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Thermal Physics of Cometary Nuclei  

Dina Prialnik

Cometary nuclei, as small, spinning, ice-rich objects revolving around the sun in eccentric orbits, are powered and activated by solar radiation. Far from the sun, most of the solar energy is reradiated as thermal emission, whereas close to the sun, it is absorbed by sublimation of ice. Only a small fraction of the solar energy is conducted into the nucleus interior. The rate of heat conduction determines how deep and how fast this energy is dissipated. The conductivity of cometary nuclei, which depends on their composition and porosity, is estimated based on vastly different models ranging from very simple to extremely complex. The characteristic response to heating is determined by the skin depth, the thermal inertia, and the thermal diffusion timescale, which depend on the comet’s structure and dynamics. Internal heat sources include the temperature-dependent crystallization of amorphous water ice, which becomes important at temperatures above about 130 K; occurs in spurts; and releases volatiles trapped in the ice. These, in turn, contribute to heat transfer by advection and by phase transitions. Radiogenic heating resulting from the decay of short-lived unstable nuclei such as 26Al heats the nucleus shortly after formation and may lead to compositional alterations. The thermal evolution of the nucleus is described by thermo-physical models that solve mass and energy conservation equations in various geometries, sometimes very complicated, taking into account self-heating. Solutions are compared with actual measurements from spacecraft, mainly during the Rosetta mission, to deduce the thermal properties of the nucleus and decipher its activity pattern.

Article

Trans-Neptunian Dwarf Planets  

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.

Article

Vesta and Ceres  

Kevin Righter

Asteroids 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta are the two most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt, with mean diameters of 946 km and 525 km, respectively. Ceres was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union as a result of its 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. Scientists’ understanding of these two bodies has been revolutionized in the past 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 experienced less heating than Vesta and has differentiated into rock and ice. These two contrasting bodies have been instrumental in learning how inner solar system material formed and evolved.

Article

Water Ice Permafrost on Mars and on the Moon  

Maxim Litvak and Anton Sanin

The Moon and Mars are the most explored planetary bodies in the solar system. For the more than 60 years of the space era, dozens of science robotic missions have explored the Moon and Mars. The primary scientific goal for many of these missions was declared to be a search for surface or ground water/water ice and gaining an understanding of its distribution and origin. Today, for the Moon, the focus of scientific exploration has moved to the lunar polar regions and permanently shadowed regions (PSRs). PSRs do not receive any direct sunlight and are frozen at very low temperatures (< 120 K), acting as cold traps. They are considered to be a storehouse that preserves records of the solar system’s evolution by trapping water ice and potentially other volatile deposits brought by comets and asteroids over billions of years. For Mars, the water/water ice search was part of an attempt to find traces of ancient extraterrestrial life and possibly to understand how life appeared on Earth. Current Mars is cold and dry, but its high latitudes and some equatorial regions are enriched with surface and subsurface water ice. Scientists argue that oceans could have existed on ancient Mars if it was warm and wet and that different life forms could have originated similar to Earth’s. If this is the case, then biomarkers could be preserved in the Martian ground ice depositions. Another popular idea that ties water ice permafrost on the Moon and Mars is related to the expected future human expansion to deep space. The Moon and Mars are widely considered to be the first destinations for future manned space-colony missions or even space-colony missions. In this scenario, the long-term presence and survival of astronauts on the lunar or Martian surface strongly depend on in situ resource utilization (ISRU). Water ice is at the top of the ISRU list because it could be used as water for astronauts’ needs. Its constituents, oxygen and hydrogen, could be used for breathing and for rocket fuel production, respectively. The Moon is the closest body to Earth and discussion about presence of water ice on the Moon has both scientific and practical interest, especially for planning manned space missions. The focus further in space is on how subsurface water ice is distributed on Mars. A related topic is the debates about whether ancient Mars was wet and warm or if, for most of its history, the Martian surface was covered with glaciers. Finally, there are fundamental questions that should be answered by upcoming Mars and Moon missions.