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Article

Planetary Systems Around White Dwarfs  

Dimitri Veras

White dwarf planetary science is a rapidly growing field of research featuring a diverse set of observations and theoretical explorations. Giant planets, minor planets, and debris discs have all been detected orbiting white dwarfs. The innards of broken-up minor planets are measured on an element-by-element basis, providing a unique probe of exoplanetary chemistry. Numerical simulations and analytical investigations trace the violent physical and dynamical history of these systems from astronomical unit (au)-scale distances to the immediate vicinity of the white dwarf, where minor planets are broken down into dust and gas and accrete onto the white dwarf photosphere. Current and upcoming ground-based and space-based instruments are likely to further accelerate the pace of discoveries.

Article

Presolar Grains  

Nan Liu

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. Presolar grains are dust produced by stars that died before the formation of the Earth’s solar system. Stardust grains condense out of cooling gas lost via stellar winds from the surface of low-mass stars and stellar explosions and become a constituent of interstellar medium (ISM). About 4.6 Ga, a molecular cloud in the ISM collapsed to form the solar system, during which some primordial stardust grains from the ISM survived and were incorporated into small bodies formed in the early solar system. Some of these small solar system bodies, including asteroids and comets, escaped planet formation and have remained minimally altered, thus preserving their initially incorporated presolar grains. Fragments of asteroids and comets are collected on Earth as interplanetary dust particles (IDPs) and meteorites. Presolar grains have been found in primitive IDPs and chondrites—stony meteorites that have not been modified by either melting or differentiation of their parent bodies. Presolar grains, typically less than a few μm, are identified in primitive extraterrestrial materials by their unique isotopic signatures, revealing the effects of galactic chemical evolution (GCE), stellar nucleosynthesis, and cosmic ray exposure. Comparisons of presolar grain isotope data with stellar observations and nucleosynthesis model calculations suggest that presolar grains were dominantly sourced from asymptotic giant branch stars and core-collapse supernovae, although there are still ambiguities in assigning the type of star to some groups of grains. So far, various presolar phases have been identified such as corundum, olivine, and silicon carbide, reflecting diverse condensation environments in different types of stars. The abundances of different presolar phases in primitive extraterrestrial materials vary widely, ranging from a few percent for presolar silicates to a few parts per million for presolar oxides. Presolar grain studies rely on the synergy between astronomy, astrophysics, nuclear physics, and cosmochemistry. To understand the stellar sources of presolar grains, it is important to compare isotope data of presolar grains to astronomical observations for different types of stellar objects. When such astronomical observations are unavailable, stellar nucleosynthesis models must be relied upon, which require inputs of (a) initial stellar composition estimated based on solar system nuclide abundances, (b) stellar evolution models, and (c) nuclear reaction rates determined by theories and laboratory experiments. Once the stellar source of a group of presolar grains is ascertained, isotope information extracted from the grains can then be used to constrain stellar mixing processes, nuclear reaction rates, GCE, and the ISM residence times of the grains. In addition, crystal structures and chemical compositions of presolar grains can provide information to infer dust condensation conditions in their parent stars, while abundances of presolar grains in primitive chondrites can help constrain secondary processing experienced by the parent asteroids of their host chondrites. Since the discovery of presolar grains in meteorites in 1980s, a diverse array of information about stars and GCE has been gleaned by studying them. Technological advances will likely allow for the discovery of additional types of presolar grains and analysis of smaller, more typical presolar grains in the future.

Article

Science and Exploration of the Moon: Overview  

Bradley L. Jolliff

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

Solar Elemental Abundances  

Katharina Lodders

Solar elemental abundances, or solar system elemental abundances, refer to the complement of chemical elements in the entire Solar System. The Sun contains more than 99% of the mass in the solar system and therefore the composition of the Sun is a good proxy for the composition of the overall solar system. The solar system composition can be taken as the overall composition of the molecular cloud within the interstellar medium from which the solar system formed 4.567 billion years ago. Active research areas in astronomy and cosmochemistry model collapse of a molecular cloud of solar composition into a star with a planetary system and the physical and chemical fractionation of the elements during planetary formation and differentiation. The solar system composition is the initial composition from which all solar system objects (the Sun, terrestrial planets, gas giant planets, planetary satellites and moons, asteroids, Kuiper-belt objects, and comets) were derived. Other dwarf stars (with hydrostatic hydrogen-burning in their cores) like the Sun (type G2V dwarf star) within the solar neighborhood have compositions similar to the Sun and the solar system composition. In general, differential comparisons of stellar compositions provide insights about stellar evolution as functions of stellar mass and age and ongoing nucleosynthesis but also about galactic chemical evolution when elemental compositions of stellar populations across the Milky Way Galaxy is considered. Comparisons to solar composition can reveal element destruction (e.g., Li) in the Sun and in other dwarf stars. The comparisons also show element production of, for example, C, N, O, and the heavy elements made by the s-process in low to intermediate mass stars (3–7 solar masses) after these evolved from their dwarf-star stage into red giant stars (where hydrogen and helium burning can occur in shells around their cores). The solar system abundances are and have been a critical test composition for nucleosynthesis models and models of galactic chemical evolution, which aim ultimately to track the production of the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium in the generation of stars that came forth after the Big Bang 13.4 billion years ago.

