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.
Chemical Weathering on Venus
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.
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.
Composition of Earth
Early models of the composition of the Earth relied heavily on meteorites. In all these models Earth had different layers, each layer corresponded to a different type of meteorite or meteorite component. Later, more realistic models based on analyses of samples from Earth began with Ringwood’s pyrolite composition in the 1960s. Further improvement came with the analyses of rare MgO rich peridotites from a variety of occurrences all over the Earth, as xenoliths enclosed in melts from the upper mantle or as ultramafic massifs, tectonically emplaced on the Earth’s surface. Chemical systematics of these rocks allow the determination of the major element composition of the primitive upper mantle (PUM), the upper mantle after core formation and before extraction of basalts ultimately leading to the formation of the crust. Trace element analyses of upper mantle rocks confirmed their primitive nature. Geochemical and geophysical evidence argue for a bulk Earth mantle of uniform composition, identical to the PUM, also designated as “bulk silicate Earth” (BSE). The formation of a metal core was accompanied by the removal of siderophile and chalcophile elements into the core. Detailed modeling suggests that core formation was an ongoing process parallel to the accretion of Earth. The composition of the core is model dependent and thus uncertain and makes reliable estimates for siderophile and chalcophile element concentrations of bulk Earth difficult. Improved stable isotope analyses show isotopic similarities with noncarbonaceous chondrites (NCC), while the chemical composition of the mantle of the Earth indicates similarities with carbonaceous chondrites (CC). In detail, however, it can be shown that no single known meteorite group, nor any mixture of meteorite groups can match the chemical and isotopic composition of Earth. This conclusion is extremely important for any formation model of the Earth.
Condensation Calculations in Planetary Science and Cosmochemistry
Denton S. Ebel
The Sun’s chemical and isotopic composition records the composition of the solar nebula from which the planets formed. If a piece of the Sun is cooled to 1,000 K at 1 mbar total pressure, a mineral assemblage is produced that is consistent with the minerals found in the least equilibrated (most chemically heterogeneous), oldest, and compositionally Sunlike (chondritic), hence most “primitive,” meteorites. This is an equilibrium or fractional condensation experiment. The result can be simulated by calculations using equations of state for hundreds of gaseous molecules, condensed mineral solids, and silicate liquids, the products of a century of experimental measurements and recent theoretical studies. Such calculations have revolutionized our understanding of the chemistry of the cosmos. The mid-20th century realization that meteorites are fossil records of the early solar system made chemistry central to understanding the origin of the Earth, Moon, and other bodies. Thus “condensation,” more generally the distribution of elements and isotopes between vapor and condensed solids and/or liquids at or approaching chemical equilibrium, came to deeply inform discussion of how meteoritic and cometary compositions bear on the origins of atmospheres and oceans and the differences in composition among the planets. This expansion of thinking has had profound effects upon our thinking about the origin and evolution of Earth and the other worlds of our solar system. Condensation calculations have also been more broadly applied to protoplanetary disks around young stars, to the mineral “rain” of mineral grains expected to form in cool dwarf star atmospheres, to the expanding circumstellar envelopes of giant stars, to the vapor plumes expected to form in giant planetary impacts, and to the chemically and isotopically distinct “shells” computed and observed to exist in supernovae. The beauty of equilibrium condensation calculations is that the distribution of elements between gaseous molecules, solids, and liquids is fixed by temperature, total pressure, and the overall elemental composition of the system. As with all sophisticated calculations, there are inherent caveats, subtleties, and computational difficulties. In particular, local equilibrium chemistry has yet to be consistently integrated into gridded, dynamical astrophysical simulations so that effects like the blocking of light and heat by grains (opacity), absorption and re-emission of light by grains (radiative transfer), and buffering of heat by grain evaporation/condensation are fed back into the physics at each node or instance of a gridded calculation over time. A deeper integration of thermochemical computations of chemistry with physical models makes the prospect of a general protoplanetary disk model as hopeful in the 2020s as a general circulation model for global climate may have been in the early 1970s.
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.
