Hundreds of millions of years ago, Earth went through two episodes of severe glaciation. These two episodes—the Sturtian and the Marinoan glaciations—occured during the Earth’s Cryogenian Period. The Cryogenian lasted from about 720 million to 635 million years ago.
The phenomenon is called “Snowball Earth” and both instances of it happened in pretty quick succession. And while a planet encased in ice and snow sounds devastating, these episodes may have paved the way for the development of complex life.
The question is, what caused the Earth to freeze over like that?
Radar evidence shows that geysers on Enceladus are ejecting water that turns to snow. The snow not only falls back on Enceladus’ surface, but also makes its way to its neighboring moons, Mimas and Tethys, making them more reflective. Researchers are calling this a ‘snow cannon.’
On March 22, Comet P/2016 BA14 (Pan-STARRS) flew just 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) from Earth, making it the third closest comet ever recorded. The last time a comet appeared on our doorstep was in 1770, when Lexell’s Comet breezed by at about half that distance. Through a telescope, comet BA14 looked (and still looks) like a faint star, though time exposures reveal a short, weak tail. With an excellent map and large amateur telescope you might still find it making a bead across the Big Dipper and constellation Bootes tonight through the weekend.
Flyby Comet Imaged by Radar
While normal telescopes show few details, NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert pinged P/2016 BA14 with radar over three nights during closest approach and created a series of crisp, detailed images from the returning echoes. They show a bigger comet than expected — about 3,000 feet (one kilometer) across — and resolve features as small as 26 feet (8 meters) across.
“The radar images show that the comet has an irregular shape: looks like a brick on one side and a pear on the other,” said Shantanu Naidu, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We can see quite a few signatures related to topographic features such as large flat regions, small concavities and ridges on the surface of the nucleus.”
I honestly thought we’d see a more irregular shape assuming that astronomers were correct in thinking that BA14 broke off from its parent 252P/LINEAR though it’s possible it happened so long ago that the “damage” has been repaired by vaporizing ice softening its contours.
Radar also shows that the comet is rotating on its axis once every 35 to 40 hours. While radar eyes focused on BA14, Vishnu Reddy, of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona, used the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii to examine the comet in infrared light. He discovered its dark surface reflects less than 3% of the sunlight that falls on it. The infrared data is expected to yield clues of the comet’s composition as well.
Comets are exceptionally dark objects often compared to the appearance of a fresh asphalt road or parking lot. They appear bright in photos because seen against the blackness of space, they’re still reflective enough to stand out. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, still the apple of the orbiter Rosetta’s eye, is similarly dark, reflecting about 4% of sunlight.
What makes comets so dark even though they composed primarily of ice? Astronomers believe a comet grows a dark ‘skin’ both from accumulated dust and irradiation of its pristine ices by cosmic rays. Cosmic rays loosen oxygen atoms from water ice, freeing them to combine with simple carbon molecules present on comets to form larger, more complex and darker compounds resembling tars and crude oil. Dust settles on a comet’s surface after it’s set free from ice that vaporizes in sunlight.
I live in Minnesota, where our annual State Fair features every kind of deep-fried food you can imagine: deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried fruit, deep-fried bacon and even deep-fried Smores. Just now, I can’t shake the thought that comets are just another deep-fried confection made of pristine, 4.5-billion-year-old ice toasted by eons of sunlight and cosmic bombardment.
There’s darkness out there in the cold corners of the solar system.
And we’re not talking about a Lovecraftian darkness, the kind that would summon Cthulhu himself. We’re talking of celestial bodies that are, well. So black, they make a Spinal Tap album cover blinding by comparison.
Welcome to the wonderful world of albedo. Bob King wrote a great article last year discussing the albedo of Comet 67/P. The true albedo (or lack thereof) of 67/P as revealed by Rosetta’s NAVCAM continues to astound us. Are all comets this black close up? After all, we’re talking about those same brilliant celestial wonders that can sometimes be seen in the daytime, and are the crimson harbingers of regal change in The Game of Thrones, right?
