61-80 of 138 Results

Article

Mantle Convection in Terrestrial Planets  

Elvira Mulyukova and David Bercovici

All the rocky planets in our solar system, including the Earth, initially formed much hotter than their surroundings and have since been cooling to space for billions of years. The resulting heat released from planetary interiors powers convective flow in the mantle. The mantle is often the most voluminous and/or stiffest part of a planet and therefore acts as the bottleneck for heat transport, thus dictating the rate at which a planet cools. Mantle flow drives geological activity that modifies planetary surfaces through processes such as volcanism, orogenesis, and rifting. On Earth, the major convective currents in the mantle are identified as hot upwellings such as mantle plumes, cold sinking slabs, and the motion of tectonic plates at the surface. On other terrestrial planets in our solar system, mantle flow is mostly concealed beneath a rocky surface that remains stagnant for relatively long periods. Even though such planetary surfaces do not participate in convective circulation, they deform in response to the underlying mantle currents, forming geological features such as coronae, volcanic lava flows, and wrinkle ridges. Moreover, the exchange of material between the interior and surface, for example through melting and volcanism, is a consequence of mantle circulation and continuously modifies the composition of the mantle and the overlying crust. Mantle convection governs the geological activity and the thermal and chemical evolution of terrestrial planets and understanding the physical processes of convection helps us reconstruct histories of planets over billions of years after their formation.

Article

Mars Atmospheric Entry, Descent, and Landing: An Atmospheric Perspective  

Michael Mischna

Beginning in the very earliest years of the space age, a flotilla of robotic explorers have been sent to study Mars—first simply to fly by, then to orbit, and, later, to attempt landing on the surface. For these landers, separating the rapidly approaching spacecraft from the surface is little but a tenuous carbon dioxide atmosphere, too thin to be useful but too thick to ignore. The purpose of the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) process is to take these hypersonic spacecraft through the approximately 6 mb atmosphere and place them safely on the Martian surface. The sequence of steps required to progressively slow and control this descending spacecraft has been honed throughout the decades but follows the same basic approach. A period of frictional deceleration during the entry phase of EDL first slows the spacecraft to a point where a supersonic parachute can be deployed to further slow the spacecraft during its descent phase. Whether a spacecraft is following a ballistic or a guided entry determines the need to control the downrange motion of the spacecraft during the entry phase, providing more or less targeting accuracy, at the expense of EDL complexity. The third and terminal EDL phase, consisting of a powered or semi-powered landing, brings the spacecraft to the surface. Over the years, a range of different powered landing approaches have been employed, from basic retropropulsion, to airbags to the SkyCrane, as spacecraft size has grown and landing sites have become more challenging. Despite this seemingly straightforward description, EDL at Mars is an exceptionally intricate process, with numerous failures over the decades; as of 2023, four space agencies have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to land on Mars. Environmental uncertainties during the EDL process typically remain a large mission concern. The process of characterizing the Martian atmosphere at the time, season, and location of touchdown has advanced incrementally from the earliest landings that relied on coarse orbital or flyby measurements of surface temperature and pressure to more modern efforts that incorporate sophisticated numerical models with high spatial and temporal resolution, pinpointing the most likely conditions that a spacecraft will experience during its traverse through the atmosphere and providing comprehensive uncertainty measurements to statistically bound the range of possible conditions. As spacecraft become more complex, it has become possible to add in situ sensors to the descending spacecraft to directly measure the local environment. Combined with numerical modeling and information provided by other spacecraft, these data have helped increase knowledge of the local environment to a substantial degree, reducing environmental uncertainty from being a major risk to a manageable concern.

Article

Martian Dust  

Steven W. Ruff

Dust makes the red planet red. Without dust, Mars would appear mostly as shades of gray. The reddish hue arises from a small amount of oxidized iron among its basaltic mineral constituents. In this sense, Mars is a rusty world. Martian dust is a ubiquitous material of remarkably uniform composition that spans the globe, filling the skies and covering the land in a temporally and spatially varying manner. It is routinely lifted into the atmosphere via convective vortices known as dust devils. Dust in the atmosphere waxes and wanes according to season. Every few Martian years, the planet is fully encircled in atmospheric dust of sufficient opacity that its surface markings and landforms are completely obscured from view of Earth-bound telescopes and Mars-orbiting satellites. Such global dust events last for weeks or months, long enough to jeopardize solar-powered spacecraft on the surface. Dust particles suspended in the thin Martian atmosphere ultimately fall to the surface, completing the cycle and contributing to a range of features that are still being discovered and investigated.

