You are looking at 61-66 of 66 articles
Angela M. Zalucha and Jason Cook
In addition to ground-based observations beginning in the 1970s, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Triton in 1989, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in 2015. Prior to the flyby of New Horizons, Pluto and Triton were termed “sister worlds” due to what appeared to be a high degree of similarity in solid-body density, surface ices, diameter, and surface pressures. Despite being small, cold, icy bodies, both Pluto and Triton have been found to have atmospheres that behave as a continuous fluid up to 300 km altitude above the surface and thereby have a defined temperature, surface pressure, and global general circulation (wind). The primary constituent of these atmospheres is molecular nitrogen, with methane and carbon monoxide comprising the largest abundances of trace gases. The surface pressure as measured in the 2010s on both worlds is of the order of 10 microbars (1 Pa = 10 µbar), for these exotic atmospheres exchange mass between sublimation of surface ice and deposition of nitrogen over the course of each body’s year. Ground-based stellar occultation measurements observed a dramatic change in surface pressure, which one study found was as much as a factor of two increase between 1988 and 2003 on Pluto, presumably due to Pluto’s seasonal volatile cycle. Voyager 2 observed plumes and surface “streaks” on Triton, while New Horizons observed dunes (indicating wind speeds of 1–10 m s−1) as well as streaks, evidently indicating the presence of surface and near-surface winds.
While wind velocity aloft has not been directly measured on Pluto or Triton, 3-D general circulation modeling studies of both worlds have shown zonal (east–west) wind speeds of the order of 10 m/s, meridional (north–south) wind speeds of the order of 1 m/s, and extremely weak vertical wind speeds.
In 2015, New Horizons showed that Pluto and Triton were much more different than previously thought. New Horizons uncovered many spectacular views of Pluto’s atmosphere. First, while hydrocarbon haze was observed on Triton, Pluto had multiple, very distinct stratified haze layers bearing a similar appearance to the layers of an onion. Second, Pluto’s surface elevation was found to be largely inhomogeneous (in contrast to Triton) in the form of a large depression (Sputnik Planitia). Third, the characteristics of the surface markings on Pluto were found to be different than the streaks observed on Triton, which has implications for surface wind patterns.
Further major discoveries made by New Horizons included evidence for many hydrocarbon species in trace concentrations, a lower than expected surface pressure, which could previously only be indirectly ascertained from ground-based observations, and a higher mixing ratio of methane at higher altitudes than at lower due to gravitational diffusive separation. Using radio occultation experiments (not conducted by Voyager 2 at Triton), New Horizons confirmed the existence of a stratosphere (temperature increasing with height) extending to 25 km altitude at both the entry and exit locations. The entry location had a shallow troposphere (temperature decreasing with height) extending to 3.5 km altitude above the surface, while the exit location did not.
Nicolas Mangold, Jessica Flahaut, and Véronique Ansan
Planetary surface compositions are fundamental to an understanding of both the interior activity through differentiation processes and volcanic activity and the external evolution through alteration processes and accumulations of volatiles. While the Moon has been studied since early on using ground-based instruments and returned samples, observing the surface composition of the terrestrial planets did not become practical until after the development of orbital and in situ missions with instruments tracking mineralogical and elemental variations. The poorly evolved, atmosphere-free bodies like the Moon and Mercury enable the study of the formation of the most primitive crusts, through processes such as the crystallization of a magma ocean, and their volcanic evolution. Nevertheless, recent studies have shown more diversity than initially expected, including the presence of ice in high latitude regions. Because of its heavy atmosphere, Venus remains the most difficult planetary body to study and the most poorly known in regards to its composition, triggering some interest for future missions. In contrast, Mars exploration has generated a huge amount of data in the last two decades, revealing a planet with a mineralogical diversity close to that of the Earth. While Mars crust is dominated by basaltic material, recent studies concluded for significant contributions of more felsic and alkali-rich igneous material, especially in the ancient highlands. These ancient terrains also display widespread outcrops of hydrous minerals, especially phyllosilicates, which are key in the understanding of past climate conditions and suggest a volatile-rich early evolution with implications for exobiology. Recent terrains exhibit a cryosphere with ice-rich landforms at, or close to the surface, of mid- and high latitudes, generating a strong interest for recent climatic variability and resources for future manned missions. While Mars is certainly the planetary body the most similar to Earth, the observation of specific processes such as those linked to interactions with solar wind on atmosphere-free bodies, or with a thick acidic atmosphere on Venus, improve our understanding of the differences in evolution of terrestrial bodies. Future exploration is still necessary to increase humankind’s knowledge and further build a global picture of the formation and evolution of planetary surfaces.
