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Article

A Retrospective on Mars Polar Ice and Climate  

Isaac B. Smith

The polar regions of Mars contain layered ice deposits that are rich in detail of past periods of accumulation and erosion. These north and south polar layered deposits (NPLD and SPLD, respectively) contain primarily water–ice and ~5% and ~10% dust derived from the atmosphere, respectively. In addition, the SPLD has two known CO2 deposits—one thin unit at the surface and one buried, much thicker unit. Together, they comprise less than 1% of the SPLD volume. Mars also experiences seasonal deposits of CO2 that form in winter and sublimate in spring and early summer. These seasonal caps are visible from Earth and have been studied for centuries. Zooming in, exposed layers at the PLDs reveal histories of climate change that resulted when orbital parameters such as obliquity, eccentricity, and argument of perihelion changed over tens of thousands to millions of years. Simpler environmental conditions at the NPLD, especially related to seasonal and aeolian processes, make interpreting the history of that polar cap much easier than the SPLD. The history of Mars polar science is linked by numerous incremental advancements and unexpected discoveries related to the observed geology of both poles, the interpreted and modeled climatic conditions that gave rise to the PLDs, and the atmospheric conditions that modify the surface.

Article

Astrobiology (Overview)  

Sean McMahon

Astrobiology seeks to understand the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe and thus to integrate biology with planetary science, astronomy, cosmology, and the other physical sciences. The discipline emerged in the late 20th century, partly in response to the development of space exploration programs in the United States, Russia, and elsewhere. Many astrobiologists are now involved in the search for life on Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and beyond. However, research in astrobiology does not presume the existence of extraterrestrial life, for which there is no compelling evidence; indeed, it includes the study of life on Earth in its astronomical and cosmic context. Moreover, the absence of observed life from all other planetary bodies requires a scientific explanation, and suggests several hypotheses amenable to further observational, theoretical, and experimental investigation under the aegis of astrobiology. Despite the apparent uniqueness of Earth’s biosphere— the “n = 1 problem”—astrobiology is increasingly driven by large quantities of data. Such data have been provided by the robotic exploration of the Solar System, the first observations of extrasolar planets, laboratory experiments into prebiotic chemistry, spectroscopic measurements of organic molecules in extraterrestrial environments, analytical advances in the biogeochemistry and paleobiology of very ancient rocks, surveys of Earth’s microbial diversity and ecology, and experiments to delimit the capacity of organisms to survive and thrive in extreme conditions.

Article

Chemical Weathering on Venus  

Mikhail Zolotov

Chemical and phase compositions of the surface of Venus could reflect a history of gas–rock and fluid–rock interactions, recent and past climate changes, and a loss of water from the Earth’s sister planet. The concept of chemical weathering on Venus through gas–solid type reactions was established in the early 1960s after the discovery of the hot and dense CO2-rich atmosphere of the planet, inferred from Earth-based and Mariner 2 radio emission data. Initial models suggested carbonation, hydration, and oxidation of exposed igneous rocks and a control (buffering) of atmospheric gases by solid–gas type chemical equilibria in the near-surface rocks. Carbonates, phyllosilicates and Fe oxides were considered likely secondary minerals. From the late 1970s onward, measurements of trace gases in the sub-cloud atmosphere by the Pioneer Venus and Venera entry probes and by Earth-based infrared spectroscopy challenged the likelihood of hydration and carbonation. The atmospheric H2O gas content appeared to be low enough to allow the stable existence of H2O-bearing and a majority of OH-bearing minerals. The concentration of SO2 gas was too high to allow the stability of Ca-rich carbonates and silicates with respect to sulfatization to CaSO4. In the 1980s, the detection of an elevated bulk S content at the Venera and Vega landing sites suggested ongoing consumption of atmospheric SO2 to surface sulfates. The supposed composition of the near-surface atmosphere implied oxidation of ferrous minerals to Fe oxides, magnetite and hematite, consistent with the infrared reflectance of surface materials. The likelihood of sulfatization and oxidation has been illustrated in modeling experiments in simulated Venus’ conditions. The morphology of Venus’ surface suggests contact of atmospheric gases with hot surface materials of mainly basaltic composition during the several hundreds of millions years since a global volcanic/tectonic resurfacing. Some exposed materials could have reacted at higher and lower temperatures in a presence of diverse gases at different altitudinal, volcanic, impact, and atmospheric settings. On highly deformed tessera terrains, more ancient rocks of unknown composition may reflect interactions with putative water-rich atmospheres and even aqueous solutions. Geological formations rich in salt, carbonate, Fe oxide, or silica will indicate past aqueous processes. The apparent diversity of affected solids, surface temperatures, pressures, and gas/fluid compositions throughout Venus’ history implies multiple signs of chemical alterations that remain to be investigated. The current understanding of chemical weathering is limited by the uncertain composition of the deep atmosphere, by the lack of direct data on the phase and chemical composition of surface materials, and by the uncertain data on thermodynamics of minerals and their solid solutions. In preparation for further atmospheric entry probe and lander missions, rock alteration could be investigated through chemical kinetic experiments and calculations of solid-gas/fluid equilibria to constrain past and present processes.