Article

Martian Ionospheric Observation and Modelling  

Francisco González-Galindo

The Martian ionosphere is a plasma embedded within the neutral upper atmosphere of the planet. Its main source is the ionization of the CO2-dominated Martian mesosphere and thermosphere by energetic EUV solar radiation. The ionosphere of Mars is subject to an important variability induced by changes in its forcing mechanisms (e.g., the UV solar flux) and by variations in the neutral atmosphere (e.g., the presence of global dust storms, atmospheric waves and tides, changes in atmospheric composition, etc.). Its vertical structure is dominated by a maximum in electron concentration at altitude about 120–140 km, coincident with the peak of the ionization rate. Below, there is a secondary peak produced by solar X-rays and photoelectron-impact ionization. A sporadic third layer, possibly of meteoric origin, has been also detected below. The most abundant ion in the Martian ionosphere is O2 +, although O+ can become more abundant in the upper ionospheric layers. While below about 180–200 km the Martian ionosphere is dominated by photochemical processes, above those altitudes the dynamics of the plasma becomes more important. The ionosphere is also an important source of escaping particles via processes such as dissociative recombination of ions or ion pickup. So, characterization of the ionosphere provides or can provide information about such disparate systems and processes as solar radiation reaching the planet, the neutral atmosphere, meteoric influx, atmospheric escape to space, or the interaction of the planet with the solar wind. It is thus not surprising that the interest about this region dates from the beginning of the space era. From the first measurements provided by the Mariner 4 mission in the 1960s to observations by the Mars Express and MAVEN orbiters in the 2010s, our knowledge of this atmospheric region is the consequence of the accumulation of more than 50 years of discontinuous measurements by different space missions. Numerical simulations by computational models able to simulate the processes that shape the ionosphere have also been commonly employed to obtain information about this region, to provide an interpretation of the observations and to fill their gaps. As a result, at the end of the 2010s the Martian ionosphere was the best known one after that of the Earth. However, there are still areas for which our knowledge is far from being complete. Examples are the details and balance of the mechanisms populating the nightside ionosphere, the origin and variability of the lower ionospheric peak, and the precise mechanisms shaping the topside ionosphere.

Article

Martian Paleoclimate  

Robert M. Haberle

The climate of Mars has evolved over time. Early in its history, between 3.7 and 4.1 billion years ago, the climate was warmer and wetter and the atmosphere thicker than it is today. Erosion rates were higher than today, and liquid water flowed on the planet’s surface, carving valley networks, filling lakes, creating deltas, and weathering rocks. This implies runoff and suggests rainfall and/or snowmelt. Oceans may have existed. Over time, the atmosphere thinned, erosion rates declined, water activity ceased, and cooler and drier conditions prevailed. Ice became the dominate form of surface water. Yet the climate continued to evolve, driven now by large variations in Mars’ orbit parameters. Beating in rhythm with these variations, surface ice has been repeatedly mobilized and moved around the planet, glaciers have advanced and retreated, dust storms and polar caps have come and gone, and the atmosphere has collapsed and re-inflated many times. The layered terrains that now characterize both polar regions are telltale signatures of this cyclical behavior and owe their existence to modulations of the seasonal cycles of dust, water, and CO2. Contrary to the early images from the Mariner flybys of the 1960s, Mars is and has been a dynamically active planet whose surface has been partly shaped through its interaction with a changing atmosphere and climate system.

