The study of active asteroids is a relatively new field of study in Solar System science, focusing on objects with asteroid-like orbits but that exhibit comet-like activity. This field, which crosses traditionally drawn lines between research focused on inactive asteroids and active comets, has motivated reevaluations of classical assumptions about small Solar System objects and presents exciting new opportunities for learning more about the origin and evolution of the Solar System. Active asteroids whose activity appears to be driven by the sublimation of volatile ices could have significant implications for determining the origin of the Earth’s water—and therefore its ability to support life—and also challenge traditional assumptions about the survivability of ice in the warm inner Solar System. Meanwhile, active asteroids whose activity appears to be caused by disruptive processes such as impacts or rotational destabilization provide exciting opportunities to gain insights into fundamental processes operating in the asteroid belt and assessing their effects on the asteroid population seen in the 21st century.
The asteroid impact near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013, was the largest airburst on Earth since the 1908 Tunguska event, causing a natural disaster in an area with a population exceeding 1 million. On clear morning at 9:20 a.m. local time, an asteroid about 19 m in size entered the Earth atmosphere near southern Ural Mountains (Russia) and, with its bright illumination, attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of people. Dust trail in the atmosphere after the bolide was tens of kilometers long and was visible for several hours. Thousands of different size meteorites were found in the areas south-southwest of Chelyabinsk. A powerful airburst, which was formed due to meteoroid energy deposition, shattered thousands of windows and doors in Chelyabinsk and wide surroundings, with flying glass injuring many residents. The entrance and destruction of the 500-kt Chelyabinsk asteroid produced a number of observable effects, including light and thermal radiation; acoustic, infrasound, blast, and seismic waves; and release of interplanetary substance. This unexpected and unusual event is the most well-documented bolide airburst, and it attracted worldwide attention. The airburst was observed globally by multiple instruments. Analyses of the observational data allowed determination of the size of the body that caused the superbolide, its velocity, its trajectory, its behavior in the atmosphere, the strength of the blast wave, and other characteristics. The entry of the 19-m-diameter Chelyabinsk asteroid provides a unique opportunity to calibrate the different approaches used to model meteoroid entry and to calculate the damaging effects. The recovered meteorite material was characterized as brecciated LL5 ordinary chondrite, in which three different lithologies can be distinguished (light-colored, dark-colored, and impact-melt). The structure and properties of meteorites demonstrate that before encountering Earth, the Chelyabinsk asteroid had experienced a very complex history involving at least a few impacts with other bodies and thermal metamorphism. The Chelyabinsk airburst of February 15, 2013, was exceptional because of the large kinetic energy of the impacting body and the damaging airburst that was generated. Before the event, decameter-sized objects were considered to be safe. With the Chelyabinsk event, it is possible, for the first time, to link the damage from an impact event to a well-determined impact energy in order to assess the future hazards of asteroids to lives and property.
Leonid V. Ksanfomality
Cometary nuclei are small, despite the cosmic scale of the comet tails that they produce. The nuclei have the ability to create rarefied atmospheres, extending as a tail to giant distances comparable to the orbital distances of the planets. Giant tails of comets are sometimes observed for several years and cover a significant part of the sky. The cometary nucleus is capable of continuously renewing tails and supporting the material that is constantly dissipating in space. Large comets do not appear so often that they have become trivial celestial phenomena, but they appear often enough to allow astronomers to complete detailed studies. Many remarkable discoveries, such as the discovery of solar wind, were made during the study of comets. Comets are characterized by great diversity, and their appearance often becomes an ornament of the night sky. Comets have become remote laboratories, where experiments are performed in physical conditions that are not achievable on Earth.