Element Partitioning (Mineral-Melt, Metal-/Sulfide-Silicate) in Planetary Sciences
Element partitioning—at its most basic—is the distribution of an element of interest between two constituent phases as a function of some process. Major constituent elements generally affect the thermodynamic environment (chemical equilibrium) and therefore trace element partitioning is often considered, as trace elements are present in minute quantities and their equilibrium exchange reactions do not impart significant changes to the larger system. Trace elements are responsive to thermodynamic conditions, and thus they act as passive tracers of chemical reactions without appreciably influencing the bulk reactions themselves. In planetary sciences, the phase pairs typically considered are mineral-melt, metal-silicate, and sulfide-silicate, owing largely to the ubiquity of their coexistence in planetary materials across scales and context, from the micrometer-sized components of meteorites up to the size of planets (thousands of kilometers). It is common to speak of trace elements in terms of their tendency toward forming metallic, sulfidic, or oxide phases, and the terms “siderophile,” “chalcophile,” and “lithophile” (respectively) are used to define these tendencies under what is known as the Goldschmidt Classification scheme. The metric of an element’s tendency to concentrate into one phase relative to another is expressed as the ratio of its concentration (as a weight or molar fraction) in one phase over another, where convention dictates the reference frame as solid over liquid, and metal or sulfide over silicate; this mathematical term is the element’s partition coefficient, or distribution coefficient, between the two respective phases, D M Phase B Phase A (where M is the element of interest, most often reported as molar fraction), or simply D M . In general, trace elements obey Henry’s Law, where the element’s activity and concentration are linearly proportional. Practically speaking, this means that the element is sufficiently dilute in the system such that its atoms interact negligibly with one another compared to their interactions with major element phases, and thus the trace element’s partition coefficient in most settings is not appreciably affected by its concentration. The radius and charge of an element’s ionized species (its ionic radius and valence state)—in relation to either the major element ion for which it is substituting or the lattice site vacancy or interstitial space it is filling—generally determine the likelihood of trace element substitution or vacancy/interstitial fill (along with the net charge of the lattice space). The key energy consideration that underlies an element’s partitioning is the Gibbs free energy of reaction between the phases involved. Gibbs free energy is the change in internal energy associated with a chemical reaction (at a given temperature and pressure) that can be used to do work, and is denoted as Δ G rxn . Reactions with negative Δ G rxn values are spontaneous, and the magnitude of this negative value for a given phase, for example, a metal oxide, denotes the relative affinity of the metal toward forming oxides. That is to say, an element with a highly negative Δ G rxn for its oxide species at relevant pressure-temperature conditions will tend to be found in oxide and silicate minerals, that is, it will be lithophile (and vice versa for siderophile elements). Trace element partitioning systematics in mineral-melt and metal-/sulfide-silicate systems have boundless applications in planetary science. A growing collective understanding of the partition coefficients of elements has been built on decades of physical chemistry, deterministic theory, petrology, experimental petrology, and natural observations. Leveraging this immense intellectual, technical, and methodological foundation, modern trace element partitioning research is particularly aimed at constraining the evolution of plate tectonics on Earth (conditions and timing of onset), understanding the formation history of planetary materials such as chondrite meteorites and their constituents (e.g., chondrules), and de-convolving the multiply operating processes at play during the accretion and differentiation of Earth and other terrestrial planets.
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.
Formation, Composition, and Evolution of the Earth’s Core
The Earth’s core formed by multiple collisions with differentiated protoplanets. The Hf-W (hafnium-tungsten) isotopic system reveals that these collisions took place over a timescale of tens of megayears (Myr), in agreement with accretion simulations. The degree to which the iron and silicates re-equilibrated during each collision is uncertain and affects the apparent core age derived from tungsten isotopic measurements. Seismological data reveal that the core contains light elements in addition to Fe-Ni, and the outer core is more enriched in such elements than the inner core. Because O is excluded efficiently from solid iron, O is almost certainly an important constituent of the outer core. The identity of other elements is less certain, despite intensive measurements of their effects on seismic velocities, densities, and partitioning behavior at appropriate pressures and temperatures. Si and O are very likely present, with perhaps some S; C and H are less likely. Si and Mg may have exsolved over time, potentially helping to drive the geodynamo and producing a low-density layer at the top of the core. Radioactive elements (U, Th, K) are unlikely to be present in important concentrations. The cooling of the core is controlled by the mantle’s ability to extract heat. The geodynamo has existed for at least 3.5 gigayears (Gyr), placing a lower bound on the heat flow out of the core. Because the thermal conductivity of the core is uncertain by a factor of ~3, the lower bound on this heat flow is similarly uncertain. Once the inner core started to crystallize, additional sources of energy were available to power the geodynamo. Inner core crystallization likely started in the time range 0.5 to 2.0 Gyr Before Present (BP); paleomagnetic arguments have been advanced for inner core growth starting at several different epochs within this time range.