Article

Mass Erosion and Transport on Cometary Nuclei, as Found on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko  

Wing-Huen Ip

The Rosetta spacecraft rendezvoused with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014–2016 and observed its surface morphology and mass loss process. The large obliquity (52°) of the comet nucleus introduces many novel physical effects not known before. These include the ballistic transport of dust grains from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere during the perihelion passage, thus shaping the dichotomy of two sides, with the northern hemisphere largely covered by dust layers from the recycled dusty materials (back fall) and the southern hemisphere consisting mostly of consolidated terrains. A significant amount of surface material up to 4–10 m in depth could be transferred across the nucleus surface in each orbit. New theories of the physical mechanisms driving the outgassing and dust ejection effects are being developed. There is a possible connection between the cometary dust grains and the fluffy aggregates and pebbles in the solar nebula in the framework of the streaming-instability scenario. The Rosetta mission thus succeeded in fulfilling one of its original scientific goals concerning the origin of comets and their relation to the formation of the solar system.

Article

Meteorite Mineralogy  

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

Meteorites  

Kun Wang and Randy Korotev

For thousands of years, people living in Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and other parts of the world have been fascinated by shooting stars, which are the light and sound phenomena commonly associated with meteorite impacts. The earliest written record of a meteorite fall is logged by Chinese chroniclers in 687 bce. However, centuries before that, Egyptians had been using “heavenly iron” to make their first iron tools, including a dagger found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb that dates back to the 14th century bce. Even though human beings have a long history of observing meteors and utilizing meteorites, we did not start to recognize their true celestial origin until the Age of Enlightenment. In 1794 German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni was the first to summarize the scientific evidence and to demonstrate that these unique objects are indeed from outside of the Earth. After more than two centuries of joint efforts by countless keen amateur, academic, institutional, and commercial collectors, more than 60,000 meteorites have been catalogued and classified in the Meteoritical Bulletin Database. This number is continually growing, and meteorites are found all over the world, especially in dry and sparsely populated regions such as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert. Although there are thousands of individual meteorites, they can be handily classified into three broad groups by simple examinations of the specimens. The most common type is stony meteorite, which is made of mostly silicate rocks. Iron meteorites are the easiest to be preserved for thousands (or even millions) of years on the Earth’s surface environments, and they are composed of iron and nickel metals. The stony-irons contain roughly the same amount of metals and silicates, and these spectacular meteorites are the favorites of many collectors and museums. After 200 years, meteoritics (the science of meteorites) has grown out of its infancy and become a vibrant area of research today. The general directions of meteoritic studies are: (1) mineralogy, identifying new minerals or mineral phases that rarely or seldom found on the Earth; (2) petrology, studying the igneous and aqueous textures that give meteorites unique appearances, and providing information about geologic processes on the bodies upon which the meteorites originates; (3) geochemistry, characterizing their major, trace elemental, and isotopic compositions, and conducting interplanetary comparisons; and (4) chronology, dating the ages of the initial crystallization and later on impacting disturbances. Meteorites are the only extraterrestrial samples other than Apollo lunar rocks and Hayabusa asteroid samples that we can directly analyze in laboratories. Through the studies of meteorites, we have quested a vast amount of knowledge about the origin of the Solar System, the nature of the molecular cloud, the solar nebula, the nascent Sun and its planetary bodies including the Earth and its Moon, Mars, and many asteroids. In fact, the 4.6-billion-year age of the whole Solar System is solely defined by the oldest age dated in meteorites, which marked the beginning of everything we appreciate today.

Article

Migration of Low-Mass Planets  

Frédéric S. Masset

Planet migration is the variation over time of a planet’s semimajor axis, leading to either a contraction or an expansion of the orbit. It results from the exchange of energy and angular momentum between the planet and the disk in which it is embedded during its formation and can cause the semimajor axis to change by as much as two orders of magnitude over the disk’s lifetime. The migration of forming protoplanets is an unavoidable process, and it is thought to be a key ingredient for understanding the variety of extrasolar planetary systems. Although migration occurs for protoplanets of all masses, its properties for low-mass planets (those having up to a few Earth masses) differ significantly from those for high-mass planets. The torque that is exerted by the disk on the planet is composed of different contributions. While migration was first thought to be invariably inward, physical processes that are able to halt or even reverse migration were later uncovered, leading to the realization that the migration path of a forming planet has a very sensitive dependence on the underlying disk parameters. There are other processes that go beyond the case of a single planet experiencing smooth migration under the disk’s tide. This is the case of planetary migration in low-viscosity disks, a fashionable research avenue because protoplanetary disks are thought to have very low viscosity, if any, over most of their planet-forming regions. Such a process is generally significantly chaotic and has to be tackled through high-resolution numerical simulations. The migration of several low-mass planets is also is a very fashionable topic, owing to the discovery by the Kepler mission of many multiple extrasolar planetary systems. The orbital properties of these systems suggest that at least some of them have experienced substantial migration. Although there have been many studies to account for the orbital properties of these systems, there is as yet no clear picture of the different processes that shaped them. Finally, some recently unveiled processes could be important for the migration of low-mass planets. One process is aero-resonant migration, in which a swarm of planetesimals subjected to aerodynamic drag push a planet inward when they reach a mean-motion resonance with the planet, while another process is based on so-called thermal torques, which arise when thermal diffusion in the disk is taken into account, or when the planet, heated by accretion, releases heat into the ambient gas.