There was also a great discussion of the dark realms of 67/P in a recent SETI Talk:
As with many things in the universe, it’s all a matter of perspective. If you live in the U.S. Northeast and are busy like we were earlier today digging yourself out from Snowmageddon 2015, then you were enjoying a planetary surface with a high albedo much more akin to Enceladus pictured above. Except, of course, you’d be shoveling methane and carbon dioxide-laced snow on the Saturnian moon… Ice, snow and cloud cover can make a world shinny white and highly reflective. Earthshine on the dark limb of the crescent Moon can even vary markedly depending on the amount of cloud and snow cover on the Earth that’s currently rotated moonward.
To confound this, apparent magnitude over an extended object is diffused over its surface area, making the coma of a comet or a nebula appear fainter than it actually is. Engineers preparing for planetary encounters must account for changes in light conditions, or their cameras may just record… nothing.
For example, out by Pluto, Charon, and friends, the Sun is only 1/1600th as bright as seen here on sunny Earth. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will have to adjust for the low light levels accordingly during its historic flyby this July. On the plus side, Pluto seems to have a respectable albedo of 50% to 65%, and may well turn out to look like Neptune’s large moon, Triton.
And albedo has a role in heat absorption and reflection as well, in a phenomenon known as global dimming. The ivory snows of Enceladus have an albedo of over 95%, while gloomy Comet 67/P has an albedo of about 5%, less than that of flat black paint. A common practice here in Aroostook County Maine is to take fireplace ashes and scatter them across an icy driveway. What you’re doing is simply lowering the surface albedo and increasing the absorption of solar energy to help break up the snow and ice on a sunny day.
Ever manage to see Venus in the daytime? We like to point out the Cytherean world in the daytime sky to folks whenever possible, often using the nearby Moon as a guide. Most folks are amazed at how easy this daytime feat of visual athletics actually is, owing to the fact that the cloud tops of Venus actually have a higher albedo of 90%, versus the Moon’s murky 8 to 12%.
Apollo 12 command module pilot Richard Gordon remarked that astronauts Al Bean and Pete Conrad looked like they’d been “playing in a coal bin” on returning from the surface of the Moon. And in case you’re wondering, Apollo astronauts reported that moondust smelled like ‘burnt gunpowder’ once they’d unsuited.
Magnitude, global dimming and planetary albedo may even play a role in SETI as well, as we begin to image Earthlike exoplanets… will our first detection of ET be the glow of their cities on the nightside of their homeworld? Does light pollution pervade the cosmos?
And a grey cosmos awaits interstellar explorers as well. Forget Captain Kirk chasing Khan through a splashy, multi-hued nebula: most are of the light grey to faded green varieties close up. Through a telescope, most nebulae are devoid of color. It’s only when a long time exposure is completed that colors too faint to see with the naked eye emerge.
All strange thoughts to consider as we scout out the dark corners of the solar system. Will the Philae lander reawaken as perihelion for Comet 67/P approaches on August 13th, 2015? Will astronauts someday have to navigate over the dark surface of a comet?
I can’t help but think as I look at the duck-like structure of 67/P that one day, those two great lobes will probably separate in a grand outburst of activity. Heck, Comet 17P/Holmes is undergoing just such an outburst now — one of the best it has generated since 2007 — though it’s still below +10th magnitude. How I’d love to get a look at Comet 17P/Holmes up close, and see just what’s going on!
It’s referred to as the “Goldilock’s Zone”, but this area in space isn’t meant for sleepy or hungry bears – it’s the relative area in which life can evolve and sustain. This habitable region has some fairly strict parameters, such as certain star types and rigid distance limits, but new research shows it could be considerably larger than estimated.
In a study done by Manoj Joshi and Robert Haberle, the team considered the relationship which occurs between the radiation for red dwarf stars and a possible planet’s reflective qualities. Known as albedo, this ability to “bounce back” light waves has a great deal to do with surface layers, such as ice and snow. Unlike our G-type Sun, the M-class red dwarf is much cooler and produces energy at longer wavelengths. This means a great deal of the radiation is absorbed – rather than reflected – turning the ice and snow into possible liquid water. And, as we know, water is considered to be a primary requirement for life.
“We knew that red dwarfs emit energy at a different wavelength, and we wanted to find out exactly what that might mean for the albedo of planets orbiting these stars.” explained Dr. Joshi from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, who carried out the research in collaboration with Robert Haberle from the NASA Ames Research Centre.
