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.

Continue reading “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”

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.

Continue reading “Good News For The Search For Life, The Trappist System Might Be Rich In Water”

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

Get Ready For The >100 Planet Solar System

Pluto’s status as a non-planet may be coming to an end. Professor Mike Brown of Caltech ended Pluto’s planetary status in 2006. But now, Kirby Runyon, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, thinks it’s time to cancel that demotion and restore it as our Solar System’s ninth planet.

Pluto’s rebirth as a planet is not just all about Pluto, though. A newer, more accurate definition of what is and what is not a planet is needed. And if Runyon and the other people on the team he leads are successful, our Solar System would have more than 100 planets, including many bodies we currently call moons. (Sorry elementary school students.)

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) changed the definition of what a planet is. Pluto’s demotion stemmed from discoveries in the 1990’s showing that it is actually a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). It was just the first KBO that we discovered. When Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and included as the ninth planet in our Solar System, we didn’t know much about the Kuiper Belt.

But in 2005, the dwarf planet Eris was discovered. It was like Pluto, but 27% more massive. This begged the question, Why Pluto and not Eris? The IAU struck a committee to look into how planets should be defined.

In 2006, the IAU had a decision to make. Either expand the definition of what is and what is not a planet to include Eris and other bodies like Ceres, or shrink the definition to omit Pluto. Pluto was demoted, and that’s the way it’s been for a decade. Just enough time to re-write text books.

But a lot has happened since then. The change to the definition of planet was hotly debated, and for some, the change should never have happened. Since the New Horizons mission arrived at Pluto, that debate has been re-opened.

A group of scientists led by Runyon has written a paper to be presented at the upcoming Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on March 20th to 24th.

“A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion…” – part of the new planetary definition proposed by Runyon and his team.

The group behind the drive to re-instate Pluto have a broader goal in mind. If the issue of whether Pluto is or is not a planet sounds a little pedantic, it’s not. As Runyon’s group says on their poster to be displayed at the upcoming conference, “Nomenclature is important as it affects how we compare, think, and communicate about objects in nature.”

Runyon’s team proposes a new definition of what is a planet, focused on the geophysics of the object: “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has enough gravitation to be round due to hydrostatic equilibrium regardless of its orbital parameters.”

The poster highlights some key points around their new planetary definition:

  • Emphasizes intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic properties.
  • Can be paraphrased for younger students: “Round objects in space that are smaller than stars.”
  • The geophysical definition is already in use, taught, and included in planetological glossaries.
  • There’s no need to memorize all 110 planets. Teach the Solar Systems zones and why different planet types formed at different distances from the Sun.

Their proposal makes a lot of sense, but there will be people opposed to it. 110 planets is quite a change, and the new definition is a real mouthful.

“They want Pluto to be a planet because they want to be flying to a planet.” – Prof. Mike Brown, from a BBC interview, July 2015.

Mike Brown, the scientist behind Pluto’s demotion, saw this all coming when New Horizons reached the Pluto system in the Summer of 2015. In an interview with the BBC, he said “The people you hear most talking about reinstatement are those involved in the (New Horizons) mission. It is emotionally difficult for them.”

Saying that the team behind New Horizons find Pluto’s status emotionally difficult seems pretty in-scientific. In fact, their proposed new definition seems very scientific.

This image from New Horizons shows the true nature of Pluto. What for a long time was just a blurry, round, blob in space, was revealed as a geologically active planet with a seasonal atmosphere. Image: NASA/JPL/New Horizons

There may be an answer to all of this. The term “classical planets” might be of some use. That term could include our 9 familiar planets, the knowledge of which guided much of our understanding and exploration of the Solar System. But it’s a fact of science that as our understanding of something grows more detailed, our language around it has to evolve to accommodate. Look at the term planetary nebula—still in use long after we know they have nothing to do with planets—and how much confusion it causes.

“It is official without IAU approval, partly via usage.” – Runyon and team, on their new definition.

In the end, it may not matter whether the IAU is convinced by Runyon’s proposed new definition. As their poster states, “As a geophysical definition, this does not fall under the domain of the IAU, and is an alternate and parallel definition that can be used by different scientists. It is “official” without IAU approval, partly via usage.”

It may seem pointless to flip-flop back and forth about Pluto’s status as a planet. But there are sound reasons for updating definitions based on our growing knowledge. We’ll have to wait and see if the IAU agrees with that, and whether or not they adopt this new definition, and the >100 planet Solar System.

You can view Runyon and team’s poster here.
You can view Emily Lakdawalla’s image of round objects in our Solar System here.
You can read the IAU’s definition of a planet here.

Planet 9 Can’t Run Forever. Two Asteroids Give Up Some Clues

Last year, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of a large planet in the outer reaches of our Solar System — likely located out past Pluto — and since then, the search has been on. The latest research continues to show signs of an unseen planet, the hypothetical Planet 9.

