Flowing Water on Mars Likely Cold and Frosty, Says New Study

Thanks to decades of exploration using robotic orbiter missions, landers and rovers, scientists are certain that billions of years ago, liquid water flowed on the surface of Mars. Beyond that, many questions have remained, which include whether or not the waterflow was intermittent or regular. In other words, was Mars truly a “warm and wet” environment billions of years ago, or was it more along the lines of “cold and icy”?

These questions have persisted due to the nature of Mars’ surface and atmosphere, which offer conflicitng answers. According to a new study from Brown University, it appears that both could be the case. Basically, early Mars could have had significant amounts of surface ice which experienced periodic melting, producing enough liquid water to carve out the ancient valleys and lakebeds seen on the planet today.

The study, titled “Late Noachian Icy Highlands Climate Model: Exploring the Possibility of Transient Melting and Fluvial/Lacustrine Activity Through Peak Annual and Seasonal Temperatures“, recently appeared in Icarus. Ashley Palumbo – a Ph.D. student with Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science – led the study and was joined by her supervising professor (Jim Head) and Professor Robin Wordsworth of Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Extensive valley networks spidering through the southern highlands of Mars suggest that the planet was once warmer and wetter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

For the sake of their study, Palumbo and her colleagues sought to find the bridge between Mars’ geology (which suggests the planet was once warm and wet) and its atmospheric models, which suggest it was cold and icy. As they demonstrated, it’s plausible that during the past, Mars was generally frozen over with glaciers. During peak daily temperatures in the summer, these glaciers would melt at the edges to produce flowing water.

After many years, they concluded, these small deposits of meltwater would have been enough to carve the features observed on the surface today. Most notably, they could have carved the kinds of valley networks that have been observed on Mars southern highlands. As Palumbo explained in a Brown University press release, their study was inspired by similar climate dynamics that take place here on Earth:

“We see this in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, where seasonal temperature variation is sufficient to form and sustain lakes even though mean annual temperature is well below freezing. We wanted to see if something similar might be possible for ancient Mars.”

To determine the link between the atmospheric models and geological evidence, Palumbo and her team began with a state-of-the-art climate model for Mars. This model assumed that 4 billion years ago, the atmosphere was primarily composed of carbon dioxide (as it is today) and that the Sun’s output was much weaker than it is now. From this model, they determined that Mars was generally cold and icy during its earlier days.

Nanedi Valles, a roughly 800-kilometre valley extending southwest-northeast and lying in the region of Xanthe Terra, southwest of Chryse Planitia. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

However, they also included a number of variables which may have also been present on Mars 4 billion years ago. These include the presence of a thicker atmosphere, which would have allowed for a more significant greenhouse effect. Since scientists cannot agree how dense Mars’ atmosphere was between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, Palumbo and her team ran the models to take into account various plausible levels of atmospheric density.

They also considered variations in Mars’ orbit that could have existed 4 billion years ago, which has also been subject to some guesswork. Here too, they tested a wide range of plausible scenarios, which included differences in axial tilt and different degrees of eccentricity. This would have affected how much sunlight is received by one hemisphere over another and led to more significant seasonal variations in temperature.

In the end, the model produced scenarios in which ice covered regions near the location of the valley networks in the southern highlands. While the planet’s mean annual temperature in these scenarios was well below freezing, it also produced peak summertime temperatures in the region that rose above freezing. The only thing that remained was to demonstrate that the volume of water produced would be enough to carve those valleys.

Luckily, back in 2015, Professor Jim Head and Eliot Rosenberg (an undergraduate with Brown at the time) created a study which estimated the minimum amount of water required to produce the largest of these valleys. Using these estimates, along with other studies that provided estimates of necessary runoff rates and the duration of valley network formation, Palumbo and her colleagues found a model-derived scenario that worked.

Was Mars warm and watery (i.e. a blue planet?) or an ice ball that occasionally experienced melting? Credit: Kevin Gill

Basically, they found that if Mars had an eccentricity of 0.17 (compared to it’s current eccentricity of 0.0934) an axial tilt of 25° (compared to 25.19° today), and an atmospheric pressure of 600 mbar (100 times what it is today) then it would have taken about 33,000 to 1,083,000 years to produce enough meltwater to form the valley networks. But assuming for a circular orbit, an axial tile of 25°, and an atmosphere of 1000 mbar, it would have taken about 21,000 to 550,000 years.