Article

The Moon and Planets Among the Incas and Other Pre-Hispanic Andean Peoples  

Mariusz Ziółkowski

Although the Inca state (ca. 1200–1572 ce) was called the Empire of the Sun, the Moon was, in some respects, an equally important divinity in the official state cult. The regulatory function of the phases of the synodic cycle of the Moon in different kinds of social activities, especially those framed in calendrical systems but also military campaigns, is well documented. As far as the orientation of architectural structures is concerned, the researchers focus their attention almost entirely on the position of the Sun. However, a more accurate analysis of two well-known sites—the caves of Intimachay and Inkaraqay—may provide evidence of their function as observatories of the lunar 18.6-year cycle. Those results may confirm the hypothesis, presented some years ago, that the Incas had elaborated a rudimentary method of predicting lunar eclipses. The determination of the exact role of Venus and other planets in the Inca worldview encounters a serious limitation: in contrast to Mesoamerica, in Tahuantinsuyu and the Andes, there are no important “first-hand” sources such as the calendrical-astronomical data of the Maya or the Aztecs. Only Venus seems to have enjoyed a cult of Pan-American range. The morning appearance of Venus was apparently related to the puberty initiation rites of male adolescents, while its appearance as Evening Star seems to have been closely symbolically related to the Inca sovereign and his military activities. Putting aside the information available on Venus and its cult, there is an almost complete lack of data on the other planets. Another problem must be considered: To what extent did the Incas inherit their knowledge from their predecessors, the Chimus, or even earlier cultures?

Article

The Moon and Planets in Ancient Mesopotamia  

Mathieu Ossendrijver

In ancient Mesopotamia, all five planets visible to the naked eye were known and studied, along with the Moon, the Sun, the stars, and other celestial phenomena. In all Mesopotamian sources concerning the Moon and the planets, be they textual or iconographical, the astronomical, astrological, and religious aspects are intertwined. The term “astral science” covers all forms of Mesopotamian scholarly engagement with celestial entities, including celestial divination and astrology. Modern research on Mesopotamian astral science began in the 19th century. Much research remains to be done, because important sources remain unpublished and new questions have been posed to published sources. From ca. 3000 bce onward, Mesopotamians used a calendar with months and years, which indicates that the Moon was studied at that early age. In cuneiform writing, the Sumerian and Akkadian names of the Moongod, Nanna/Sin, are attested since ca. 2500 bce. The most common Akkadian names of the five planets, Šiḫṭu (Mercury), Dilbat (Venus), Ṣalbatānu (Mars), White Star (Jupiter), and Kayyāmānu (Saturn), are attested first in 1800–1000 bce. The Moon, the Sun, and the planets were viewed as gods or manifestations of gods. From ca. 1800 bce onward, the phenomena of the Moon, the Sun, and the planets were studied as signs that were produced by the gods to communicate with humankind. Between ca. 600 bce and 100 ce, Babylonian scholars reported lunar and planetary phenomena in astronomical diaries and related texts. Their purpose was to enable predictions of the reported phenomena with period-based, so-called Goal-Year methods. After the end of the 5th century bce Babylonian astronomers introduced the zodiac and developed new methods for predicting lunar and planetary phenomena known as mathematical astronomy At about the same time they developed horoscopy and other forms of astrology that use the zodiac, the Moon, the Sun, and the planets to predict events on Earth.

