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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.


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.


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 Atmospheres: Chemistry and Composition  

Channon Visscher

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  

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.


Steam Atmospheres and Magma Oceans on Planets  

Keiko Hamano

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


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.


The Atmosphere of Uranus  

Leigh N. Fletcher

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