Astronomers using the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) in the Canary Islands looked at two distant asteroids called Extreme Trans Neptunian Objects’ (ETNOs), and spectroscopic observations show and their present-day orbits could be the result of a past interaction with a large “superearth”-type object orbiting the Sun at a distance between 300 to 600 AU.

Researchers say the orbits of asteroids 2004 VN112 and 2013 RF98 suggest that the two were once a binary asteroid which separated after an encounter a large body, with a mass of between 10 and 20 Earth masses.

“The similar spectral gradients observed for the pair 2004 VN112 – 2013 RF98 suggests a common physical origin,” said Julia de León, the first author of a new paper, and who is an astrophysicist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). “We are proposing the possibility that they were previously a binary asteroid which became unbound during an encounter with a more massive object.”

Sequence of images taken with the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS (GTC) to identify one of the ETNO´s studied in this article, 2013 RF98, where one can see how it moves during four consecutive nights. Below, right, visible spectra obtained with the GTC of the two objects 2004 VN112 and 2013 RF98. The red lines show the gradients of the spectra. Credit: Julia de León (IAC).

To test their hypothesis, the team performed thousands of simulations to see how the poles of the orbits would separate as time went on. The results of these simulations suggest that a possible Planet 9 could have separated the pair of asteroids around 5 to 10 million years ago.

de León said this could explain, in principle, how these two asteroids, starting as a pair orbiting one another, became gradually separated in their orbits after an encounter with a much more massive object at a particular moment in time.

The tale of Planet 9 started in 2014, when astronomers Chad Trujillo and Scott Shepard were studying the motions of large objects in the Kuiper Belt and realized that a large planet in the outer Solar System must be altering orbits of several ETNOs the in Kuiper Belt.

Brown and Batygin were looking to verify or refute the research of Trujillo and Shepard, and they painstakingly analyzed the movement of various KBOs. They found that six different objects all seem to follow a very similar elliptical orbit that points back to the same region in space.

All the bodies were found to be inclined at a plane of about 30-degrees different from almost everything else in the Solar System. Brown said the odds of these orbits all occurring randomly are about 1 in 100.

But calculations revealed the orbits could be influenced by a massive planet way 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.

It hasn’t been found yet, but the hunt is on by large telescopes around the world, and a new citizen science project allows people around the world to join in the search.

The latest findings of by de León and team could help point the way to where Planet 9 might be lurking.

Source: PhysOrg

Will You Be The Discoverer Of Planet 9?

Citizen science projects are a great way for anyone to be involved in the scientific process. Average, everyday folks have discovered things like supernovae, previously unseen craters on the Moon and Mars and even new planets orbiting a distant star.

Now, you could be part of one of the most exciting quests yet: finding a mysterious, unseen planet in the far reaches of our own solar system. Last year, Caltech astronomers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin found indirect evidence for the existence of a large planet, likely located out past Pluto, and since then, the search has been on. But so far, it has come up empty. And so, astronomers decided they would bring in a little help: You.

“Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” said UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher Aaron Meisner, who is helping to head up this latest citizen science project.

A previously cataloged brown dwarf named WISE 0855?0714 shows up as a moving
orange dot (upper left) in this loop of WISE images spanning five years. By viewing
movies like this, anyone can help discover more brown dwarfs or even a 9th planet. Credit: NASA/WISE.

People who sign on to the Backyard World: Planet 9 website will be basically using the same type of technique that was used to find the last planet discovered in our solar system, Pluto. Clyde Tombaugh used a special machine that systematically switched images on glass astronomical plates back and forth, looking for any objects in the night sky that ‘moved’ between the images.

For Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, users will view brief “flipbook” movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. A faint spot seen moving through background stars might be a new and distant planet in our solar system. Or it could be a nearby brown dwarf star, which would be another exciting discovery.

WISE’s infrared images cover the entire sky about six times over. This has allowed astronomers to search the images for faint, glowing objects that change position over time, which means they are relatively close to Earth. Objects that produce their own faint infrared glow would have to be large, Neptune-size planets or brown dwarfs, which are slightly smaller than stars. WISE images have already turned up hundreds of previously unknown brown dwarfs, including the objects fairly close to us, so astronomers hope that the Backyard Worlds search will turn up a new nearest neighbor to our sun.

NASA wants to bring in all the humans it can for this search, because the human eye is much better than computers at seeing changes between images.

“Automated searches don’t work well in some regions of the sky, like the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, because there are too many stars, which confuses the search algorithm,” said Meisner.

“There are just over four light-years between Neptune, the farthest known planet in our solar system, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” said NASA astronomer Marc Kuchner, the lead researcher and an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.”

Check out Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 here, and give Universe Today the scoop when you make your big discovery!

You can find more info in the video below:

Source: UC Berkeley