Cosmogenic nuclides are produced by the interaction of energetic elementary particles of galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) and their secondaries with atomic nuclei in extraterrestrial or terrestrial material. In extraterrestrial samples cosmogenic nuclides produced by energetic particles emitted by the Sun (SCR) are also detectable. Cosmogenic nuclides usually are observable only for noble gas isotopes, whose natural abundances in the targets of interest are exceedingly low, with some radioactive isotopes having half-lives mostly in the million-year range, and a few stable nuclides of elements such as Gd and Sm whose abundance is appreciably modified by reactions with low-energy secondary cosmic-ray neutrons. In solid matter, the mean attenuation length of GCR protons is on the order of 50 cm. Therefore, cosmogenic nuclides are a major tool to study the history of small objects in space and of matter near the surfaces of larger parent bodies. A classical application is to measure “exposure ages” of meteorites, that is, the time they spent as a small body in interplanetary space. In some cases, the previous history of the future meteorite in its parent-body regolith can also be constrained. Such information helps to understand delivery mechanisms of meteorites from their parent asteroids (mainly from the main belt) or parent planets, and to constrain the number of ejection events responsible for the meteorites in collections worldwide. Cosmogenic nuclides in lunar samples from known depths of up to ~2 m serve to study the deposition and mixing history of the lunar regolith over hundreds of million years, as well as to calibrate nuclide production models. Present and future sample return missions rely on cosmogenic nuclide measurements as important tools to constrain the sample’s exposure history or loss rates of its parent-body surfaces to space. First measurements of cosmogenic noble gas isotopes on the surface of Mars demonstrate that the exposure and erosional history of planetary bodies can be obtained by in situ analyses. Exposure ages of presolar grains in meteorites provide at present the only quantitative constraint of their presolar history. In some cases, irradiation effects of energetic particles from the early Sun can be detected in early solar system condensates, confirming that the early Sun was likely much more active than later in its history, as expected from observations of young stars. The increasing precision of modern isotope analyses also reveals tiny isotopic anomalies induced by cosmic-ray effects in several elements of interest in cosmochemistry, which need to be recognized and corrected for. Cosmogenic nuclide studies rely on the knowledge of their production rates, which depend on the elemental composition of a sample and its “shielding” during irradiation, that is, its position within an irradiated object, and for meteorites their pre-atmospheric size. The physics of cosmogenic nuclide production is basically well understood and has led to sophisticated production models. They are most successful if a sample’s shielding can be constrained by the analyses of several cosmogenic nuclides with different depth dependencies of their production rates. Cosmogenic nuclides are also an important tool in Earth sciences, although this is not a topic of this article. The foremost example is 14C produced in the atmosphere and incorporated into organic material, which is used for dating. Cosmogenic radionucuclides and noble gases produced in situ in near-surface samples, mostly by secondary cosmic-ray neutrons, are an important tool in quantitative geomorphology and related fields.
Exoplanets: Atmospheres of Hot Jupiters
Dmitry V. Bisikalo, Pavel V. Kaygorodov, and Valery I. Shematovich
The history of exoplanetary atmospheres studies is strongly based on the observations and investigations of the gaseous envelopes of hot Jupiters—exoplanet gas giants that have masses comparable to the mass of Jupiter and orbital semi-major axes shorter than 0.1 AU. The first exoplanet around a solar-type star was a hot Jupiter discovered in 1995. Researchers found an object that had completely atypical parameters compared to planets known in the solar system. According to their estimates, the object might have a mass about a half of the Jovian mass and a very short orbital period (four days), which means that it has an orbit roughly corresponding to the orbit of Mercury. Later, many similar objects were discovered near different stars, and they acquired a common name—hot Jupiters. It is still unclear what the mechanism is for their origin, because generally accepted theories of planetary evolution predict the formation of giant planets only at large orbital distances, where they can accrete enough matter before the protoplanetary disc disappears. If this is true, before arriving at such low orbits, hot Jupiters might have a long migration path, caused by interactions with other massive planets and/or with the gaseous disc. In favor of this model is the discovery of many hot Jupiters in elliptical and highly inclined orbits, but on the other hand several observed hot Jupiters have circular orbits with low inclination. An alternative hypothesis is that the cores of future hot Jupiters are super-Earths that may later intercept matter from the protoplanetary disk falling on the star. The scientific interest in hot Jupiters has two aspects. The first is the peculiarity of these objects: they have no analogues in the solar system. The second is that, until recently, only for hot Jupiters was it possible to obtain observational characteristics of their atmospheres. Many of the known hot Jupiters are eclipsing their host stars, so, from their light curve and spectral data obtained during an eclipse, it became possible to obtain information about their shape and their atmospheric composition. Thus it is possible to conclude that hot Jupiters are a common type of exoplanet, having no analogues in the solar system. Many aspects of their evolution and internal structure remain unclear. Being very close to their host stars, hot Jupiters must interact with the stellar wind and stellar magnetic field, as well as with stellar flares and coronal mass ejections, allowing researchers to gather information about them. According to UV observations, at least a fraction of hot Jupiters have extended gaseous envelopes, extending far beyond of their upper atmospheres. The envelopes are observable with current astronomical instruments, so it is possible to develop their astrophysical models. The history of hot Jupiter atmosphere studies during the past 20 years and the current status of modern theories describing the extended envelopes of hot Jupiters are excellent examples of the progress in understanding planetary atmospheres formation and evolution both in the solar system and in the extrasolar planetary systems.