The great rise and diversification of the use of outer space raises the question of the limitations to space activities. The ultimate restriction posed by space law is the use of outer space “for peaceful purposes.” Regardless of the semantic approach one adopts with respect to the definition of the term “peaceful purposes” in the text of the Outer Space Treaty, it is the underlying substantive legal normativity which constitutes the determining factor. The applicable international legal rules confirm that the ultimate limit is the prohibition of the use of force laid down in Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter, which applies to outer space along with the exceptions stipulated in the UN Charter and general international law. In addition, the Outer Space Treaty establishes a particular legal regime on celestial bodies, declaring them a demilitarized zone, and bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Space law, as any other branch of public international law, is of evolutive nature, so future adjustments and developments of its legal normativity in light of the abrupt growth and multiplication of the exploration and uses in the space arena remain open.
During the last three millennia before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples living in the central and southern parts of modern Mexico and the northern part of Central America evolved into complex societies with a number of common characteristics that define the cultural area known as Mesoamerica and are expressed in technology, forms of subsistence, government, architecture, religion, and intellectual achievements, including sophisticated astronomical concepts. For the Aztecs, the Maya, and many other Mesoamerican societies, Venus was one of the most important celestial bodies. Not only were they aware that the brightest “star” appearing in certain periods in the pre-dawn sky was identical to the one that at other times was visible in the evening after sunset; they also acquired quite accurate knowledge about the regularities of the planet’s apparent motion. While Venus was assiduously observed and studied, it also inspired various beliefs, in which its morning and evening manifestations had different attributes. Relevant information is provided by archaeological data, prehispanic manuscripts, early Spanish reports, and ethnographically recorded myths that survive among modern communities as remnants of pre-Conquest tradition.
The best-known is the malevolent aspect of the morning star, whose first appearances after inferior conjunction were believed to inflict harm on nature and humanity in a number of ways. However, the results of recent studies suggest that the prevalent significance of the morning star was of relatively late and foreign origin. The most important aspect of the symbolism of Venus was its conceptual association with rain and maize, in which the evening star had a prominent role. It has also been shown that these beliefs must have been motivated by some observational facts, particularly by the seasonality of evening star extremes, which approximately delimit the rainy season and the agricultural cycle in Mesoamerica. As revealed by different kinds of evidence, including architectural alignments to these phenomena, Venus was one of the celestial agents responsible for the timely arrival of rains, which conditioned a successful agricultural season. The planet also had an important place in the concepts concerning warfare and sacrifice, but this symbolism seems to have been derived from other ideas that characterize Mesoamerican religion. Human sacrifices were believed necessary for securing rain, agricultural fertility, and a proper functioning of the universe in general. Since the captives obtained in battles were the most common sacrificial victims, the military campaigns were religiously sanctioned, and the Venus-rain-maize associations became involved in sacrificial symbolism and warfare ritual. These ideas became a significant component of political ideology, fostered by rulers who exploited them to satisfy their personal ambitions and secular goals. In sum, the whole conceptual complex surrounding the planet Venus in Mesoamerica can be understood in the light of both observational facts and the specific socio-political context.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Asteroids 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta are the two largest asteroids in the asteroid belt, with mean diameters of 946 km and 525 km, respectively. Ceres was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the IAU (International Astronomical Union) as a result of their new dwarf planet definition, which is a body that (a) orbits the sun, (b) has enough mass to assume a nearly round shape, (c) has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a moon. Our understanding of these two bodies has been revolutionized in the last decade by the success of the Dawn mission that visited both bodies. Vesta is an example of a small body that has been heated substantially, and differentiated into a metallic core, silicate mantle, and basaltic crust. Ceres is a volatile-rich rocky body that did not experience significant heating and therefore has only partially differentiated. These two contrasting bodies have been instrumental in learning how inner solar system material formed and evolved.
