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Astrobiology (Overview)  

Sean McMahon

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


Chemical Weathering on Venus  

Mikhail Zolotov

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


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.


Martian Paleoclimate  

Robert M. Haberle

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


Planetary Spectroscopy  

Alian Wang

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


The Atmosphere of Titan  

Athena Coustenis

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