The degrees of eccentricity and axial tilt required in these scenarios are well within the range of possible orbits for Mars 4 billion years ago. And as Head indicated, this study could reconcile the atmospheric and geological evidence that has been at odds in the past:

“This work adds a plausible hypothesis to explain the way in which liquid water could have formed on early Mars, in a manner similar to the seasonal melting that produces the streams and lakes we observe during our field work in the Antarctic McMurdo Dry Valleys. We are currently exploring additional candidate warming mechanisms, including volcanism and impact cratering, that might also contribute to melting of a cold and icy early Mars.”

It is also significant in that it demonstrates that Mars climate was subject to variations that also happen regularly here on Earth. This provides yet another indication of how our two plane’s are similar in some ways, and how research of one can help advance our understanding of the other. Last, but not least, it offers some synthesis to a subject that has produced a fair share of disagreement.

The subject of how Mars could have experienced warm, flowing water on its surface – and at a time when the Sun’s output was much weaker than it is today – has remained the subject of much debate. In recent years, researchers have advanced various suggestions as to how the planet could have been warmed, ranging from cirrus clouds to periodic bursts of methane gas from beneath the surface.

While this latest study has not quite settled the debate between the “warm and watery” and the “cold and icy” camps, it does offer compelling evidence that the two may not be mutually exclusive. The study was also the subject of a presentation made at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which took place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodland, Texas.

Further Reading: Brown University, Icarus

More than 100 km of Liquid Water Beneath Pluto’s Surface

What lies beneath Pluto’s icy heart? New research indicates there could be a salty “Dead Sea”-like ocean more than 100 kilometers thick.

“Thermal models of Pluto’s interior and tectonic evidence found on the surface suggest that an ocean may exist, but it’s not easy to infer its size or anything else about it,” said Brandon Johnson from Brown University. “We’ve been able to put some constraints on its thickness and get some clues about composition.”

Research by Johnson and his team focused Pluto’s “heart” – a region informally called Sputnik Planum, which was photographed by the New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby of Pluto in July of 2015.

New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern called Sputnik Planum “one of the most amazing geological discoveries in 50-plus years of planetary exploration,” and previous research showed the region appears to be constantly renewed by current-day ice convection.

Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto's icy surface in Sputnik Planum is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto’s icy surface in Sputnik Planum is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The heart is a 900 km wide basin — bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined — and at least the western half of it appears to have been formed by an impact, likely by an object 200 kilometers across or larger.

Johnson and colleagues Timothy Bowling of the University of Chicago and Alexander Trowbridge and Andrew Freed from Purdue University modeled the impact dynamics that created a massive crater on Pluto’s surface and also looked at the dynamics between Pluto and its moon Charon.

The two are tidally locked with each other, meaning they always show each other the same face as they rotate. Sputnik Planum sits directly on the tidal axis linking the two worlds. That position suggests that the basin has what’s called a positive mass anomaly — it has more mass than average for Pluto’s icy crust. As Charon’s gravity pulls on Pluto, it would pull proportionally more on areas of higher mass, which would tilt the planet until Sputnik Planum became aligned with the tidal axis.

So instead of being a hole in the ground, the crater actually has been filled back in. Part of it has been filled in by the convecting nitrogen ice. While that ice layer adds some mass to the basin, it isn’t thick enough on its own to make Sputnik Planum have positive mass.

The Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum on Pluto. Great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
The Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum on Pluto. Great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The rest of that mass, Johnson said, may be generated by a liquid lurking beneath the surface.

Johnson and his team explained it like this:

Like a bowling ball dropped on a trampoline, a large impact creates a dent on a planet’s surface, followed by a rebound. That rebound pulls material upward from deep in the planet’s interior. If that upwelled material is denser than what was blasted away by the impact, the crater ends up with the same mass as it had before the impact happened. This is a phenomenon geologists refer to as isostatic compensation.

Water is denser than ice. So if there were a layer of liquid water beneath Pluto’s ice shell, it may have welled up following the Sputnik Planum impact, evening out the crater’s mass. If the basin started out with neutral mass, then the nitrogen layer deposited later would be enough to create a positive mass anomaly.

