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Trans-Neptunian Dwarf Planets  

Bryan J. Holler

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially recognizes five objects as dwarf planets: Ceres in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake in the trans-Neptunian region beyond the orbit of Neptune. However, the definition used by the IAU applies to many other trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) and can be summarized as follows: Any non-satellite large enough to be rounded by its own gravity. Practically speaking, this means any non-satellite with a diameter larger than 400 km. In the trans-Neptunian region, there are more than 150 objects that satisfy this definition, based on published results and diameter estimates. The dynamical structure of the trans-Neptunian region records the history of the migration of the giant planets in the early days of the solar system. The semi-major axes, eccentricities, and orbital inclinations of TNOs across various dynamical classes provide constraints on different aspects of planetary migration. For many TNOs, the orbital parameters are all that is known about them, due to their large distances, small sizes, and low albedos. The TNO dwarf planets are a different story. These objects are large enough to be studied in more detail from ground- and space-based observatories. Imaging observations can be used to detect satellites and measure surface colors, while spectroscopy can be used to constrain surface composition. In this way, TNO dwarf planets not only help provide context for the dynamical evolution of the outer solar system, but also reveal the composition of the primordial solar nebula as well as the physical and chemical processes at work at very cold temperatures. The largest TNO dwarf planets, those officially recognized by the IAU, plus others like Sedna, Quaoar, and Gonggong, are large enough to support volatile ices on their surfaces in the present day. These ices are able to exist as solids and gases on some TNOs, due to their sizes and surface temperatures (similar to water on Earth) and include N2 (nitrogen), CH4 (methane), and CO (carbon monoxide). A global atmosphere composed of these three species has been detected around Pluto, the largest TNO dwarf planet, with the possibility of local atmospheres or global atmospheres at perihelion for Eris and Makemake. The presence of non-volatile species, such as H2O (water), NH3 (ammonia), and complex hydrocarbons, provides valuable information on objects that may be too small to retain volatile ices over the age of the solar system. In particular, large quantities of H2O mixed with NH3 point to ancient cryovolcanism caused by internal differentiation of ice from rock. Complex hydrocarbons, formed through radiation processing of surface ices, such as CH4, record the radiation histories of these objects and provide clues to their primordial surface compositions. The dynamical, physical, and chemical diversity of the more than 150 TNO dwarf planets are key to understanding the formation of the solar system and its subsequent evolution to its current state. Most of our knowledge comes from a small handful of objects, but we are continually expanding our horizons as additional objects are studied in more detail.

Article

Solar Elemental Abundances  

Katharina Lodders

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

Article

Human Exploration and Development in the Solar System  

Wendell Mendell

Emergence of ballistic missile technology after World War II enabled human flight into the Earth’s orbit, fueling the imagination of those fascinated with science, technology, exploration, and adventure. The performance of astronauts in the early flights assuaged concerns about the functioning of “the human system” in the absence of the Earth’s gravity. However, researchers in space medicine have observed degradation of crews after longer exposure to the space environment and have developed countermeasures for most of them, although significant challenges remain. With the dawn of the 21st century, well-financed and technically competent commercial entities have begun to provide more affordable alternatives to historically expensive and risk-averse government-funded programs. The growing accessibility to space has encouraged entrepreneurs to pursue plans for potentially autarkic communities beyond the Earth, exploiting natural resources on other worlds. Should such dreams prove to be technically and economically feasible, a new era will open for humanity with concomitant societal issues of a revolutionary nature.

