface was smooth and the same force of gravity was acting in all places. And since the force of gravity is the same in all directions, the shape of a sphere was created automatically - because only with a sphere are all points on its surface equidistant from the center of gravity.

But if you take a closer look at the shape of the earth, you will see that the earth is not a perfect sphere: it is slightly flattened at its poles and somewhat bulbous at the equator.

The earth's rotation is to blame for this: the earth rotates once around its axis in the course of 24 hours. The rotary movement creates a force, the centrifugal force. We know this from the chain carousel when we fly outwards on the swings. In the case of the earth, centrifugal force causes the rock masses to slide outwards a little from the axis of rotation, i.e. from the poles towards the equator. There, the diameter of the earth is around 41 kilometers larger than between the north and south poles.

Why is the earth warm inside?

The liquid interior of the earth bubbles under our feet. Volcanic eruptions and geysers show the heat there - over 6000 degrees Celsius in the earth's core. But why is it so hot in the earth?

Much of the heat comes from Earth's childhood days when dust and rocks condensed into a planet. The word “condense” sounds a little too harmless, however: In reality, you have to imagine how many large meteorite impacts - each impact a gigantic explosion that heated up the young planet and melted the material.

Since then it has become a little quieter and the earth is cooling down again.However, it does this extremely slowly, the heat in the interior of the earth can only very slowly escape into space. Hot magma flows in the tough earth mantle transport the heat upwards. There it remains enclosed under the rigid earth's crust as if under a lid. The crustal rock only slowly releases its heat into space.

In addition, heat is still being produced inside the earth. This is because the core of the earth contains a lot of radioactive substances such as uranium. Since the formation of our planet, they have been disintegrating and giving off heat over a very long period of time. This “fuel” will last for billions of years.

How did life come about?

The origin of life on earth has long been puzzled. It is known that simple bacteria developed as early as 3.8 billion years ago. But how was that possible - can life just come into being?

A student named Stanley Miller had an idea in 1953: He wanted to simulate the environmental conditions on earth in an experiment around 3.8 billion years ago. To do this, he filled a glass flask with water and some gases that were probably components of the primordial atmosphere: ammonia, methane and hydrogen. In this gas mixture he ignited electrical discharges in order to simulate the lightning bolts of the thunderstorms of that time. The water should replicate the natural water cycle. There was also a heater where the water evaporated and a cooling coil where it condensed again.

Miller ran this experiment for several days and then examined the water. In it he found a certain kind of chemical compound: amino acids, an important part of the cells of all living things. Miller had shown that the building blocks of life can be created from simple gases.

This is why scientists today assume that the gases in the primordial atmosphere also reacted to form organic substances in a similar way. Rain washed them into the sea, and high concentrations could accumulate, especially in shallow waters. Whether through aggressive sunbeams or lightning - the particles must have reacted with one another over and over again. A random combination of molecules then had a special property for the first time: It was able to reproduce itself - the beginning of life.