Martian Clouds Might Start with Meteor Trails Through the Atmosphere

On Earth, clouds form when enough droplets of water condense out of the air. And those droplets require a tiny speck of dust or sea salt, called a condensation nuclei, to form. In Earth’s atmosphere, those tiny specks of dust are lofted high into the atmosphere where they trigger cloud formation. But on Mars?

Mars has something else going on.

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Earth has a Water Cycle. Mars has a Dust Cycle

To say there are some myths circulating about Martian dust storms would be an understatement. Mars is known for its globe-encircling dust storms, the likes of which are seen nowhere else. Science fiction writers and Hollywood movies often make the dust storms out to be more dangerous than they really are. In “The Martian,” a powerful dust storm destroys equipment, strands Matt Damon on Mars, and forces him into a brutal struggle for survival.

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Ceres is a Strange Place, Including a Volcanic Peak 4,000 Meters High Made From Bubbling Salt Water, Mud and Rock

Ceres, at almost 1,000 km (620 miles) in diameter, is the largest body in the asteroid belt. Between 2015 and 2018, NASA’s ion-powered Dawn spacecraft visited the dwarf planet, looking for clues to help us understand how our Solar System formed. Ceres is the first dwarf planet ever visited by a spacecraft.

Now that scientists have worked with the data from Dawn, we’re starting to see just how unusual Ceres is. One of the most shocking of Dawn’s findings is the volcano Ahuna Mons, a feature that seems out of place on this tiny world. Now scientists from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have figured out how this strange feature formed on this intriguing little planet.

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There’s a Funny Cloud on Mars, Perched Right at the Arsia Mons Volcano. Don’t Get Too Excited, Though, it’s not an Eruption

A funny cloud on Mars. The ESA' Mars Express orbiter captured this image of an elongated cloud forming near the Arsia Mons volcano at the Martian equator. Image: ESA/Mars Express

The ESA’s Mars Express orbiter has spotted a funny cloud on Mars, right near the Arsia Mons Volcano. At first glance it looks like a plume coming out of the volcano. But it’s formation is not related to any internal activity in this long-dead volcano. It’s a cloud of water ice known as an orographic or lee cloud.

The cloud isn’t linked to any volcanic activity, but its formation is associated with the form and altitude of Arsia Mons. Arsia Mons is a dormant volcano, with scientists putting its last eruptive activity at 10 mya. This isn’t the first time this type of cloud has been seen hovering around Arsia Mons.

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Good News For The Search For Life, The Trappist System Might Be Rich In Water

When we finally find life somewhere out there beyond Earth, it’ll be at the end of a long search. Life probably won’t announce its presence to us, we’ll have to follow a long chain of clues to find it. Like scientists keep telling us, at the start of that chain of clues is water.

The discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system last year generated a lot of excitement. 7 planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, only 40 light years from Earth. At the time, astronomers thought at least some of them were Earth-like. But now a new study shows that some of the planets could hold more water than Earth. About 250 times more.

This new study focuses on the density of the 7 TRAPPIST-1 planets. Trying to determine that density is a challenging task, and it involved some of the powerhouses in the world of telescopes. The Spitzer Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope, and the SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars) facility at ESO’s Paranal Observatory were all used in the study.

This artist’s impression shows several of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. New observations, when combined with very sophisticated analysis, have now yielded good estimates of the densities of all seven of the Earth-sized planets and suggest that they are rich in volatile materials, probably water. Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In this study, the observations from the three telescopes were subjected to complex computer modelling to determine the densities of the 7 TRAPPIST planets. As a result, we now know that they are all mostly made of rock, and that some of them could be 5% water by mass. (Earth is only about 0.02% water by mass.)

Finding the densities of these planets was not easy. To do so, scientists had to determine both the mass and the size. The TRAPPIST-1 planets were found using the transit method, where the light of the host star dips as the planets pass between their star and us. The transit method gives us a pretty good idea of the size of the planets, but that’s it.

It’s a lot harder to find the mass, because planets with different masses can have the same orbits and we can’t tell them apart. But in multi-planet systems like TRAPPIST-1, there is a way.

As the planets orbit the TRAPPIST-1 star, more massive planets disturb the orbits of the other planets more than lighter ones. This changes the timing of the transits. These effects are “complicated and very subtle” according to the team, and it took a lot of observation and measurement of the transit timing—and very complex computer modelling—to determine their densities.