“This scenario requires a liquid ocean,” Johnson said. “We wanted to run computer models of the impact to see if this is something that would actually happen. What we found is that the production of a positive mass anomaly is actually quite sensitive to how thick the ocean layer is. It’s also sensitive to how salty the ocean is, because the salt content affects the density of the water.”

The models simulated the impact of an object large enough to create a basin of Sputnik Planum’s size hitting Pluto at a speed expected for that part in the solar system. The simulation assumed various thicknesses of the water layer beneath the crust, from no water at all to a layer 200 kilometers thick.

The scenario that best reconstructed Sputnik Planum’s observed size depth, while also producing a crater with compensated mass, was one in which Pluto has an ocean layer more than 100 kilometers thick, with a salinity of around 30 percent.

“What this tells us is that if Sputnik Planum is indeed a positive mass anomaly —and it appears as though it is — this ocean layer of at least 100 kilometers has to be there,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty amazing to me that you have this body so far out in the solar system that still may have liquid water.”

Johnson he and other researchers will continue study the data sent back by New Horizons to get a clearer picture Pluto’s intriguing interior and possible ocean.

Further reading: Brown University, New Horions/APL

Icy Hot: Europa’s Frozen Crust Could Be Warmer Than We Thought

All the worlds may be ours except Europa but that only makes the ice-covered moon of Jupiter all the more intriguing. Beneath Europa’s thin crust of ice lies a tantalizing global ocean of liquid water somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 kilometers deep—which adds up to more liquid water than is on the entire surface of the Earth. Liquid water plus a heat source(s) to keep it liquid plus the organic compounds necessary for life and…well, you know where the thought process naturally goes from there.

And now it turns out Europa may have even more of a heat source than we thought. Yes, a big component of Europa’s water-liquefying warmth comes from tidal stresses enacted by the massive gravity of Jupiter as well as from the other large Galilean moons. But exactly how much heat is created within the moon’s icy crust as it flexes has so far only been loosely estimated. Now, researchers from Brown University in Providence, RI and Columbia University in New York City have modeled how friction creates heat within ice under stress, and the results were surprising.

Continue reading “Icy Hot: Europa’s Frozen Crust Could Be Warmer Than We Thought”

Moroccan Meteorite May Be a 4.4-Billion-Year-Old Chunk of Dark Martian Crust

Mars! Martian meteorites make their way to Earth after being ejected from Mars by a meteor impact on the Red Planet. Image: NASA/National Space Science Data Center.

Mars is often referred to as the Red Planet. But its signature color is only skin-deep – or, I should say, dust-deep. Beneath its rusty regolith Mars has many other hues and shades as well, from pale greys like those found inside holes drilled by Curiosity to large dark regions that are the result of ancient lava flows. Now, researchers think we may have an actual piece of one of Mars’ dark plains here on Earth in the form of a meteorite that was found in the Moroccan desert in 2011.

Mars meteorite NWA 7034 (NASA)
Mars meteorite NWA 7034 (NASA)

Classified as NWA 7034 (for Northwest Africa) the meteorite is a 320-gram (11 oz.) piece of Martian basaltic breccia made up of small fragments cemented together in a dark matrix. Nicknamed “Black Beauty,” NWA 7034 is one of the oldest meteorites ever discovered and is like nothing else ever found on Earth.

According to a new study on a fragment of the meteorite by researchers from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and the University of New Mexico, Black Beauty is a 4.4-billion-year-old chunk of Mars’ dark crust – the only known piece of such to have landed on Earth.

While other meteorites originating from Mars have been identified, they are of entirely different types than Black Beauty.

The researchers used a hyperspectral imaging technique to obtain data from across the whole fragment. In doing this, the measurements matched what’s been detected from Mars orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Other techniques give us measurements of a dime-sized spot,” said Kevin Cannon, a Brown University graduate student and lead author of a new paper published in the journal Icarus. “What we wanted to do was get an average for the entire sample. That overall measurement was what ended up matching the orbital data.”

In addition to indicating a truly ancient piece of another planet, these findings hint at what the surface of many parts of Mars might be like just below the rusty soil… a surface that’s been shattered and reassembled many times by meteorite impacts.

“This is showing that if you went to Mars and picked up a chunk of crust, you’d expect it to be heavily beat up, battered, broken apart and put back together,” Cannon said.