Since the early 1990s, in analytical reviews, experts have increasingly been paying attention to the growing scarcity of rare and rare earth metals (REM) necessary for the development of advanced technologies in modern industry. The volume of the world market has increased over the past 50 years from 5,000 to 125,000 tons per year, which is explained by the extensive use of REM in the rapidly developing areas of industry associated with the advancement of high technology. Unique properties of REM are primarily used in the aerospace and other industrial sectors of the economy, and therefore are strategic materials. For example, platinum is an indispensable element that is used as a catalyst for chemical reactions. No battery can do without platinum. If all the millions of vehicles traveling along our roads installed hybrid batteries, all platinum reserves on Earth would end in the next 15 years! Consumers are interested in six elements known as the platinum group of metals (PGM): iridium (Ir), osmium (Os), palladium (palladium, Pd), rhodium (rhodium, Rh), ruthenium (ruthenium, Ru), and platinum itself. These elements, rare on the Earth, possess unique chemical and physical properties, which makes them vital industrial materials. To solve this problem, projects were proposed for the utilization of the substance of asteroids approaching the Earth. According to modern estimates, the number of known asteroids approaching the Earth reaches more than 9,000. Despite the difficulties of seizing, transporting, and further developing such an object in space, this way of solving the problem seemed technologically feasible and cost-effectively justified. A 10 m iron-nickel asteroid could contain up to 75 tons of rare metals and REM, primarily PGM, equivalent to a commercial price of about $2.8 billion in 2016 prices. However, the utilization of an asteroid substance entering the lunar surface can be technologically simpler and economically more cost-effective. Until now, it was believed that the lunar impact craters do not contain the rocks of the asteroids that formed them, since at high velocities the impactors evaporate during a collision with the lunar surface. According to the latest research, it turned out that at a fall rate of less than 12 km/s falling body (drummer) can partially survive in a mechanically fractured state. Consequently, the number of possible resources present on the lunar surface can be attributed to nickel, cobalt, platinum, and rare metals of asteroid origin. The calculations show that the total mass, for example, of platinum and platinoids on the lunar surface as a result of the fall of asteroids may amount more than 14 million tons. It should be noted that the world’s known reserves of platinum group metals on the Earth are about 80,000 tons.
The Formation of the Martian Moons
Pascal Rosenblatt, Ryuki Hyodo, Francesco Pignatale, Antony Trinh, Sebastien Charnoz, Kevin Dunseath, Mariko Dunseath-Terao, and Hidenori Genda
The origin of the natural satellites or moons of the solar system is as challenging to unravel as the formation of the planets. Before the start of the space probe exploration era, this topic of planetary science was restricted to telescopic observations, which limited the possibility of testing different formation scenarios. This era has considerably boosted this topic of research, particularly after the Apollo missions returned samples from the Moon’s surface to Earth. Observations from subsequent deep space missions such as Viking 1 and 2 Orbiters, Voyager 1 and 2, Phobos-2, Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, and the most recent Mars orbiters such as Mars Express, as well as from the Hubble space telescope, have served to intensify research in this area. Each moon system has its own specificities, with different origins and histories. It is widely accepted that the Earth’s Moon formed after a giant collision between the proto-Earth and a body similar in size to Mars. The Galilean moons of Jupiter, on the other hand, appear to have formed by accretion in a circum-Jovian disk, while smaller, irregularly shaped satellites were probably captured by the giant planet. The small and medium-sized Saturnian moons may have formed from the rings encircling the planet. Among the terrestrial planets, Mercury and Venus have no moons, the Earth has a single large moon, and Mars has two very small satellites. This raises some challenging questions: What processes can lead to moon formation around terrestrial planets and what parameters determine the possible outcomes, such as the number and size of moons? The answer to such fundamental questions necessarily entails a thorough understanding of the formation of the Martian system and may have relevance to the possible existence of (exo)moons orbiting exoplanets. The formation of such exomoons is of great importance as they could influence conditions for habitability or for maintaining life over long periods of time on the surface of Earth-like exoplanets, for example by limiting the variations of the orientation of the planet’s rotation axis and thus preventing frequent changes of its climate. Our current knowledge concerning the origin of Phobos and Deimos has been acquired from observational data as well as theoretical work. Early observations led to the idea that the two satellites were captured asteroids but this created difficulties in reconciling the current orbits of Phobos and Deimos with those of captured bodies, hence suggesting the need for an alternative theory. A giant-impact scenario provides a description of how moons similar to Phobos and Deimos can be formed in orbits similar to those observed today. This scenario also restricts the range of possible composition of the two moons, providing a motivation for future missions that aim for the first time to bring material from the Martian system back to Earth.
