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Article

George J. Flynn

Scattered sunlight from interplanetary dust particles, mostly produced by comets and asteroids, orbiting the Sun are visible at dusk or dawn as the Zodiacal Cloud. Impacts onto the space-exposed surfaces of Earth-orbiting satellites indicate that, in the current era, thousands of tons of interplanetary dust enters the Earth’s atmosphere every year. Some particles vaporize forming meteors while others survive atmospheric deceleration and settle to the surface of the Earth. NASA has collected interplanetary dust particles from the Earth’s stratosphere using high-altitude aircraft since the mid-1970s. Detailed characterization of these particles shows that some are unique samples of Solar System and presolar material, never affected by the aqueous and thermal processing that overprints the record of formation from the Solar Protoplanetary Disk in the meteorites. These particles preserve the record of grain and dust formation from the disk. This record suggests that many of the crystalline minerals, dominated by crystalline silicates (olivine and pyroxene) and Fe-sulfides, condensed from gas in the inner Solar System and were then transported outward to the colder outer Solar System where carbon-bearing ices condensed on the surfaces of the grains. Irradiation by solar ultraviolet light and cosmic rays produced thin organic coatings on the grain surfaces that likely aided in grain sticking, forming the first dust particles of the Solar System. This continuous, planet-wide rain of interplanetary dust particles can be monitored by the accumulation of 3He, implanted into the interplanetary dust particles by the Solar Wind while they were in space, in oceanic sediments. The interplanetary dust, which is rich in organic carbon, may have contributed important pre-biotic organic matter important to the development of life to the surface of the early Earth.

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

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

The formation and evolution of our solar system (and planetary systems around other stars) are among the most challenging and intriguing fields of modern science. As the product of a long history of cosmic matter evolution, this important branch of astrophysics is referred to as stellar-planetary cosmogony. Interdisciplinary by way of its content, it is based on fundamental theoretical concepts and available observational data on the processes of star formation. Modern observational data on stellar evolution, disc formation, and the discovery of extrasolar planets, as well as mechanical and cosmochemical properties of the solar system, place important constraints on the different scenarios developed, each supporting the basic cosmogony concept (as rooted in the Kant-Laplace hypothesis). Basically, the sequence of events includes fragmentation of an original interstellar molecular cloud, emergence of a primordial nebula, and accretion of a protoplanetary gas-dust disk around a parent star, followed by disk instability and break-up into primary solid bodies (planetesimals) and their collisional interactions, eventually forming a planet. Recent decades have seen major advances in the field, due to in-depth theoretical and experimental studies. Such advances have clarified a new scenario, which largely supports simultaneous stellar-planetary formation. Here, the collapse of a protosolar nebula’s inner core gives rise to fusion ignition and star birth with an accretion disc left behind: its continuing evolution resulting ultimately in protoplanets and planetary formation. Astronomical observations have allowed us to resolve in great detail the turbulent structure of gas-dust disks and their dynamics in regard to solar system origin. Indeed radio isotope dating of chondrite meteorite samples has charted the age and the chronology of key processes in the formation of the solar system. Significant progress also has been made in the theoretical study and computer modeling of protoplanetary accretion disk thermal regimes; evaporation/condensation of primordial particles depending on their radial distance, mechanisms of clustering, collisions, and dynamics. However, these breakthroughs are yet insufficient to resolve many problems intrinsically related to planetary cosmogony. Significant new questions also have been posed, which require answers. Of great importance are questions on how contemporary natural conditions appeared on solar system planets: specifically, why the three neighbor inner planets—Earth, Venus, and Mars—reveal different evolutionary paths.