What’s Under This Hole on the Surface of Mars?

The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this image to determine if any underlying voids or associated faults can be observed in this part of Arsia Mons. Pits like this can be caused by recent geologically-recent volcanic or tectonic activity. If there are caves under the pit, they could one day act as shelter for astronauts. The caves could also be targets for future robotic exploration. The pit is only a few meters across. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona

Human visitors to Mars need somewhere to shelter from the radiation, temperature swings, and dust storms that plague the planet. If the planet is anything like Earth or the Moon, it may have large underground lava tubes that could house shelters. Collapsed sections of lava tubes, called skylights, could provide access to these subterranean refuges.

Does this hole on Mars lead to a larger underground cavern?

Continue reading “What’s Under This Hole on the Surface of Mars?”

Enceladus’s Fault Lines are Responsible for its Plumes

A false-colour image of the plumes erupting from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/ESA
A false-colour image of the plumes erupting from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/ESA

The Search for Life in our Solar System leads seekers to strange places. From our Earthbound viewpoint, an ice-covered moon orbiting a gas giant far from the Sun can seem like a strange place to search for life. But underneath all that ice sits a vast ocean. Despite the huge distance between the moon and the Sun and despite the thick ice cap, the water is warm.

Of course, we’re talking about Enceladus, and its warm, salty ocean—so similar to Earth’s in some respects—takes some of the strangeness away.

Continue reading “Enceladus’s Fault Lines are Responsible for its Plumes”

The ESA’s Mars Rover Gets a New Map

European scientists have created an extremely detailed geological map of Oxia Planum, the landing site for the ESA's Rosalind Franklin rover. Not only will it help guide the rover's driving, it will help the rover sample the most promising sites. Image Credit: Fawdon et al. 2024.

Rosalind Franklin, the ESA’s Mars rover, is scheduled to launch no sooner than 2028. Its destination is Oxia Planum, a wide clay-bearing plain to the east of Chryse Planitia. Oxia Planum contains terrains that date back to Mars’ Noachian Period, when there may have been abundant surface water, a key factor in the rover’s mission.

Continue reading “The ESA’s Mars Rover Gets a New Map”

Mars’ Gale Crater was Filled with Water for Much Longer Than Anyone Thought

Layers at the base of Mt. Sharp. These visible layers in Gale Crater show the chapters of the geological history of Mars in this image from NASA's Curiosity rover. New evidence from this area shows that water persisted on Mars for longer than thought. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Even with all we’ve learned about Mars in recent years, it doesn’t stack up against all we still don’t know and all we hope to find out. We know that Mars was once warm and wet, a conclusion that was less certain a couple of decades ago. Now, scientists are working on uncovering the details of Mars’s ancient water.

New research shows that the Gale Crater, the landing spot for NASA’s MSL Curiosity, held water for a longer time than scientists thought.

Continue reading “Mars’ Gale Crater was Filled with Water for Much Longer Than Anyone Thought”

Planetary Geophysics: What is it? What can it teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Artist's illustration of terrestrial (rocky) planet interiors. (Credit: NASA)

Universe Today has examined the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, comets, and planetary atmospheres, and how these intriguing scientific disciplines can help scientists and the public better understand how we are pursuing life beyond Earth. Here, we will look inward and examine the role that planetary geophysics plays in helping scientists gain greater insight into our solar system and beyond, including the benefits and challenges, finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying planetary geophysics. So, what is planetary geophysics and why is it so important to study it?

Continue reading “Planetary Geophysics: What is it? What can it teach us about finding life beyond Earth?”

Earth is Hiding Another Planet Deep Inside

During an ancient collision, the protoplanet named Theia slammed into Earth, leading to the creation of the Moon. But it left some of its remains inside Earth. Image Credit: CalTech

Earth’s early history is marked by massive collisions with other objects, including planetesimals. One of the defining events in our planet’s history, the formation of the Moon, likely resulted from one of these catastrophic collisions when a Mars-sized protoplanet crashed into Earth. That’s the Giant Impact Hypothesis, and it explains how the collision produced a torus of debris rotating around the Earth that eventually coalesced into our only natural satellite.

New research strengthens the idea that Theia left some of its remains inside Earth.

Continue reading “Earth is Hiding Another Planet Deep Inside”

A Collapsed Martian Lava Chamber, Seen From Space

This HiRise image of Hephaestus Fossae shows a volcanic area that's collapsed into a pit. We should explore it. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona

Lava tubes and chambers attract a lot of attention as potential sites for bases on the Moon and Mars. They provide protection from radiation, from temperature swings, and even from meteorites. They beg to be explored.

Continue reading “A Collapsed Martian Lava Chamber, Seen From Space”

Is This a Collapsed Lava Tube on the Moon?

The spectacular sinuous landform shown above is thought to be a collapsed lava tube located near Gruithuisen K crater. Credit: NASA/GSFC/ASU

The Moon was once a geologically active place characterized by volcanoes, lava flows, and a magnetic field generated by action in its interior. The Moon’s airless environment has perfectly preserved evidence of this past and can be seen today as dark deposits, volcanic domes, and cones. But the most recognizable features are known as “sinuous rilles,” which are believed to be ancient lava tubes that have since collapsed. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) recently captured images of a rille that extended 48 km long (30 mi) across the northern hemisphere.

Continue reading “Is This a Collapsed Lava Tube on the Moon?”

Every Night and Every Morning, the Moon Rumbles With Tiny Quakes

Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. How will they store power on the Moon? 3D printed batteries could help. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. How will they store power on the Moon? 3D printed batteries could help. Credit: NASA

The Moon was geologically active between 3.7 and 2.5 billion years ago, experiencing quakes, volcanic eruptions, and outgassing. Thanks to the Moon being an airless body, evidence of this past has been carefully preserved in the form of extinct volcanoes, lava tubes, and other features. While the Moon has been geologically inert for billions of years, it still experiences small seismic events due to tidal flexing (because of Earth’s gravitational pull) and temperature variations. These latter events happen regularly and are known as “moonquakes.”

Thanks to the Apollo missions, scientists have measured this activity using seismometers placed on the surface. In a recent NASA-funded study, a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) reexamined the seismic data with a machine-learning model. This revealed that moonquakes occur with precise regularity, coinciding with the Sun rising to its peak position in the sky and then slowly setting. In this respect, moonquakes are like a “Lunar Alarm Clock,” which could be useful for future missions and lunar settlers!

Continue reading “Every Night and Every Morning, the Moon Rumbles With Tiny Quakes”

Did Life Need Plate Tectonics to Emerge?

New research indicates that mobile plate tectonics—thought to be necessary for the creation of a habitable planet—was not occurring on Earth 3.9 billion years ago. Image Credit: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw

It’s widely accepted that Earth’s plate tectonics are a key factor in life’s emergence. Plate tectonics allows heat to move from the mantle to the crust and plays a critical role in cycling nutrients. They’re also a key part of the carbon cycle that moderates Earth’s temperature.

But new research suggests that there was no plate tectonic activity when life appeared sometime around 3.9 billion years ago. Does this have implications for our search for habitable worlds?

Continue reading “Did Life Need Plate Tectonics to Emerge?”