Hot Planetary Coronas
Valery I. Shematovich and Dmitry V. Bisikalo
The uppermost layers of a planetary atmosphere, where the density of neutral particles is vanishingly low, are commonly called exosphere or planetary corona. Since the atmosphere is not completely bound to the planet by the planetary gravitational field, light atoms, such as hydrogen and helium, with sufficiently large thermal velocities can escape from the upper atmosphere into interplanetary space. This process is commonly called Jeans escape and depends on the temperature of the ambient atmospheric gas at an altitude where the atmospheric gas is virtually collisionless. The heavier carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms can populate the coronas and escape from the atmospheres of terrestrial planets only through nonthermal processes such as photo- and electron-impact energizing, charge exchange, atmospheric sputtering, and ion pickup. The observations reveal that the planetary coronae contain both a fraction of thermal neutral particles with a mean kinetic energy corresponding to the exospheric temperature and a fraction of hot neutral particles with mean kinetic energy much higher than that expected for the exospheric temperature. These suprathermal (hot) atoms and molecules are the direct manifestation of the nonthermal processes taking place in the atmospheres. These hot particles populate the hot coronas, take a major part in the atmospheric escape, produce nonthermal emissions, and react with the ambient atmospheric gas, triggering the hot atom chemistry.
Icy Satellites: Interior Structure, Dynamics, and Evolution
This article consists of three sections. The first discusses how we determine satellite internal structures and what we know about them. The primary probes of internal structure are measurements of magnetic induction, gravity, and topography, as well as rotation state and orientation. Enceladus, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, and (perhaps) Pluto all have subsurface oceans; Callisto and Titan may be only incompletely differentiated. The second section describes dynamical processes that affect satellite interiors and surfaces: tidal and radioactive heating, flexure and relaxation, convection, cryovolcanism, true polar wander, non-synchronous rotation, orbital evolution, and impacts. The final section discusses how the satellites formed and evolved. Ancient tidal heating episodes and subsequent refreezing of a subsurface ocean are the likeliest explanation for the deformation observed at Ganymede, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Miranda, Ariel, and Titania. The high heat output of Enceladus is a consequence of Saturn’s highly dissipative interior, but the dissipation rate is strongly frequency-dependent and does not necessarily imply that Saturn’s moons are young. Major remaining questions include the origins of Titan’s atmosphere and high eccentricity, the regular density progression in the Galilean satellites, and the orbital evolution of the Saturnian and Uranian moons.
Iron Meteorites: Composition, Age, and Origin
Edward R. D. Scott
Iron meteorites are thought to be samples of metallic cores and pools that formed in diverse small planetary bodies. Their great diversity offers remarkable insights into the formation of asteroids and the early history of the solar system. The chemical compositions of iron meteorites generally match those predicted from experimental and theoretical considerations of melting in small bodies. These bodies, called planetesimals, were composed of mixtures of grains of silicates, metallic iron-nickel, and iron sulfide with compositions and proportions like those in chondrite meteorites. Melting in planetesimals caused dense metal to sink through silicate so that metallic cores formed. A typical iron meteorite contains 5–10% nickel, ~0.5% cobalt, 0.1–0.5% phosphorus, 0.1–1% sulfur and over 20 other elements in trace amounts. A few percent of iron meteorites also contain silicate inclusions, which should have readily separated from molten metal because of their buoyancy. They provide important evidence for impacts between molten or partly molten planetesimals. The major heat source for melting planetesimals was the radioactive isotope 26Al, which has a half-life of 0.7 million years. However, a few iron meteorites probably formed by impact melting of chondritic material. Impact processes were also important in the creation of many iron meteorites when planetesimals were molten. Chemical analysis show that most iron meteorites can be divided into 14 groups: about 15% appear to come from another 50 or more poorly sampled parent bodies. Chemical variations within all but three groups are consistent with fractional crystallization of molten cores of planetesimals. The other three groups are richer in silicates and probably come from pools of molten metal in chondritic bodies. Isotopic analysis provides formation ages for iron meteorites and clues to their provenance. Isotopic dating suggests that the parent bodies of iron meteorites formed before those of chondrites, and some irons appear to be the oldest known meteorites. Their unexpected antiquity is consistent with 26Al heating of planetesimals. Bodies that accreted more than ~2 million years after the oldest known solids (refractory inclusions in chondrites) should not have contained enough 26Al to melt. Isotopic analysis also shows that iron meteorites, like other meteorite types, display small anomalies due to pre-solar grains that were not homogenized in the solar nebula (or protoplanetary disk). Although iron meteorites are derived from asteroids, their isotopic anomalies provide the best clues that some come from planetesimals that did not form in the asteroid belt. Some may have formed beyond Jupiter; others show isotopic similarities to Earth and may have formed in the neighborhood of the terrestrial planets. Iron meteorites therefore contain important clues to the formation of planetesimals that melted and they also provide constraints on theories for the formation of planets and asteroids.
