Dept. of Edgy Science Grants: Hunting for the Origins of Water on Earth

How our planet became mostly covered in water is an ongoing debate, with competing theories about how and at what point it accumulated. The Keck Foundation, which funds research that often challenges common wisdom, recently awarded $1.5 million toward the question.

We like to check in on the W.M. Keck Foundation from time to time, as its limited number of research grants tend to be sizable and devoted to some fascinating subjects. Aside from its interest in huge telescopes, Keck gives a small number of grants each year in two main categories of Science & Engineering and Medical Research. The funder tends to give chunks of up to $2 million to cutting edge projects that often challenge the current paradigm in a field, or to potentially game-changing research projects in early stages. 


One among the latest round of research grants goes to a persistent question about the early days of our planet—where did all this water come from? The existence of water on planets is at the heart of whether they support life as we know it, but surprisingly, we aren’t that sure about how it accumulated on our own. 

There’s a theory that it’s been here from the very early stages, although how that actually played out is also up for debate since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago. Then there’s the idea that the water smashed into Earth via comets and/or asteroids. 

Molecular science researcher Peter Buseck’s team at Arizona State University received a $1.5 million grant to study this question, pursuing a controversial theory that a significant source of the Earth’s hydrogen came from the early planet’s gas cloud, with large amounts ending up stored in the core. The team has developed novel techniques to simulate the conditions deep within the planet, which will allow them to test the theory for the first time. 

Buseck says the research could advance our knowledge of how gases and water behave on rocky planets, and “have significant consequences for our understanding of planetary habitability.”

While some of Keck’s funding is more down to earth and related to potential applications, particularly in medical research, this grant also aligns with its stargazing tendencies, as searching for deep cosmological secrets is one of the funder's major priorities.

Related: The Philanthropy of Stargazing: We're In a New Golden Age of Mega Telescope Projects