All the rocky planets in our solar system, including the Earth, initially formed much hotter than their surroundings and have since been cooling to space for billions of years. The resulting heat released from planetary interiors powers convective flow in the mantle. The mantle is often the most voluminous and/or stiffest part of a planet and therefore acts as the bottleneck for heat transport, thus dictating the rate at which a planet cools. Mantle flow drives geological activity that modifies planetary surfaces through processes such as volcanism, orogenesis, and rifting. On Earth, the major convective currents in the mantle are identified as hot upwellings such as mantle plumes, cold sinking slabs, and the motion of tectonic plates at the surface. On other terrestrial planets in our solar system, mantle flow is mostly concealed beneath a rocky surface that remains stagnant for relatively long periods. Even though such planetary surfaces do not participate in convective circulation, they deform in response to the underlying mantle currents, forming geological features such as coronae, volcanic lava flows, and wrinkle ridges. Moreover, the exchange of material between the interior and surface, for example through melting and volcanism, is a consequence of mantle circulation and continuously modifies the composition of the mantle and the overlying crust. Mantle convection governs the geological activity and the thermal and chemical evolution of terrestrial planets and understanding the physical processes of convection helps us reconstruct histories of planets over billions of years after their formation.
Mantle Convection in Terrestrial Planets
Elvira Mulyukova and David Bercovici
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.
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.
Terrestrial Planets: Interior Structure, Dynamics, and Evolution
Doris Breuer and Tilman Spohn
The three terrestrial planets Mercury, Venus, and Mars (ordered by their distance from the sun) share the same first-order internal structure with the Earth. There is an iron-rich core at the center, overlain by a silicate mantle and a crust that is generated by partial melting of the mantle. But while Mars and Venus have a core with a radius of about half the planetary radius, just as the Earth, the core of Mercury extends to about 80% of the planet’s radius. The interiors of the terrestrial planets are heated by the decay of radioactive elements and cool by removing internal energy. In addition to radiogenic heat, internal energy was deposited during planet formation and early differentiation. Heat transport is dominated by mantle and core convection and volcanic heat transfer although conduction through the lithosphere on top of the mantle matters. The convection powers the planetary heat engine which converts thermal energy into gravitational energy, mechanical (tectonic) work, and magnetic field energy. None of the terrestrial planets has plate tectonics such as the Earth although surface renewal and some form of lithosphere subduction is debated for Venus. The tectonics of Mars and Mercury is best described as stagnant-lid tectonics, with a thick rigid lid overlying the convecting mantle. Both planets show early volcanism, with Mars in particular being locally volcanically active even until a few million years ago. Because of Mercury’s large core, the mantle is comparatively thin, and convection may be sluggish or may even have ceased. Magnetism is another property that the terrestrial planets share with the Earth although it is still not confirmed by data that Venus ever had a magnetic field. A dynamo process driven by buoyancy released through the growth of a solid inner core is producing the present-day magnetic fields of Earth and Mercury, but Mars’ dynamo has likely ceased to be active. Crust units with remanent magnetization testify to the early dynamo. The terrestrial planets have been explored to differing degrees by spacecraft missions which allow a deeper physical understanding of the interiors and their dynamics and evolution.