Lunar and Planetary Geology
Alexander T. Basilevsky
Lunar and planetary geology can be described using examples such as the geology of Earth (as the reference case) and geologies of the Earth’s satellite the Moon; the planets Mercury, Mars and Venus; the satellite of Saturn Enceladus; the small stony asteroid Eros; and the nucleus of the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Each body considered is illustrated by its global view, with information given as to its position in the solar system, size, surface, environment including gravity acceleration and properties of its atmosphere if it is present, typical landforms and processes forming them, materials composing these landforms, information on internal structure of the body, stages of its geologic evolution in the form of stratigraphic scale, and estimates of the absolute ages of the stratigraphic units. Information about one body may be applied to another body and this, in particular, has led to the discovery of the existence of heavy “meteoritic” bombardment in the early history of the solar system, which should also significantly affect Earth. It has been shown that volcanism and large-scale tectonics may have not only been an internal source of energy in the form of radiogenic decay of potassium, uranium and thorium, but also an external source in the form of gravity tugging caused by attractions of the neighboring bodies. The knowledge gained by lunar and planetary geology is important for planning and managing space missions and for the practical exploration of other bodies of the solar system and establishing manned outposts on them.
Mass Erosion and Transport on Cometary Nuclei, as Found on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
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.
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.
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.
The Pluto−Charon System
Pluto orbits the Sun at a mean distance of 39.5 AU (astronomical units; 1 AU is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun), with an orbital period of 248 Earth years. Its orbit is just eccentric enough to cross that of Neptune. They never collide thanks to a 2:3 mean-motion resonance: Pluto completes two orbits of the Sun for every three by Neptune. The Pluto system consists of Pluto and its large satellite Charon, plus four small satellites: Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Pluto and Charon are spherical bodies, with diameters of 2,377 and 1,212 km, respectively. They are tidally locked to one another such that each spins about its axis with the same 6.39-day period as their mutual orbit about their common barycenter. Pluto’s surface is dominated by frozen volatiles nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. Their vapor pressure supports an atmosphere with multiple layers of photochemical hazes. Pluto’s equator is marked by a belt of dark red maculae, where the photochemical haze has accumulated over time. Some regions are ancient and cratered, while others are geologically active via processes including sublimation and condensation, glaciation, and eruption of material from the subsurface. The surfaces of the satellites are dominated by water ice. Charon has dark red polar stains produced from chemistry fed by Pluto’s escaping atmosphere. The existence of a planet beyond Neptune had been postulated by Percival Lowell and William Pickering in the early 20th century to account for supposed clustering in comet aphelia and perturbations of the orbit of Uranus. Both lines of evidence turned out to be spurious, but they motivated a series of searches that culminated in Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930 at the observatory Lowell had founded in Arizona. Over subsequent decades, basic facts about Pluto were hard-won through application of technological advances in astronomical instrumentation. During the progression from photographic plates through photoelectric photometers to digital array detectors, space-based telescopes, and ultimately, direct exploration by robotic spacecraft, each revealed more about Pluto. A key breakthrough came in 1978 with the discovery of Charon by Christy and Harrington. Charon’s orbit revealed the mass of the system. Observations of stellar occultations constrained the sizes of Pluto and Charon and enabled the detection of Pluto’s atmosphere in 1988. Spectroscopic instruments revealed Pluto’s volatile ices. In a series of mutual events from 1985 through 1990, Pluto and Charon alternated in passing in front of the other as seen from Earth. Observations of these events provided additional constraints on their sizes and albedo patterns and revealed their distinct compositions. The Hubble Space Telescope’s vantage above Earth’s atmosphere enabled further mapping of Pluto’s albedo patterns and the discovery of the small satellites. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew through the system in 2015. Its instruments mapped the diversity and compositions of geological features on Pluto and Charon and provided detailed information on Pluto’s atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind.