Article

The Moon and Planets in Indigenous California  

E.C. Krupp

Anthropologists distinguish the U.S. State of California as a primary zone of prehistoric and tribal North America—it was one of the most linguistically and cultural diverse regions on earth. The original population of Native California and traditional cultures were decimated by the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Anglos, who successively settled California and transformed it. For that reason, knowledge of the character and function of astronomy in what is now California prior to European contact in the 16th century is incomplete and fragmented. Traditional astronomical lore is preserved in a few ethnohistoric commentaries, in some archaeological remains, and in ethnographic research conducted primarily in the early 20th century, when elements of indigenous knowledge still survived. Throughout Native California, the moon’s conspicuous brightness, movement, and systematically changing appearance prompted its affiliation with seasonal change, the passage of time, and cyclical renewal, and most California tribes monitored and counted lunations in one way or another, but not necessarily throughout the entire year. In some cases, individual lunations were affiliated with and named for seasonal circumstances. There is little evidence, however, for even minimal interest in or recognition of the planets visible to the unaided eye, with the exception of Venus as the “Morning Star” or “Evening Star.” Venus, like the moon and other celestial objects, was personified and regarded as a fundamental and active agent of the cosmos. There is no evidence, however, for detailed monitoring of Venus and quantitative knowledge of its synodic behavior.

Article

Noble Gases  

Mario Trieloff

Although the second most abundant element in the cosmos is helium, noble gases are also called rare gases. The reason is that they are not abundant on terrestrial planets like the Earth, which is characterized by orders of magnitude depletion of—particularly light—noble gases when compared to the cosmic element abundance pattern. Indeed, geochemical depletion and enrichment processes mean that noble gases are highly versatile tracers of planetary formation and evolution. When our solar system formed—or even before—small grains and first condensates incorporated small amounts of noble gases from the surrounding gas of solar composition, resulting in depletion of light He and Ne relative to heavy Ar, Kr, and Xe, leading to the “planetary type” abundance pattern. Further noble gas depletion occurred during flash heating of mm- to cm-sized objects (chondrules and calcium, aluminum-rich inclusions), and subsequently during heating—and occasionally differentiation—on small planetesimals, which were precursors of planets. Some of these objects are present today in the asteroid belt and are the source of many meteorites. Many primitive meteorites contain very small (micron to sub-micron size) rare grains that are older than our Solar System and condensed billions of years ago in in the atmospheres of different stars, for example, Red Giant stars. These grains are characterized by nucleosynthetic anomalies, in particular the noble gases, such as so-called s-process xenon. While planetesimals acquired a depleted noble gas component strongly fractionated in favor of heavy noble gases, the Sun and also gas giants like Jupiter attracted a much larger amount of gas from the protosolar nebula by gravitational capture. This resulted in a cosmic or “solar type” abundance pattern, containing the full complement of light noble gases. In contrast, terrestrial planets accreted from planetesimals with only minor contributions from the gaseous component of the protosolar nebula, which accounts for their high degree of depletion and essentially “planetary” elemental abundance pattern. The strong depletion in noble gases facilitates their application as noble gas geo- and cosmochronometers; chronological applications are based on being able to determine noble gas isotopes formed by radioactive decay processes, for example, 40Ar by 40K decay, 129Xe by 129I decay, or fission Xe from 238U or 244Pu decay. Particularly ingrowth of radiogenic xenon is only possible due to the depletion of primordial nuclides, which allows insight into the chronology of fractionation of lithophile parent nuclides and atmophile noble gas daughters. Applied to large-scale planetary reservoirs, this helps to elucidate the timing of mantle degassing and evolution of planetary atmospheres. Applied to individual rocks and minerals, it allows radioisotope chronology using short-lived (e.g., 129I–129Xe) or long-lived (e.g., 40K–40Ar) systems. The dominance of 40Ar in the terrestrial atmosphere allowed von Weizsäcker to conclude that most of the terrestrial atmosphere originated by degassing of the solid Earth, which is an ongoing process today at mid-ocean ridges, as indicated by outgassing of primordial helium from newly forming ocean crust. Mantle degassing was much more massive in the past, with most of the terrestrial atmosphere probably formed during the first few 100 million years of Earth’s history, in response to major evolutionary processes of accretion, terrestrial core formation, and the terminal accretion stage of a giant impact that formed our Moon. During accretion, solar noble gases were added to the mantle, presumably by solar wind irradiation of the small planetesimals and dust accreting to form the Earth. While the Moon-forming impact likely dissipated a major fraction of the primordial atmosphere, today’s atmosphere originated by addition of a late veneer of asteroidal and possibly cometary material combined with a decreasing rate of mantle degassing over time. As other atmophile elements behave similarly to noble gases, they also trace the origin of major volatiles on Earth, for example, water, nitrogen, and carbon.