HiRISE image of dark terrain near Ganges Chasma (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
HiRISE image of dark terrain near Ganges Chasma (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Source/read more at Brown University news.

How an Ancient Angled Impact Created Vesta’s Groovy Belt

When NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrived at Vesta in July 2011, two features immediately jumped out at planetary scientists who had been so eagerly anticipating a good look at the giant asteroid. One was a series of long troughs encircling Vesta’s equator, and the other was the enormous crater at its southern pole. Named Rheasilvia, the centrally-peaked basin spans 500 kilometers in width and it was hypothesized that the impact event that created it was also responsible for the deep Grand Canyon-sized grooves gouging Vesta’s middle.

Now, research led by a Brown University professor and a former graduate student reveal how it all probably happened.

“Vesta got hammered,” said Peter Schultz, professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown and the study’s senior author. “The whole interior was reverberating, and what we see on the surface is the manifestation of what happened in the interior.”

Using a 4-meter-long air-powered cannon at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range, Peter Schultz and Brown graduate Angela Stickle – now a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory – recreated cosmic impact events with small pellets fired at softball-sized acrylic spheres at the type of velocities you’d find in space.

The impacts were captured on super-high-speed camera. What Stickle and Schultz saw were stress fractures occurring not only at the points of impact on the acrylic spheres but also at the point directly opposite them, and then rapidly propagating toward the midlines of the spheres… their “equators,” if you will.

Scaled up to Vesta size and composition, these levels of forces would have created precisely the types of deep troughs seen today running askew around Vesta’s midsection.

Watch a million-fps video of a test impact below:

So why is Vesta’s trough belt slanted? According to the researchers’ abstract, “experimental and numerical results reveal that the offset angle is a natural consequence of oblique impacts into a spherical target.” That is, the impactor that struck Vesta’s south pole likely came in at an angle, which made for uneven propagation of stress fracturing outward across the protoplanet (and smashed its south pole so much that scientists had initially said it was “missing!”)

Close-ups of Vesta's equatorial troughs obtained by Dawn's framing camera in August and September 2011. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA)
Close-ups of Vesta’s equatorial troughs obtained by Dawn’s framing camera in August and September 2011. (NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA)

That angle of incidence — estimated to be less than 40 degrees — not only left Vesta with a slanted belt of grooves, but also probably kept it from getting blasted apart altogether.

“Vesta was lucky,” said Schultz. “If this collision had been straight on, there would have been one less large asteroid and only a family of fragments left behind.”

Watch a video tour of Vesta made from data acquired by Dawn in 2011 and 2012 below:

The team’s findings will be published in the February 2015 issue of the journal Icarus and are currently available online here (paywall, sorry). Also you can see many more images of Vesta from the Dawn mission here and find out the latest news from the ongoing mission to Ceres on the Dawn Journal.

Source: Brown University news

Ancient Martian Life May Be Preserved in Glass

When large asteroids or comets strike the Earth — as they have countless times throughout our planet’s history — the energy released in the event creates an enormous amount of heat, enough to briefly melt rock and soil at the impact site. That molten material quickly cools, trapping organic material and bits of plants and preserving them inside fragments of glass for tens of thousands, even millions of years.

Researchers studying impact debris on Earth think that the same thing could very well have happened on Mars, and that any evidence for ancient life on the Red Planet might be found by looking inside the glass.

A research team led by Pete Schultz, a geologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has identified the remains of plant materials trapped inside impact glass found at several different sites scattered across Argentina, according to a university news release issued Friday, April 18.

Melt breccias from two impact events in particular, dating back 3 and 9 million years, were discovered to contain very well-preserved fragments of vegetation — providing not only samples of ancient organisms but also snapshots of the local environment from the time of the events.

An asteroid impacts ancient Mars and send rocks hurtling to space - some reach Earth
Mars experienced many large impact events in its early history, just like Earth

“These glasses preserve plant morphology from macro features all the way down to the micron scale,” said Schultz. “It’s really remarkable.”

Schultz believes that the same process that trapped once-living material in Argentina’s Pampas region — which is covered with windblown, Mars-like sediment, especially in the west — may have occurred on Mars, preserving any early organics located at and around impact sites.

“Impact glass may be where the 4 billion-year-old signs of life are hiding,” Schultz said. “On Mars they’re probably not going to come out screaming in the form of a plant, but we may find traces of organic compounds, which would be really exciting.”