David A. Rothery
The history of volcanism on Mercury is almost the entire history of the formation of its crust. There are no recognized tracts of intact primary crust analogous to the Moon’s highland crust, probably because the density of Mercury’s iron-poor magma ocean was insufficient to enable crystalized silicate phases to float. Mercury’s surface consists of multiple generations of lavas. These were emplaced, rather like terrestrial “large igneous provinces” or LIPs, in their greatest volumes prior to about 3.5 Ga. Subsequently, erupted volumes decreased, and sites of effusive eruption became largely confined to crater floors. Plains lava surfaces younger than about 3.7 Ga have become scarred by sufficiently few impact craters that they are mapped as “smooth plains.” The older equivalents, which experienced the inner solar system’s “late heavy bombardment,” are mapped as intercrater plains. There is no consensus over whether plains with superimposed-crater characteristics that are intermediate between the smooth plains and intercrater plains end members can be consistently mapped as “intermediate plains.” However, any subdivision of the volcanic plains for mapping purposes arbitrarily splits apart a continuum.
The volcanic nature of Mercury’s smooth plains was ambiguous on the basis of the imagery returned by the first mission to Mercury, Mariner 10, which made three fly-bys in 1974–1975. Better and more complete imaging by MESSENGER (in orbit 2011–2015) removed any doubt by documenting innumerable ghost craters and wrinkle ridges. No source vents for the plains are apparent, but this is normal in LIPs where effusion rate and style characteristically flood the vent beneath its own products. However, there are good examples of broad, flat-bottomed valleys containing streamlined islands suggesting passage of fast-flowing low viscosity lava.
Although the causes of the mantle partial melting events supplying surface eruptions on Mercury are unclear, secular cooling of a small, one-plate planet such as Mercury would be expected to lead to the sort of temporal decrease in volcanic activity that is observed. Factors include loss of primordial heat and declining rate of radiogenic heat production (both of which would make mantle partial melting progressively harder), and thermal contraction of the planet (closing off ascent pathways).
Lava compositions, so far as can be judged from the limited X-ray spectroscopic and other geochemical measurements, appear to be akin to terrestrial komatiites but with very low iron content. Variations within this general theme may reflect heterogeneities in the mantle, or different degrees of partial melting.
The cessation of flood volcanism on Mercury is hard to date, because the sizes of the youngest flows, most of which are inside <200-km craters, are too small for reliable statistics to be derived from the density of superposed craters. However, it probably continued until approximately 1 Ga ago.
That was not the end of volcanism. MESSENGER images have enabled the identification of over a hundred “pits,” which are noncircular holes up to tens of km in size and up to about 4 km deep. Many pits are surrounded by spectrally red deposits, with faint outer edges tens of km from the pit, interpreted as ejecta from explosive eruptions within the pit. Many pits have complex floors, suggesting vent migration over time. Pits usually occur within impact craters, and it has been suggested that crustal fractures below these craters facilitated the ascent of magma despite the compressive regime imposed by the secular thermal contraction. These explosive eruptions must have been driven by the violent expansion of a gas. This could be either a magmatic volatile expanding near the top of a magma conduit, or result from heating of a near-surface volatile by rising magma. MESSENGER showed that Mercury’s crust is surprisingly rich in volatiles (S, Cl, Na, K, C), of which the one likely to be of most importance in driving the explosive eruptions is S.
We do not know when explosive volcanism began on Mercury. Cross-cutting relationships suggest that some explosion pits are considerably less than 1 Ga old, though most could easily be more than 3 Ga. They characteristically occur on top of smooth plains (or less extensive smooth fill of impact craters), and while some pits have no discernible “red spot” around them (perhaps because over time, it has faded into the background), there is no known example of part of a red spot peeping out from beneath the edge of a smooth plains unit. There seems to have been a change in eruptive style over time, with (small volume) explosions supplanting (large volume) effusive events.