Lead author Simon Grimm explains how it was done: “The TRAPPIST-1 planets are so close together that they interfere with each other gravitationally, so the times when they pass in front of the star shift slightly. These shifts depend on the planets’ masses, their distances and other orbital parameters. With a computer model, we simulate the planets’ orbits until the calculated transits agree with the observed values, and hence derive the planetary masses.”

So, what about the water?

First of all, this study didn’t detect water. It detected volatile material which is probably water.

Whether or not they’ve confirmed the presence of water, these are still very important results. We’re getting good at finding exoplanets, and the next step is to determine the properties of any atmospheres that exoplanets have.

Team member Eric Agol comments on the significance: “A goal of exoplanet studies for some time has been to probe the composition of planets that are Earth-like in size and temperature. The discovery of TRAPPIST-1 and the capabilities of ESO’s facilities in Chile and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit have made this possible — giving us our first glimpse of what Earth-sized exoplanets are made of!”

This diagram compares the sizes, masses and estimated temperatures of the TRAPPIST-1 planets with Solar System planets. The colours indicate temperatures and the black line matches the densities and composition of the terrestrial planets in the Solar System. Planets above the line are less dense and planets below are more dense. Image: EXO/S.Grimm et. al.

This study doesn’t tell us if any of the TRAPPIST planets have life on them, or even if they’re habitable. It’s just one more step on the path to hopefully, maybe, one day, finding life somewhere. Study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, at the University of Bern, said as much: “Densities, while important clues to the planets’ compositions, do not say anything about habitability. However, our study is an important step forward as we continue to explore whether these planets could support life.”

This diagram compares the masses and energy input of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, along with the properties of the four innermost Solar System planets. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is what the study determined about the different planets in the TRAPPIST system:

  • TRAPPIST 1-b and 1c are the two innermost planets and are likely to have rocky cores and be surrounded by atmospheres much thicker than Earth’s.
  • TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest of the planets at about 30 percent the mass of Earth. We’re uncertain whether it has a large atmosphere, an ocean or an ice layer.
  • TRAPPIST-1e is a bit of a surprise. It’s the only planet in the system slightly denser than Earth. It may have a denser iron core, and it does not necessarily have a thick atmosphere, ocean or ice layer. TRAPPIST-1e is a mystery because it appears to be so much rockier than the rest of the planets. It’s the most similar to Earth, in size, density and the amount of radiation it receives from its star.
  • TRAPPIST-1f, g and h might have frozen surfaces. If they have thin atmospheres, they would be unlikely to contain the heavy molecules that we find on Earth, such as carbon dioxide.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is going to be studied for a very long time. It promises to be one of the first targets for the James Webb Space Telescope (we hope.) It’s a very intriguing system, and whether or not any of the planets are deemed habitable, studying them will teach us a lot about our search for water, habitability, and life.

Mars Had Way More Water on its Surface Than We Thought

Mars has an extensive network of ancient valleys that were likely carved out by water over geologic time periods. Now a new study suggests that Mars had much more water than previously thought, and the key behind calculating that amount of water is in the valleys themselves.

The issue of exactly how much liquid water Mars had on its surface has been a hotly debated topic. There’s ample evidence that there was liquid water there. Orbiters and rovers have provided most of that evidence. Sedimentary rock, hydrated minerals that only form in the presence of water, and the obvious valleys, lake basins, and deltas all show that Mars was once a world with large quantities liquid water.

This false-color composite image was taken by the Mars rover Opportunity. It shows rocks termed "blueberries" which are geologic concretions that form in the presence of water. It also shows sedimentary rock which forms in the presence of water. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell
This false-color composite image was taken by the Mars rover Opportunity. It shows rocks termed “blueberries” which are geologic concretions that form in the presence of water. It also shows sedimentary rock which forms in the presence of water. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

But to find out how much water there was in Mars’ past, we have to go beyond what we can see with our orbiters and rovers and construct models. That’s exactly what Northern Illinois University geography professor Wei Luo and his colleagues Xuezhi Cang & Alan D. Howard did. To do this, they relied on what previous studies have found, what we know about erosion and water cycles here on Earth, and on an innovative new algorithm that calculated the volume of Mars’ valleys, and how much water would be required to excavate them.

“Our most conservative estimates of the global volume of the Martian valley networks and the cumulative amount of water needed to carve those valleys are at least 10 times greater than most previous estimates,” Luo said.

Their new estimate of Martian water volume is 4,000 times the volume of the valley cavities on Mars. This means that Mars would have had an active water cycle much like Earth does. Water would have moved from the lakes and oceans through the atmosphere and over the surface via evaporation and precipitation.