Article

The Atmosphere of Titan  

Athena Coustenis

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

Article

The Formation and Evolution of the Solar System  

Mikhail Marov

The formation and evolution of our solar system (and planetary systems around other stars) are among the most challenging and intriguing fields of modern science. As the product of a long history of cosmic matter evolution, this important branch of astrophysics is referred to as stellar-planetary cosmogony. Interdisciplinary by way of its content, it is based on fundamental theoretical concepts and available observational data on the processes of star formation. Modern observational data on stellar evolution, disc formation, and the discovery of extrasolar planets, as well as mechanical and cosmochemical properties of the solar system, place important constraints on the different scenarios developed, each supporting the basic cosmogony concept (as rooted in the Kant-Laplace hypothesis). Basically, the sequence of events includes fragmentation of an original interstellar molecular cloud, emergence of a primordial nebula, and accretion of a protoplanetary gas-dust disk around a parent star, followed by disk instability and break-up into primary solid bodies (planetesimals) and their collisional interactions, eventually forming a planet. Recent decades have seen major advances in the field, due to in-depth theoretical and experimental studies. Such advances have clarified a new scenario, which largely supports simultaneous stellar-planetary formation. Here, the collapse of a protosolar nebula’s inner core gives rise to fusion ignition and star birth with an accretion disc left behind: its continuing evolution resulting ultimately in protoplanets and planetary formation. Astronomical observations have allowed us to resolve in great detail the turbulent structure of gas-dust disks and their dynamics in regard to solar system origin. Indeed radio isotope dating of chondrite meteorite samples has charted the age and the chronology of key processes in the formation of the solar system. Significant progress also has been made in the theoretical study and computer modeling of protoplanetary accretion disk thermal regimes; evaporation/condensation of primordial particles depending on their radial distance, mechanisms of clustering, collisions, and dynamics. However, these breakthroughs are yet insufficient to resolve many problems intrinsically related to planetary cosmogony. Significant new questions also have been posed, which require answers. Of great importance are questions on how contemporary natural conditions appeared on solar system planets: specifically, why the three neighbor inner planets—Earth, Venus, and Mars—reveal different evolutionary paths.

Article

Element Partitioning (Mineral-Melt, Metal-/Sulfide-Silicate) in Planetary Sciences  

Brandon Mahan

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.

Article

Mass Erosion and Transport on Cometary Nuclei, as Found on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko  

Wing-Huen Ip

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.

Article

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.

Article

The Pluto−Charon System  

Will Grundy

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.

Article

Meteorites  

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.

Article

Landslides in the Solar System  

Maria Teresa Brunetti and Silvia Peruccacci

Landslides are mass movements of rock, earth, or debris. All of these surface processes occur under the influence of gravity, meaning that they globally move material from higher to lower places. On planets other than Earth, these structures were first observed in a lunar crater during the Apollo program, but mass movements have been found on many rocky worlds (solid bodies) in the Solar System, including icy satellites, asteroids, and comets. On Earth, landslides have the effect of shaping the landscape more or less rapidly, leaving a signature that is recognized through field surveys and visual analysis or automatic identification on ground-based, aerial, and satellite images. Landslides observed on Earth and on solid bodies of the Solar System can be classified into different types based on their movement and the material involved in the failure. Material is either rock or soil (or both), with a variable fraction of water or ice; a soil mainly composed of sand-sized or finer particles is referred as earth while debris is composed of coarser fragments. The landslide mass may be displaced in several types of movement, classified generically as falling, toppling, sliding, spreading, or flowing. Such diverse characteristics mean that the size of a landslide (e.g., area, volume, fall height, length) can vary widely. For example, on Earth, their area ranges up to 11 orders of magnitude, while their volume varies by 16 orders, from small rock fragments to huge submarine landslides. The classification of extraterrestrial landslides is based on terrestrial analogs having similarities and characteristics that resemble those found on planetary bodies, such as Mars. The morphological classification is made regardless of the geomorphological environment or processes that may have triggered the slope failure. Comparing landslide characteristics on various planetary bodies helps to understand the effect of surface gravity on landslide initiation and propagation—of tremendous importance when designing manned and unmanned missions with landings on extraterrestrial bodies. Regardless of the practical applications of such study, knowing the morphology and surface dynamics that shape solid bodies in the space surrounding the Earth is something that has fascinated the human imagination since the time of Galileo.

Article

Isotopic Dating  

Yuri Amelin

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.