Article

Steam Atmospheres and Magma Oceans on Planets  

Keiko Hamano

A magma ocean is a global layer of partially or fully molten rocks. Significant melting of terrestrial planets likely occurs due to heat release during planetary accretion, such as decay heat of short-lived radionuclides, impact energy released by continuous planetesimal accretion, and energetic impacts among planetary-sized bodies (giant impacts). Over a magma ocean, all water, which is released upon impact or degassed from the interior, exists as superheated vapor, forming a water-dominated, steam atmosphere. A magma ocean extending to the surface is expected to interact with the overlying steam atmosphere through material and heat exchange. Impact degassing of water starts when the size of a planetary body becomes larger than Earth’s moon or Mars. The degassed water could build up and form a steam atmosphere on protoplanets growing by planetesimal accretion. The atmosphere has a role in preventing accretion energy supplied by planetesimals from escaping, leading to the formation of a magma ocean. Once a magma ocean forms, part of the steam atmosphere would start to dissolve into the surface magma due to the high solubility of water into silicate melt. Theoretical studies indicated that as long as the magma ocean is present, a negative feedback loop can operate to regulate the amount of the steam atmosphere and to stabilize the surface temperature so that a radiative energy balance is achieved. Protoplanets can also accrete the surrounding H 2 -rich disk gas. Water could be produced by oxidation of H 2 by ferrous iron in the magma. The atmosphere and water on protoplanets could be a mixture of outgassed and disk-gas components. Planets formed by giant impact would experience a global melting on a short timescale. A steam atmosphere could grow by later outgassing from the interior. Its thermal blanketing and greenhouse effects are of great importance in controlling the cooling rate of the magma ocean. Due to the presence of a runaway greenhouse threshold, the crystallization timescale and water budget of terrestrial planets can depend on the orbital distance from the host star. The terrestrial planets in our solar system essentially have no direct record of their earliest history, whereas observations of young terrestrial exoplanets may provide us some insight into what early terrestrial planets and their atmosphere are like. Evolution of protoplanets in the framework of pebble accretion remains unexplored.

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 Atmosphere of Uranus  

Leigh N. Fletcher

Uranus provides a unique laboratory to test current understanding of planetary atmospheres under extreme conditions. Multi-spectral observations from Voyager, ground-based observatories, and space telescopes have revealed a delicately banded atmosphere punctuated by storms, waves, and dark vortices, evolving slowly under the seasonal influence of Uranus’s extreme axial tilt. Condensables like methane and hydrogen sulphide play a crucial role in shaping circulation, clouds, and storm phenomena via latent heat release through condensation, strong equator-to-pole gradients suggestive of equatorial upwelling and polar subsidence, and the formation of stabilizing layers that may decouple different circulation and convective regimes as a function of depth. Phase transitions in the watery depths may also decouple Uranus’s atmosphere from motions within the interior. Weak vertical mixing and low atmospheric temperatures associated with Uranus’s negligible internal heat means that stratospheric methane photochemistry occurs in a unique high-pressure regime, decoupled from the influx of external oxygen. The low homopause also allows for the formation of an extensive ionosphere. Finally, the atmosphere provides a window on the bulk composition of Uranus—the ice-to-rock ratio, supersolar elemental and isotopic enrichments inferred from remote sensing, and future in situ measurements—providing key insights into its formation and subsequent migration. As a cold, hydrogen-dominated, intermediate-sized, slowly rotating, and chemically enriched world, Uranus could be the closest and best example of atmospheric processes on a class of worlds that may dominate the census of planets beyond our own solar system. Future missions to the Uranian system must carry a suite of instrumentation capable of advancing knowledge of the time-variable circulation, composition, meteorology, chemistry, and clouds on this enigmatic “ice giant.”

Article

The Formation and Evolution of the Solar System  

Mikhail Marov

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.

Article

The Recognition of Meteorites and Ice Ages  

Alan E. Rubin

Two important scientific questions that confronted 18th- and 19th-century naturalists were whether continental glaciation had occurred thousands of years earlier and whether extraterrestrial rocks occasionally fell to Earth. Eventual recognition of these hypotheses as real phenomena resulted from initial reports by nonprofessionals, subsequent investigation by skeptical scientists, and vigorous debate. Evidence that kilometer-thick glaciers had once covered Northern Europe and Canada included (a) the resemblance of scratched and polished rocks near mountain glaciers to those located in unglaciated U-shaped valleys; (b) the similarity of poorly sorted rocks and debris within “drift deposits” (moraines) to the sediment load of glaciers; and (c) the discovery of freezing meltwater at the base of glaciers, hypothesized to facilitate their movement. Three main difficulties naturalists had with accepting the notion that rocks fell from the sky were that (a) meteorite falls are localized events, generally unwitnessed by professional scientists; (b) mixed in with reports of falling rocks were fabulous accounts of falling masses of blood, flesh, milk, gelatin, and other substances; and (c) the phenomenon of falling rocks could neither be predicted nor verified by experiment. Five advances leading to the acceptance of meteorites were (a) Ernst Chladni’s 1794 treatise linking meteors, fireballs, and falling rocks; (b) meteor observations conducted in 1798 showing the high altitudes and enormous velocities of their meteoroid progenitors; (c) a spate of several widely witnessed meteorite falls between 1794 and 1807 in Europe, India, and America; (d) chemical analyses of several meteorites by Edward Charles Howard in 1802, showing all contained nickel (which is rare in the Earth’s crust); and (e) the discoveries of four asteroids between 1801 and 1807, providing a plausible extraterrestrial source for meteorites.

Article

The Surface Composition of Terrestrial Planets  

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.