What makes this theory even more charming is that M-class stars make up a very substantial portion of our galaxy’s total population – meaning there’s even more possible Goldilock’s Zones yet to be discovered. Considering the lifespan of a red dwarf star also increases the chances – as well as the distance a planet would need to be located for these properties to happen.
“M-stars comprise 80% of main-sequence stars, and so their planetary systems provide the best chance for finding habitable planets, i.e.: those with surface liquid water. We have modelled the broadband albedo or reflectivity of water ice and snow for simulated planetary surfaces orbiting two observed red dwarf stars (or M-stars) using spectrally resolved data of the Earth’s cryosphere.” explains Joshi. “In addition, planets with significant ice and snow cover will have significantly higher surface temperatures for a given stellar flux if the spectral variation of cryospheric albedo is considered, which in turn implies that the outer edge of the habitable zone around M-stars may be 10-30% further away from the parent star than previously thought.”
Have we discovered planets around red dwarf stars? The answer is yes. In order to calculate the effects of radiation and albedo, the team chose to use similar M-class stars, Gliese 436 and GJ 1214, and applied it to a simulated planet with an average surface temperature of 200 K. Why that particular temperature? In this circumstance, it’s the temperature at which one bar of carbon-dioxide condenses – a rough indicator of the outer edge of a habitable zone. It is theorized that anything registering below this temperature is too cold to harbor life.
What the team found was high albedo planets register a higher surface temperature when exposed to longer wavelength radiation. This means ice and snow covered planets could exist much further away from a red dwarf parent star – as much as one third more the distance.
“Previous studies haven’t included such detailed calculations of the different albedo effects of ice and snow.” explains Joshi. “But we were a little surprised how big the effect was.”
Astronomers define the reflectivity of an object in space using a term called albedo. This is the amount of electromagnetic radiation that reflects away, compared to the amount that gets absorbed. A perfectly reflective surface would get an albedo score of 1, while a completely dark object would have an albedo of 0. Of course, it’s not that black and white in nature, and all objects have an albedo score that ranges between 0 and 1.
Here on Earth, the albedo effect has a significant impact on our climate. The lower the albedo, the more radiation from the Sun that gets absorbed by the planet, and temperatures will rise. If the albedo is higher, and the Earth is more reflective, more of the radiation is returned to space, and the planet cools.
An example of this albedo effect is the snow temperature feedback. When you have a snow covered area, it reflects a lot of radiation. This is why you can get terrible sunburns when you’re skiing. But then when the snow covered area warms and melts, the albedo goes down. More sunlight is absorbed in the area and the temperatures increase. Climate scientists are concerned that global warming will cause the polar ice caps to melt. With these melting caps, dark ocean water will absorb more sunlight, and contribute even more to global warming.
Earth observation satellites are constantly measuring the Earth’s albedo using a suite of sensors, and the reflectivity of the planet can actually be measured through Earthshine – light from the Earth that reflects off the Moon.
Different parts of the Earth contribute to our planet’s overall albedo in different amounts. Trees are dark and have a low albedo, so removing trees might actually increase the albedo of an area; especially regions typically covered in snow during the winter.
Clouds can reflect sunlight, but they can also trap heat warming up the planet. At any time, about half the Earth is covered by clouds so their effect is significant.
Needless to say, the albedo effect is one of the most complicated factors in climate science, and scientists are working hard to develop better models to estimate its impact in the future.
That’s the simple answer, now here’s the more complex one. Astronomers use the term “albedo” to define the amount of light that an object in the Solar System reflects. For example, if a planet was perfectly shiny, it would have an albedo of 1.00; it would reflect 100% of the light that hit it. If a planet was perfectly dark, it would have an albedo of 0, and so it would reflect 0% of the light that struck it.
The object with the highest albedo in the Solar System is Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with an albedo of 99%. On the other hand, asteroids can have albedos as low as 4%. The Earth’s moon has an albedo of about 7%. Can you imagine if we had Enceladus for a moon? Now that would be bright.
The albedo of the Earth is very important because it helps define the temperature of the planet. Fresh snow has an albedo of 90%, while the ocean has a very low albedo; land areas range from 0.1 to 0.4.
NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites are constantly measuring the albedo of the Earth with their MODIS instruments, to help detect any evidence that the albedo is changing over time.