Article

Origins of Life: Open Questions and Debates  

André Brack

Stanley Miller demonstrated in 1953 that it was possible to form amino acids from methane, ammonia, and hydrogen in water, thus launching the ambitious hope that chemists would be able to shed light on the origins of life by recreating a simple life form in a test tube. However, it must be acknowledged that the dream has not yet been accomplished, despite the great volume of effort and innovation put forward by the scientific community. A minima, primitive life can be defined as an open chemical system, fed with matter and energy, capable of self-reproduction (i.e., making more of itself by itself), and also capable of evolving. The concept of evolution implies that chemical systems would transfer their information fairly faithfully but make some random errors. If we compared the components of primitive life to parts of a chemical automaton, we could conceive that, by chance, some parts self-assembled to generate an automaton capable of assembling other parts to produce a true copy. Sometimes, minor errors in the building generated a more efficient automaton, which then became the dominant species. Quite different scenarios and routes have been followed and tested in the laboratory to explain the origin of life. There are two schools of thought in proposing the prebiotic supply of organics. The proponents of a metabolism-first call for the spontaneous formation of simple molecules from carbon dioxide and water to rapidly generate life. In a second hypothesis, the primeval soup scenario, it is proposed that rather complex organic molecules accumulated in a warm little pond prior to the emergence of life. The proponents of the primeval soup or replication first approach are by far the more active. They succeeded in reconstructing small-scale versions of proteins, membranes, and RNA. Quite different scenarios have been proposed for the inception of life: the RNA world, an origin within droplets, self-organization counteracting entropy, or a stochastic approach merging chemistry and geology. Understanding the emergence of a critical feature of life, its one-handedness, is a shared preoccupation in all these approaches.

Article

The Outer Space Treaty  

Christopher Daniel Johnson

Negotiated at the United Nations and in force since 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has been ratified by over 100 countries and is the most important and foundational source of space law. The treaty, whose full title is “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” governs all of humankind’s activities in outer space, including activities on other celestial bodies and many activities on Earth related to outer space. All space exploration and human spaceflight, planetary sciences, and commercial uses of space—such as the global telecommunications industry and the use of space technologies such as position, navigation, and timing (PNT), take place against the backdrop of the general regulatory framework established in the Outer Space Treaty. A treaty is an international legal instrument which balances rights and obligations between states, and exists as a kind of mutual contract of shared understandings, rights, and responsibilities between them. Negotiated and drafted during the Cold War era of heightened political tensions, the Outer Space Treaty is largely the product of efforts by the United States and the USSR to agree on certain minimum standards and obligations to govern their competition in “conquering” space. Additionally, the Outer Space Treaty is similar to other treaties, including treaties governing the high seas, international airspace, and the Antarctic, all of which govern the behavior of states outside of their national borders. The treaty is brief in nature and only contains 17 articles, and is not comprehensive in addressing and regulating every possible scenario. The negotiating states knew that the Outer Space Treaty could only establish certain foundational concepts such as freedom of access, state responsibility and liability, non-weaponization of space, the treatment of astronauts in distress, and the prohibition of non-appropriation of celestial bodies. Subsequent treaties were to refine these concepts, and national space legislation was to incorporate the treaty’s rights and obligations at the national level. While the treaty is the cornerstone in the regulation of activities in outer space, today the emergence of new issues that were not contemplated at the time of its creation, such as small satellites and megaconstellations, satellite servicing missions, the problem of space debris and the possibility of space debris removal, and the use of lunar and asteroid resources, all stretch the coherence and continuing adequacy of the treaty, and may occasion the need for new governance frameworks.