Interplanetary Dust Particles
George J. Flynn
Scattered sunlight from interplanetary dust particles, mostly produced by comets and asteroids, orbiting the Sun are visible at dusk or dawn as the Zodiacal Cloud. Impacts onto the space-exposed surfaces of Earth-orbiting satellites indicate that, in the current era, thousands of tons of interplanetary dust enters the Earth’s atmosphere every year. Some particles vaporize forming meteors while others survive atmospheric deceleration and settle to the surface of the Earth. NASA has collected interplanetary dust particles from the Earth’s stratosphere using high-altitude aircraft since the mid-1970s. Detailed characterization of these particles shows that some are unique samples of Solar System and presolar material, never affected by the aqueous and thermal processing that overprints the record of formation from the Solar Protoplanetary Disk in the meteorites. These particles preserve the record of grain and dust formation from the disk. This record suggests that many of the crystalline minerals, dominated by crystalline silicates (olivine and pyroxene) and Fe-sulfides, condensed from gas in the inner Solar System and were then transported outward to the colder outer Solar System where carbon-bearing ices condensed on the surfaces of the grains. Irradiation by solar ultraviolet light and cosmic rays produced thin organic coatings on the grain surfaces that likely aided in grain sticking, forming the first dust particles of the Solar System. This continuous, planet-wide rain of interplanetary dust particles can be monitored by the accumulation of 3He, implanted into the interplanetary dust particles by the Solar Wind while they were in space, in oceanic sediments. The interplanetary dust, which is rich in organic carbon, may have contributed important pre-biotic organic matter important to the development of life to the surface of the early Earth.
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.
Isotopic dating is the measurement of time using the decay of radioactive isotopes and accumulation of decay products at a known rate. With isotopic chronometers, we determine the time of the processes that fractionate parent and daughter elements. Modern isotopic dating can resolve time intervals of ~1 million years over the entire lifespan of the Earth and the Solar System, and has even higher time resolution for the earliest and the most recent geological history. Using isotopic dates, we can build a unified scale of time for the evolution of Earth, the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, and expand it as samples from other planets become available for study. Modern geochronology and cosmochronology rely on isotopic dating methods that are based on decay of very long-lived radionuclides: 238U, 235U, 40K, 87Rb, 147Sm, etc. to stable radiogenic nuclides 206Pb, 207Pb, 40K, 40Ca, 87Sr, 143Nd, and moderately long-lived radionuclides: 26Al, 53Mn, 146Sm, 182Hf, to stable nuclides 26Mg, 53Cr, 142Nd, 182W. The diversity of physical and chemical properties of parent (radioactive) and daughter (radiogenic) nuclides, their geochemical and cosmochemical affinities, and the resulting diversity of processes that fractionate parent and daughter elements, allows direct isotopic dating of a vast range of earth and planetary processes. These processes include, but are not limited to evaporation and condensation, precipitation and dissolution, magmatism, metamorphism, metasomatism, sedimentation and diagenesis, ore formation, formation of planetary cores, crystallisation of magma oceans, and the timing of major impact events. Processes that cannot be dated directly, such as planetary accretion, can be bracketed between two datable events.
Lunar Exploration Missions and Environmental Discovery: Status and Progress
Kyeong J. Kim
Exploration of the Moon is currently one of the most important and interesting subjects. The Moon is considered not only a place to explore but also a place to live in preparation to explore planets beyond it. This opportunity has arisen due to a series of discoveries associated with water on the Moon during the past half century. Lunar exploration of the moon began with the flyby mission by the United States in 1959. Since then, scientific investigations of the Moon have increased understanding of the lunar geology and surface environment. Based on more than 70 lunar missions to date, a major goal is to explore how humans can live on the Moon for a long period of time to examine sustainability on the Moon. Consequently, the area of lunar science and technology is being employed to discover how in situ resources can be utilized for humans to live on the Moon and, eventually, Mars and beyond.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Planetary Atmospheres: Chemistry and Composition
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.
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.