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Article

Alan E. Rubin and Chi Ma

Meteorites are rocks from outer space that reach the Earth; more than 60,000 have been collected. They are derived mainly from asteroids; a few hundred each are from the Moon and Mars; some micrometeorites derive from comets. By mid 2020, about 470 minerals had been identified in meteorites. In addition to having characteristic petrologic and geochemical properties, each meteorite group has a distinctive set of pre-terrestrial minerals that reflect the myriad processes that the meteorites and their components experienced. These processes include condensation in gaseous envelopes around evolved stars, crystallization in chondrule melts, crystallization in metallic cores, parent-body aqueous alteration, and shock metamorphism. Chondrites are the most abundant meteorites; the major components within them include chondrules, refractory inclusions, opaque assemblages, and fine-grained silicate-rich matrix material. The least-metamorphosed chondrites preserve minerals inherited from the solar nebula such as olivine, enstatite, metallic Fe-Ni, and refractory phases. Other minerals in chondrites formed on their parent asteroids during thermal metamorphism (such as chromite, plagioclase and phosphate), aqueous alteration (such as magnetite and phyllosilicates) and shock metamorphism (such as ringwoodite and majorite). Differentiated meteorites contain minerals formed by crystallization from magmas; these phases include olivine, orthopyroxene, Ca-plagioclase, Ca-pyroxene, metallic Fe-Ni and sulfide. Meteorites also contain minerals formed during passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and via terrestrial weathering after reaching the surface. Whereas some minerals form only by a single process (e.g., by high-pressure shock metamorphism or terrestrial weathering of a primary phase), other meteoritic minerals can form by several different processes, including condensation, crystallization from melts, thermal metamorphism, and aqueous alteration.

Article

Will Grundy

Pluto orbits the Sun at a mean distance of 39.5 AU (astronomical units; 1 AU is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun), with an orbital period of 248 Earth years. Its orbit is just eccentric enough to cross that of Neptune. They never collide thanks to a 2:3 mean-motion resonance: Pluto completes two orbits of the Sun for every three by Neptune. The Pluto system consists of Pluto and its large satellite Charon, plus four small satellites: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are spherical bodies, with diameters of 2,377 and 1,212 km, respectively. They are tidally locked to one another such that each spins about its axis with the same 6.39-day period as their mutual orbit about their common barycenter. Pluto’s surface is dominated by frozen volatiles nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. Their vapor pressure supports an atmosphere with multiple layers of photochemical hazes. Pluto’s equator is marked by a belt of dark red maculae, where the photochemical haze has accumulated over time. Some regions are ancient and cratered, while others are geologically active via processes including sublimation and condensation, glaciation, and eruption of material from the subsurface. The surfaces of the satellites are dominated by water ice. Charon has dark red polar stains produced from chemistry fed by Pluto’s escaping atmosphere. The existence of a planet beyond Neptune had been postulated by Percival Lowell and William Pickering in the early 20th century to account for supposed clustering in comet aphelia and perturbations of the orbit of Uranus. Both lines of evidence turned out to be spurious, but they motivated a series of searches that culminated in Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930 at the observatory Lowell had founded in Arizona. Over subsequent decades, basic facts about Pluto were hard-won through application of technological advances in astronomical instrumentation. During the progression from photographic plates through photoelectric photometers to digital array detectors, space-based telescopes, and ultimately, direct exploration by robotic spacecraft, each revealed more about Pluto. A key breakthrough came in 1978 with the discovery of Charon by Christy and Harrington. Charon’s orbit revealed the mass of the system. Observations of stellar occultations constrained the sizes of Pluto and Charon and enabled the detection of Pluto’s atmosphere in 1988. Spectroscopic instruments revealed Pluto’s volatile ices. In a series of mutual events from 1985 through 1990, Pluto and Charon alternated in passing in front of the other as seen from Earth. Observations of these events provided additional constraints on their sizes and albedo patterns and revealed their distinct compositions. The Hubble Space Telescope’s vantage above Earth’s atmosphere enabled further mapping of Pluto’s albedo patterns and the discovery of the small satellites. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew through the system in 2015. Its instruments mapped the diversity and compositions of geological features on Pluto and Charon and provided detailed information on Pluto’s atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind.

Article

Larry W. Esposito

Saturn’s rings are not only a beautiful and enduring symbol of space, but astronomers’ best local laboratory for studying phenomena in thin cosmic disks like those where planets formed. All the giant planets have ring systems. Saturn’s are the biggest and brightest. Saturn’s rings are made of innumerable icy particles, ranging from the size of dust to that of football stadiums. Galileo discovered Saturn’s rings with his newly invented telescope, but they were not explained until Huygens described them as thin, flat disks surrounding the planet. In the space age, rings were found around the other giant planets in our solar system. Rings have been seen around asteroids and likely exist around exoplanets. Many of the ring structures seen are created by gravity from Saturn’s moons. Rings show both ongoing aggregation and disaggregation. After decades of study from space and by theoretical analysis, some puzzles still remain unexplained. There is evidence for youthful rings from Cassini results, but no good theory to explain their recent origin. A future Saturn Ring Observer mission would be able to determine the direct connections between the individual ring physical properties and the origin and evolution of larger structures.