Article

Clouds in the Martian Atmosphere  

A. Määttänen and F. Montmessin

Although resembling an extremely dry desert, planet Mars hosts clouds in its atmosphere. Every day somewhere on the planet a part of the tiny amount of water vapor held by the atmosphere can condense as ice crystals to form mainly cirrus-type clouds. The existence of water ice clouds has been known for a long time and they have been studied for decades, leading to the establishment of a well-known climatology and understanding on their formation and properties. Despite their thinness, they have a clear impact on the atmospheric temperatures, thus affecting the Martian climate. Another, more exotic type of clouds forms as well on Mars. The atmospheric temperatures can plunge to such frigid values that the major gaseous component of the atmosphere, CO2, condenses as ice crystals. These clouds form in the cold polar night where they also contribute to the formation of the CO2 ice polar cap, and also in the mesosphere at very high altitudes, near the edge of space, analogously to the noctilucent clouds on Earth. The mesospheric clouds, discovered in the early 2000s, have put our understanding of the Martian atmosphere to a test. On Mars, cloud crystals form on ice nuclei, mostly provided by the omnipresent mineral dust. Thus, the clouds link the three major climatic cycles: those of the two major volatiles, H2O and CO2, and that of dust, which is a major climatic agent itself.

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 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

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.

Article

The Atmosphere of Titan  

Athena Coustenis

Titan, Saturn’s largest satellite, is one of the most intriguing moons in our Solar System, in particular because of its dense and extended nitrogen-based and organic-laden atmosphere. Other unique features include a methanological cycle similar to the Earth’s hydrological one, surface features similar to terrestrial ones, and a probable under-surface liquid water ocean. Besides the dinitrogen main component, the gaseous content includes methane and hydrogen, which, through photochemistry and photolysis, produce a host of trace gases such as hydrocarbons and nitriles. This very advanced organic chemistry creates layers of orange-brown haze surrounding the satellite. The chemical compounds diffuse downward in the form of aerosols and condensates and are finally deposited on the surface. There is very little oxygen in the atmosphere, mainly in the form of H2O, CO, and CO2. The atmospheric chemical and thermal structure varies significantly with seasons, much like on Earth, albeit on much longer time scales. Extensive analysis of Titan data from ground, Earth-orbiting observatories, and space missions, like those returned by the 13-year operating Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, reveals a complex system with strong interactions among the atmosphere, the surface, and the interior. The processes operating in the atmosphere are informative of what occurs on Earth and give hints as to the origin and evolution of our outer Solar System.

Article

The Planetary Boundary Layer of Mars  

Aymeric Spiga

The planetary boundary layer of Mars is a crucial component of the Martian climate and meteorology, as well as a key driver of the surface-atmosphere exchanges on Mars. As such, it is explored by several landers and orbiters; high-resolution atmospheric modeling is used to interpret the measurements by those spacecrafts. The planetary boundary layer of Mars is particularly influenced by the strong radiative control of the Martian surface and, as a result, features a more extreme version of planetary boundary layer phenomena occurring on Earth. In daytime, the Martian planetary boundary layer is highly turbulent, mixing heat and momentum in the atmosphere up to about 10 kilometers from the surface. Daytime convective turbulence is organized as convective cells and vortices, the latter giving rise to numerous dust devils when dust is lifted and transported in the vortex. The nighttime planetary boundary layer is dominated by stable-layer turbulence, which is much less intense than in the daytime, and slope winds in regions characterized by uneven topography. Clouds and fogs are associated with the planetary boundary layer activity on Mars.

Article

Water Ice at Mid-Latitudes on Mars  

Frances E. G. Butcher

Mars’s mid-latitudes, corresponding approximately to the 30°–60° latitude bands in both hemispheres, host abundant water ice in the subsurface. Ice is unstable with respect to sublimation at Mars’s surface beyond the polar regions, but can be preserved in the subsurface at mid-to-high latitudes beneath a centimeters-to-meters-thick covering of lithic material. In Mars’s mid-latitudes, water ice is present as pore ice between grains of the martian soil (termed “regolith”) and as deposits of excess ice exceeding the pore volume of the regolith. Excess ice is present as lenses within the regolith, as extensive layers tens to hundreds of meters thick, and as debris-covered glaciers with evidence of past flow. Subsurface water ice on Mars has been inferred indirectly using numerous techniques including numerical modeling, observations of surface geomorphology, and thermal, spectral, and ground-penetrating radar analyses. Ice exposures have also been imaged directly by orbital and landed missions to Mars. Shallow pore ice can be explained by the diffusion and freezing of atmospheric water vapor into the regolith. The majority of known excess ice deposits in Mars’s mid-latitudes are, however, better explained by deposition from the atmosphere (e.g., via snowfall) under climatic conditions different from the present day. They are thought to have been emplaced within the last few million to 1 billion years, during large-scale mobilization of Mars’s water inventory between the poles, equator, and mid-latitude regions under cyclical climate changes. Thus, water ice deposits in Mars’s mid-latitudes probably host a rich record of geologically recent climate changes on Mars. Mid-latitude ice deposits are leading candidate targets for in situ resource utilization of water ice by future human missions to Mars, which may be able to sample the deposits to access such climate records. In situ water resources will be required for rocket fuel production, surface operations, and life support systems. Thus, it is essential that the nature and distribution of mid-latitude ice deposits on Mars are characterized in detail.

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.