Article

Petrology and Geochemistry of Mercury  

Shoshana Z. Weider

Having knowledge of a terrestrial planet’s chemistry is fundamental to understanding the origin and composition of its rocks. Until recently, however, the geochemistry of Mercury—the Solar System’s innermost planet—was largely unconstrained. Without the availability of geological specimens from Mercury, studying the planet’s surface and bulk composition relies on remote sensing techniques. Moreover, Mercury’s proximity to the Sun makes it difficult to study with Earth/space-based telescopes, or with planetary probes. Indeed, to date, only NASA’s Mariner 10 and MESSENGER missions have visited Mercury. The former made three “flyby” encounters of Mercury between 1974 and 1975, but did not carry any instrument to make geochemical or mineralogical measurements of the surface. Until the MESSENGER flyby and orbital campaigns (2008–2015), therefore, knowledge of Mercury’s chemical composition was severely limited and consisted of only a few facts. For example, it has long been known that Mercury has the highest uncompressed density (i.e., density with the effect of gravity removed) of all the terrestrial planets, and thus a disproportionately large Fe core. In addition, Earth-based spectral reflectance observations indicated a dark surface, largely devoid of Fe within silicate minerals. To improve understanding of Mercury’s geochemistry, the MESSENGER scientific payload included a suite of geochemical sensing instruments: in particular, an X-Ray spectrometer and a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer. The datasets obtained from these instruments (as well as from other complementary instruments) during MESSENGER’s 3.5-year orbital mission allow a much more complete picture of Mercury’s geochemistry to be drawn, and quantitative abundance estimates for several major rock-forming elements in Mercury’s crust are now available. Overall, the MESSENGER data reveal a surface that is rich in Mg, but poor in Al and Ca, compared with typical terrestrial and lunar crustal materials. Mercury’s surface also contains high concentrations of the volatile elements Na, S, K, and Cl. Furthermore, the total surface Fe abundance is now known to be <2 wt%, and the planet’s low-reflectance is thought to be primarily caused by the presence of C (in the form of graphite) at a level of >1 wt%. Such data are key to constraining models of Mercury’s formation and early evolution. Large-scale spatial variations in the MESSENGER geochemical datasets have also led to the designation of several geochemical “terranes,” which do not always align with otherwise mapped geological regions. Based on the MESSENGER geochemical results, petrological experiments and calculations have been, and continue to be, performed to study Mercury’s surface mineralogy and petrology. The results show that there are likely to be substantial differences in the precise mineral compositions and abundances amongst the different terranes, but Mercury’s surface appears to be dominated by Mg-rich olivine and pyroxene, as well as plagioclase and sulfide phases. Depending on the classification scheme used, Mercury’s ultramafic surface rocks can thus be described as similar in nature to terrestrial boninites, andesites, norites, or gabbros.

Article

Planetary Atmospheres: Chemistry and Composition  

Channon Visscher

The observed composition of a planetary atmosphere is the product of planetary formation and evolution, including the chemical and physical processes shaping atmospheric abundances into the present day. In the solar system, the gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune possess massive molecular envelopes consisting mostly of H2 and He along with various minor amounts of heavy elements such as C, N, and O (present as CH4, NH3, and H2O, respectively) and numerous additional minor species. The terrestrial planets Venus, Earth, and Mars each possess a relatively thin atmospheric envelope surrounding a rocky surface. The atmospheres of Mars and Venus are characterized by abundant CO2 with a small amount of N2, whereas the atmosphere of the Earth is dominated by N2 and O2. Such differences provide clues to the divergent pathways of atmospheric evolution. Numerous closely coupled physical and chemical processes give rise to the abundances observed in the planetary atmospheres of the solar system. These processes include the maintenance of thermochemical equilibrium, reaction kinetics, atmospheric transport, photochemistry, condensation (including cloud formation) and vaporization, deposition and sublimation, diurnal and seasonal effects, greenhouse effects, surface–atmosphere reactions, volcanic activity, and (in the case of Earth) biogenic and anthropogenic sources. The present understanding of the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres is the result of over a century of observations, including ground-based, space-based, and in situ measurements of the major, minor, trace, and isotopic species found on each planet. These observations have been accompanied by experimental studies of planetary materials and the development of theoretical models to identify the key processes shaping atmospheric abundances observed today.

