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See Inside June 2010

Earth's Missing Ingredient

The discovery of a novel high-density mineral means that Earth's mantle is a more restless place than scientists suspected—and offers new clues to the planet's history

The deepest hole humans have ever dug reaches 12 kilometers below the ground of Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Although we now have a spacecraft on its way to Pluto—about six billion kilometers away from the sun—we still cannot send a probe into the deep earth. For practical purposes, then, the center of the planet, which lies 6,380 kilometers below us, is farther away than the edge of our solar system. In fact, Pluto was discovered in 1930, and the existence of the earth’s inner core was not established—using seismological data—until six years later.

Still, earth scientists have gained a surprising amount of insight about our planet. We know it is roughly structured like an onion, with the core, mantle and crust forming concentric layers. The mantle constitutes about 85 percent of the earth’s volume, and its slow stirring drives the geologic cataclysms of the crust. This middle domain is mainly a mix of silicon, iron, oxygen, magnesium—each of which appears in roughly the same concentrations throughout the mantle—plus smaller amounts of other elements. But depending on the depth, these elements combine into different types of minerals. Thus, the mantle is itself divided into concentric layers, with different minerals predominating at different depths.

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