Article

Earth’s moon, hereafter referred to as “the Moon,” has been an object of intense study since before the time of the Apollo and Luna missions to the lunar surface and associated sample returns. As a differentiated rocky body and as Earth’s companion in the solar system, much study has been given to aspects such as the Moon’s surface characteristics, composition, interior, geologic history, origin, and what it records about the early history of the Earth-Moon system and the evolution of differentiated rocky bodies in the solar system. Much of the Apollo and post-Apollo knowledge came from surface geologic exploration, remote sensing, and extensive studies of the lunar samples. After a hiatus of nearly two decades following the end of Apollo and Luna missions, a new era of lunar exploration began with a series of orbital missions, including missions designed to prepare the way for longer duration human use and further exploration of the Moon. Participation in these missions has become international. The more recent missions have provided global context and have investigated composition, mineralogy, topography, gravity, tectonics, thermal evolution of the interior, thermal and radiation environments at the surface, exosphere composition and phenomena, and characteristics of the poles with their permanently shaded cold-trap environments. New samples were recognized as a class of achondrite meteorites, shown through geochemical and mineralogical similarities to have originated on the Moon. New sample-based studies with ever-improving analytical techniques and approaches have also led to significant discoveries such as the determination of volatile contents, including intrinsic H contents of lunar minerals and glasses. The Moon preserves a record of the impact history of the solar system, and new developments in timing of events, sample based and model based, are leading to a new reckoning of planetary chronology and the events that occurred in the early solar system. The new data provide the grist to test models of formation of the Moon and its early differentiation, and its thermal and volcanic evolution. Thought to have been born of a giant impact into early Earth, new data are providing key constraints on timing and process. The new data are also being used to test hypotheses and work out details such as for the magma ocean concept, the possible existence of an early magnetic field generated by a core dynamo, the effects of intense asteroidal and cometary bombardment during the first 500 million–600 million years, sequestration of volatile compounds at the poles, volcanism through time, including new information about the youngest volcanism on the Moon, and the formation and degradation processes of impact craters, so well preserved on the Moon. The Moon is a natural laboratory and cornerstone for understanding many processes operating in the space environment of the Earth and Moon, now and in the past, and of the geologic processes that have affected the planets through time. The Moon is a destination for further human exploration and activity, including use of valuable resources in space. It behooves humanity to learn as much about Earth’s nearest neighbor in space as possible.

Article

Bryan J. Holler

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially recognizes five objects as dwarf planets: Ceres in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake in the trans-Neptunian region beyond the orbit of Neptune. However, the definition used by the IAU applies to many other trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) and can be summarized as follows: Any non-satellite large enough to be rounded by its own gravity. Practically speaking, this means any non-satellite with a diameter larger than 400 km. In the trans-Neptunian region, there are more than 150 objects that satisfy this definition, based on published results and diameter estimates. The dynamical structure of the trans-Neptunian region records the history of the migration of the giant planets in the early days of the solar system. The semi-major axes, eccentricities, and orbital inclinations of TNOs across various dynamical classes provide constraints on different aspects of planetary migration. For many TNOs, the orbital parameters are all that is known about them, due to their large distances, small sizes, and low albedos. The TNO dwarf planets are a different story. These objects are large enough to be studied in more detail from ground- and space-based observatories. Imaging observations can be used to detect satellites and measure surface colors, while spectroscopy can be used to constrain surface composition. In this way, TNO dwarf planets not only help provide context for the dynamical evolution of the outer solar system, but also reveal the composition of the primordial solar nebula as well as the physical and chemical processes at work at very cold temperatures. The largest TNO dwarf planets, those officially recognized by the IAU, plus others like Sedna, Quaoar, and Gonggong, are large enough to support volatile ices on their surfaces in the present day. These ices are able to exist as solids and gases on some TNOs, due to their sizes and surface temperatures (similar to water on Earth) and include N2 (nitrogen), CH4 (methane), and CO (carbon monoxide). A global atmosphere composed of these three species has been detected around Pluto, the largest TNO dwarf planet, with the possibility of local atmospheres or global atmospheres at perihelion for Eris and Makemake. The presence of non-volatile species, such as H2O (water), NH3 (ammonia), and complex hydrocarbons, provides valuable information on objects that may be too small to retain volatile ices over the age of the solar system. In particular, large quantities of H2O mixed with NH3 point to ancient cryovolcanism caused by internal differentiation of ice from rock. Complex hydrocarbons, formed through radiation processing of surface ices, such as CH4, record the radiation histories of these objects and provide clues to their primordial surface compositions. The dynamical, physical, and chemical diversity of the more than 150 TNO dwarf planets are key to understanding the formation of the solar system and its subsequent evolution to its current state. Most of our knowledge comes from a small handful of objects, but we are continually expanding our horizons as additional objects are studied in more detail.