Article

Planetary Aurorae  

Steve Miller

Planetary aurorae are some of the most iconic and brilliant (in all senses of that word) indicators not only of the interconnections on Planet Earth, but that these interconnections pertain throughout the entire Solar System as well. They are testimony to the centrality of the Sun, not just in providing the essential sunlight that drives weather systems and makes habitability possible, but also in generating a high velocity wind of electrically charged particles—known as the Solar Wind—that buffets each of the planets in turn as it streams outward through interplanetary space. Aurorae are created when electrically charged particles—predominantly negatively charged electrons or positive ions such as protons, the nuclei of hydrogen—crash into the atoms and molecules of a planetary or lunar atmosphere. Such particles can excite the electrons in atoms and molecules from their ground state to higher levels. The atoms and molecules that have been excited by these high-energy collisions can then relax; the emitted radiation is at certain well-defined wavelengths, giving characteristic colors to the aurorae. Just how many particles, how much atmosphere, and what strength of magnetic field are required to create aurorae is an open question. But giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn have aurorae, as does Earth. Some moons also show these emissions. Overall, the aurorae of the Solar System are very varied, variable, and exciting.

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Planetary Magnetic Fields and Dynamos  

Ulrich R. Christensen

Since 1973 space missions carrying vector magnetometers have shown that most, but not all, solar system planets have a global magnetic field of internal origin. They have also revealed a surprising diversity in terms of field strength and morphology. While Jupiter’s field, like that of Earth, is dominated by a dipole moderately tilted relative to the planet’s spin axis, the fields of Uranus and Neptune are multipole-dominated, whereas those of Saturn and Mercury are highly symmetric relative to the rotation axis. Planetary magnetism originates from a dynamo process, which requires a fluid and electrically conducting region in the interior with sufficiently rapid and complex flow. The magnetic fields are of interest for three reasons: (i) they provide ground truth for dynamo theory, (ii) the magnetic field controls how the planet interacts with its space environment, for example, the solar wind, and (iii) the existence or nonexistence and the properties of the field enable us to draw inferences on the constitution, dynamics, and thermal evolution of the planet’s interior. Numerical simulations of the geodynamo, in which convective flow in a rapidly rotating spherical shell representing the outer liquid iron core of the Earth leads to induction of electric currents, have successfully reproduced many observed properties of the geomagnetic field. They have also provided guidelines on the factors controlling magnetic field strength and morphology. For numerical reasons the simulations must employ viscosities far greater than those inside planets and it is debatable whether they capture the correct physics of planetary dynamo processes. Nonetheless, such models have been adapted to test concepts for explaining magnetic field properties of other planets. For example, they show that a stable stratified conducting layer above the dynamo region is a plausible cause for the strongly axisymmetric magnetic fields of Mercury or Saturn.

Article

Planetary Spectroscopy  

Alian Wang

Planetary spectroscopy uses physical methods to study the chemical properties of the geological materials on the planetary bodies in our solar system. This article will present twelve types of spectroscopy frequently used in planetary explorations. Their energy (or wavelength) varies from γ-ray (keV) to far-infrared (μm), which involves the transitions of nuclei, atoms, ions, and molecules in planetary materials. The article will cover the basic concept of the transition for each of the twelve types of spectroscopy, along with their legendary science discoveries made during the past planetary exploration missions by the international planetary science and engineering community. The broad application of spectroscopy in planetary exploration is built upon the fact that only limited extraterrestrial materials were collected (meteorites, cosmic dust, and the returned samples by missions) that enabled the detailed investigations of their properties in laboratories, while spectroscopic measurements can be made on the objects of our solar system remotely and robotically, such as during the flyby, orbiting, lander, and rover missions. In this sense, the knowledge obtained by planetary spectroscopy has contributed to a major portion of planetary sciences. In the coming era of space explorations, more powerful spacecraft will be sent out by mankind, go to deep space, and explore exotic places. Generations of new planetary science payloads, including planetary spectrometers, will be created and will fly. New sciences will be revealed.