Larry W. Esposito
Saturn’s rings are not only a beautiful and enduring symbol of space, but astronomers’ best local laboratory for studying phenomena in thin cosmic disks like those where planets formed. All the giant planets have ring systems. Saturn’s are the biggest and brightest. Saturn’s rings are made of innumerable icy particles, ranging from the size of dust to that of football stadiums. Galileo discovered Saturn’s rings with his newly invented telescope, but they were not explained until Huygens described them as thin, flat disks surrounding the planet. In the space age, rings were found around the other giant planets in our solar system. Rings have been seen around asteroids and likely exist around exoplanets. Many of the ring structures seen are created by gravity from Saturn’s moons. Rings show both ongoing aggregation and disaggregation. After decades of study from space and by theoretical analysis, some puzzles still remain unexplained. There is evidence for youthful rings from Cassini results, but no good theory to explain their recent origin. A future Saturn Ring Observer mission would be able to determine the direct connections between the individual ring physical properties and the origin and evolution of larger structures.
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.
Solar Elemental Abundances
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.
The Lunar Dust Puzzle
Alexander V. Zakharov
The Moon was the first extraterrestrial body to attract the attention of space pioneers. It has been about half a century since an active lunar exploration campaign was carried out. At that time, a series of Russian and American automatic landing vehicles and the American manned Apollo Program carried out an unprecedented program of lunar exploration in terms of its saturation and volume. Unique breakthrough data on the lunar regolith and plasma environment were obtained, a large number of experiments were carried out using automated and manned expeditions, and more than 300 kg of lunar regolith and rock samples were delivered to Earth for laboratory research. A wealth of experience has been accumulated by performing direct human activities on the lunar surface. At the same time, the most unexpected result of the studies was the detection of a glow above the surface, recorded by television cameras installed on several lunar landers. The interpretation of this phenomenon led to the conclusion that sunlight is scattered by dust particles levitating above the surface of the Moon. When the Apollo manned lunar exploration program was being prepared, this fact was already known, and it was taken into account when developing a program for astronauts’ extravehicular activities on the lunar surface, conducting scientific research, and ground tests. However, despite preparations for possible problems associated with lunar dust, according to American astronauts working on the lunar surface, the lunar dust factor turned out to be the most unpleasant in terms of the degree of impact on the lander and its systems, on the activities of astronauts on the surface, and on their health. Over the past decades, theoretical and experimental model studies have been carried out aimed at understanding the nature of the lunar horizon glow. It turned out that this phenomenon is associated with the complex effect of external factors on the lunar regolith, as a result of which there are a constant processing and grinding of the lunar regolith to particles of micron and even submicron sizes. Particles of lunar regolith that are less than a millimeter in size are commonly called lunar dust. As a result of the influence of external factors, the upper surface of the regolith acquires an electric charge, and a cloud of photoelectrons and a double layer are formed above the illuminated surface. Coulomb forces in the electric field of this layer, acting on microparticles of lunar dust, under certain conditions are capable of tearing microparticles from the surface of the regolith. These dust particles, near-surface plasma, and electrostatic fields form the near-surface dusty plasma exosphere of the Moon. The processes leading to the formation of regolith and microparticles on the Moon, their separation from the surface, and further dynamics above the surface include many external factors affecting the Moon and physical processes on the surface and near-surface dusty plasma exosphere. As a result of the research carried out, a lot has been understood, but many unsolved problems remain. Recently, since the space agencies of the leading space powers have been turning their attention to intensive research and subsequent exploration of the Moon, interest in the processes associated with the dynamics of lunar dust and its influence on landing vehicles and their engineering systems is increasing, and significant attention is being paid to reducing and mitigating the negative impact of lunar dust on the activities of astronauts and their health.
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.