“That means water must have recycled through the valley systems on Mars many times, and a large open body of water or ocean is needed to facilitate such active cycling,” Luo said. “I would imagine early Mars as being similar to what we have on Earth–with an ocean, lakes, running rivers and rainfall.”

The Eberswalde delta near Holden Crater on Mars is considered the 'smoking gun' for evidence of liquid water on Mars. By NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems
The Eberswalde delta near Holden Crater on Mars is considered the ‘smoking gun’ for evidence of liquid water on Mars. By NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

However, as the authors acknowledge, the results of this study are difficult to reconcile with our understanding of the Martian climate. Mars’ paleoclimate was likely never warm enough to support the kind of active hydrologic cycle required for their study to be accurate. “Mars is much farther way from the sun than Earth, and when the sun was younger, it was not as bright as it is today,” Luo said. “So there’s still a lot to work out in trying to reconcile the evidence for more water.”

As the authors write in their paper, “Without an ocean-sized open body of water, it would be hard to imagine the high rate of water cycling suggested by our new estimates.” So where does that leave us?

Some of the largest features on Mars, like the huge Valles Marineris, might have formed as a tectonic crack, which was then further enlarged by erosion. For other valleys, a lot of other causes have been proposed for their formation, including glaciation, and erosion by CO2, lava, and even wind.

This topographic map of the Valles Marineris region on Mars shows clearly visible outflow channels. This is image is from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor. By NASA / JPL-Caltech / Arizona State University
This topographic map of the Valles Marineris region on Mars shows clearly visible outflow channels. This is image is from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor. By NASA / JPL-Caltech / Arizona State University

It’s clear that at some point in the past, Mars had liquid water. How much water exactly is a hotly-debated topic, and this study won’t end that debate. But this study used much higher-resolution techniques, perfected in terrestrial uses, to arrive at its estimates. This study was also conducted globally on Mars, rather than by sampling individual locations. It will affect the debate in some way.

As they say in their paper, “There is no ground truth to assess the real accuracy of our estimation.” There’s really no way for scientists to reach a conclusion yet about the size of Martian oceans in the past, and on how active the hydrological cycle might have been on that planet.

For now, we can let the debate continue.

Four Candidates For Planet 9 Located

A concentrated three-day search for a mysterious, unseen planet in the far reaches of our own solar system has yielded four possible candidates. The search for the so-called Planet 9 was part of a real-time search with a Zooniverse citizen science project, in coordination with the BBC’s Stargazing Live broadcast from the Australian National University’s Siding Spring Observatory.

A view of data from SAMI, a new multi-object integral field spectrograph at Siding Spring Observatory, which was used to look for the hypothetical Planet 9. Credit: Dilyar Barat via Twitter.

Researcher Brad Tucker from ANU, who led the effort, said about 60,000 people from around the world classified over four million objects during the three days, using data from the SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring. He and his team said that even if none of the four candidates turn out to be the hypothetical Planet 9, the effort was scientifically valuable, helping to verify their search methods as exceptionally viable.

“We’ve detected minor planets Chiron and Comacina, which demonstrates the approach we’re taking could find Planet 9 if it’s there,” Tucker said. “We’ve managed to rule out a planet about the size of Neptune being in about 90 per cent of the southern sky out to a depth of about 350 times the distance the Earth is from the Sun.

Researchers from Australian National University pose with BBC astronomers Chris Lintott, Brian Cox and Dara O’Brien. Credit: ANU.

Last year, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of a large planet when they found that the orbits of several different Kuiper Belt Objects were likely being influenced by a massive body, located out beyond the orbit of Pluto, about 200 times further than the distance from the Sun to the Earth. This planet would be Neptune-sized, roughly 10 times more massive than Earth. But the search is difficult because the object is likely 1000 times fainter than Pluto.

The search has been on, with many researchers working on both new observations and sifting through old data. This recent project used archival data from the Skymapper Telescope.

“With the help of tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers sifting through hundreds of thousands of images taken by SkyMapper,” Tucker said, “we have achieved four years of scientific analysis in under three days. One of those volunteers, Toby Roberts, has made 12,000 classifications.”

Mike Brown chimed in on Twitter that he thought this concentrated search was a great idea:

Tucker said he and his team at ANU will work to confirm whether or not the unknown space objects are Planet 9 by using telescopes at Siding Spring and around the world, and he encouraged people to continue to hunt for Planet 9 through Zooniverse project, Backyard Worlds: Planet 9.

Source: ANU