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Article

Elvira Mulyukova and David Bercovici

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.

Article

Paul K. Byrne

Mercury, like its inner Solar System planetary neighbors Venus, Mars, and the Moon, shows no evidence of having ever undergone plate tectonics. Nonetheless, the innermost planet boasts a long record of tectonic deformation. The most prominent manifestation of this history is a population of large scarps that occurs throughout the planet’s cratered terrains; some of these scarps rise kilometers above the surrounding landscape. Mercury’s smooth plains, the majority of which are volcanic and occupy over a quarter of the planet, abound with low-relief ridges. The scarps and ridges are underlain by thrust faults and point to a tectonic history dominated by crustal shortening. At least some of the shortening strain recorded by the ridges may reflect subsidence of the lavas in which they formed, but the widespread distribution of scarps attests to a planetwide process of global contraction, wherein Mercury experienced a reduction in volume as its interior cooled through time. The onset of this phenomenon placed the lithosphere into a net state of horizontal compression, and accounts for why Mercury hosts only a few instances of extensional structures. These landforms, shallow troughs that form complex networks, occur almost wholly in volcanically flooded impact craters and basins and developed as those lavas cooled and thermally contracted. Tellingly, widespread volcanism on Mercury ended at around the same time the population of scarps began to form. Explosive volcanism endured beyond this point, but almost exclusively at sites of lithospheric weakness, where large faults penetrate deep into the interior. These observations are consistent with decades-old predictions that global contraction would shut off major volcanic activity, and illustrate how closely Mercury’s tectonic and volcanic histories are intertwined. The tectonic character of Mercury is thus one of sustained crustal shortening with only localized extension, which started almost four billion years ago and extends into the geologically recent past. This character somewhat resembles that of the Moon, but differs substantially from those of Earth, Venus, or Mars. Mercury may represent how small rocky planets tectonically evolve and could provide a basis for understanding the geological properties of similarly small worlds in orbit around other stars.

Article

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

Pascal Rosenblatt, Ryuki Hyodo, Francesco Pignatale, Antony Trinh, Sebastien Charnoz, Kevin Dunseath, Mariko Dunseath-Terao, and Hidenori Genda

The origin of the natural satellites or moons of the solar system is as challenging to unravel as the formation of the planets. Before the start of the space probe exploration era, this topic of planetary science was restricted to telescopic observations, which limited the possibility of testing different formation scenarios. This era has considerably boosted this topic of research, particularly after the Apollo missions returned samples from the Moon’s surface to Earth. Observations from subsequent deep space missions such as Viking 1 and 2 Orbiters, Voyager 1 and 2, Phobos-2, Galileo, Cassini-Huygens, and the most recent Mars orbiters such as Mars Express, as well as from the Hubble space telescope, have served to intensify research in this area. Each moon system has its own specificities, with different origins and histories. It is widely accepted that the Earth’s Moon formed after a giant collision between the proto-Earth and a body similar in size to Mars. The Galilean moons of Jupiter, on the other hand, appear to have formed by accretion in a circum-Jovian disk, while smaller, irregularly shaped satellites were probably captured by the giant planet. The small and medium-sized Saturnian moons may have formed from the rings encircling the planet. Among the terrestrial planets, Mercury and Venus have no moons, the Earth has a single large moon, and Mars has two very small satellites. This raises some challenging questions: What processes can lead to moon formation around terrestrial planets and what parameters determine the possible outcomes, such as the number and size of moons? The answer to such fundamental questions necessarily entails a thorough understanding of the formation of the Martian system and may have relevance to the possible existence of (exo)moons orbiting exoplanets. The formation of such exomoons is of great importance as they could influence conditions for habitability or for maintaining life over long periods of time on the surface of Earth-like exoplanets, for example by limiting the variations of the orientation of the planet’s rotation axis and thus preventing frequent changes of its climate. Our current knowledge concerning the origin of Phobos and Deimos has been acquired from observational data as well as theoretical work. Early observations led to the idea that the two satellites were captured asteroids but this created difficulties in reconciling the current orbits of Phobos and Deimos with those of captured bodies, hence suggesting the need for an alternative theory. A giant-impact scenario provides a description of how moons similar to Phobos and Deimos can be formed in orbits similar to those observed today. This scenario also restricts the range of possible composition of the two moons, providing a motivation for future missions that aim for the first time to bring material from the Martian system back to Earth.

Article

The atmosphere of Venus is quite different from that of Earth: it is much hotter and denser. The temperature and pressure at the surface are 740 K and 92 atmospheres respectively. Its atmosphere is primarily composed of carbon dioxide (96.5%) and nitrogen (3.5%), the rest being trace gases such as carbon monoxide (CO), water vapor (H2O), halides (HF, HCl), sulfur-bearing species (SO2, SO, OCS, H2S), and noble gases. Sulfur compounds are extremely important in understanding the formation of the Venusian clouds which are believed to be composed of sulfuric acid (H2SO4) droplets. These clouds completely enshroud the planet in a series of layers, extending from 50 to 70 km altitude, and are composed of particles of different sizes and different H2SO4/H2O compositions. These act as a very effective separator between the atmospheres below and above the clouds, which show very distinctive characteristics.

Article

Earth’s moon, hereafter referred to as “the Moon,” has been an object of intense study since before the time of the Apollo and Luna missions to the lunar surface and associated sample returns. As a differentiated rocky body and as Earth’s companion in the solar system, much study has been given to aspects such as the Moon’s surface characteristics, composition, interior, geologic history, origin, and what it records about the early history of the Earth-Moon system and the evolution of differentiated rocky bodies in the solar system. Much of the Apollo and post-Apollo knowledge came from surface geologic exploration, remote sensing, and extensive studies of the lunar samples. After a hiatus of nearly two decades following the end of Apollo and Luna missions, a new era of lunar exploration began with a series of orbital missions, including missions designed to prepare the way for longer duration human use and further exploration of the Moon. Participation in these missions has become international. The more recent missions have provided global context and have investigated composition, mineralogy, topography, gravity, tectonics, thermal evolution of the interior, thermal and radiation environments at the surface, exosphere composition and phenomena, and characteristics of the poles with their permanently shaded cold-trap environments. New samples were recognized as a class of achondrite meteorites, shown through geochemical and mineralogical similarities to have originated on the Moon. New sample-based studies with ever-improving analytical techniques and approaches have also led to significant discoveries such as the determination of volatile contents, including intrinsic H contents of lunar minerals and glasses. The Moon preserves a record of the impact history of the solar system, and new developments in timing of events, sample based and model based, are leading to a new reckoning of planetary chronology and the events that occurred in the early solar system. The new data provide the grist to test models of formation of the Moon and its early differentiation, and its thermal and volcanic evolution. Thought to have been born of a giant impact into early Earth, new data are providing key constraints on timing and process. The new data are also being used to test hypotheses and work out details such as for the magma ocean concept, the possible existence of an early magnetic field generated by a core dynamo, the effects of intense asteroidal and cometary bombardment during the first 500 million–600 million years, sequestration of volatile compounds at the poles, volcanism through time, including new information about the youngest volcanism on the Moon, and the formation and degradation processes of impact craters, so well preserved on the Moon. The Moon is a natural laboratory and cornerstone for understanding many processes operating in the space environment of the Earth and Moon, now and in the past, and of the geologic processes that have affected the planets through time. The Moon is a destination for further human exploration and activity, including use of valuable resources in space. It behooves humanity to learn as much about Earth’s nearest neighbor in space as possible.

Article

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.