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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 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

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

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

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.