The research has been published in the latest issue of Geology Magazine.

Read more in the full report here.

Source: Brown University

Russia’s Second Shot at Phobos May Return Bits of Mars As Well

After the tragic failure of the first Phobos-Grunt mission to even make it out of low-Earth orbit, the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) is hoping to give it another go at Mars’ largest moon with the Phobos-Grunt 2 mission in 2020. This new-and-improved version of the spacecraft will also feature a lander and return stage, and, if successful, may not only end up sending back pieces of Phobos but of Mars as well.


The origins of Phobos have long been a topic of planetary science debate. Did it form with Mars as a planet? Is it a wayward asteroid that ventured too closely to Mars? Or is it a chunk of the Red Planet blasted up into orbit from an ancient impact event? Only in-depth examination of its surface material will allow scientists to determine which scenario is most likely (or if the correct answer is really “none of the above”) and Russia’s ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission attempted to become the first ever to not only land on the 16-mile-wide moon but also send samples back to Earth.

Unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards. After launching on Nov. 9, 2011, Phobos-Grunt’s upper stage failed to ignite, stranding it in low-Earth orbit. After all attempts to re-establish communication and control of the ill-fated spacecraft failed, Phobos-Grunt crashed back to Earth on Jan. 15, impacting in the southern Pacific off the coast of Chile.

But with a decade of development already invested in the mission, Roscosmos is willing to try again. “Ad astra per aspera,” as it’s said, and Phobos-Grunt 2 will attempt to overcome all hardships in 2020 to do what its predecessor couldn’t.

Read more: Russia to Try Again for Phobos-Grunt?

And, according to participating researchers James Head and Kenneth Ramsley from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the sample mission could end up being a “twofer.”

Phobos floats in front of Mars' horizon in a Mars Express image from January 2007 (ESA)
Phobos floats in front of Mars’ horizon in a Mars Express image from January 2007 (ESA)

Orbiting at an altitude of only 5,840 miles (9,400 km) Phobos has been passing through plumes material periodically blown off of Mars by impact events. Its surface soil very likely contains a good amount of Mars itself, scooped up over the millennia.

“When an impactor hits Mars, only a certain of proportion of ejecta will have enough velocity to reach the altitude of Phobos, and Phobos’ orbital path intersects only a certain proportion of that,” said Ramsley, a visiting researcher in Brown’s planetary geosciences group. “So we can crunch those numbers and find out what proportion of material on the surface of Phobos comes from Mars.”

Determining that ratio would then help figure out where Phobos was in Mars orbit millions of years ago, which in turn could point at its origins.

“Only recently — in the last several 100 million years or so — has Phobos orbited so close to Mars,”  Ramsley said. “In the distant past it orbited much higher up. So that’s why you’re going to see probably 10 to 100 times higher concentration in the upper regolith as opposed to deeper down.”

In addition, having an actual sample of Phobos (along with stowaway bits of Mars) in hand on Earth, as well as all the data acquired during the mission itself, would give scientists invaluable insight to the moon’s as-yet-unknown internal composition.

“Phobos has really low density,” said Head, professor of geological sciences at Brown and an author on the study. “Is that low density due to ice in its interior or is it due to Phobos being completely fragmented, like a loose rubble pile? We don’t know.”

The study was published in Volume 87 of Space and Planetary Science (Mars impact ejecta in the regolith of Phobos: Bulk concentration and distribution.)

Source: Brown University news release and RussianSpaceWeb.com.

See more images of Phobos here.

One Astronaut’s Kids Get a Valentine’s Day View of Dad’s Office in Orbit

It’s a wonderful thing for children to look up to their fathers, but some kids have to look a little further than others — especially when dad is in command of the International Space Station!

Around 6 p.m. EST on February 14, the ISS passed over southern New England, and for a few brief moments the Station was directly above Rhode Island, at 37 miles wide the smallest state in the US. 240 miles up and heading northeast at 17,500 mph, the ISS quickly passed out of sight for anyone watching from the ground, but it was enough time for Heidi and Anthony Ford to get a view of the place where their father Kevin Ford has been living and working since the end of October… and thanks to Brown University’s historic Ladd Observatory and astronomer Robert Horton they got to see the Station up close while talking to their dad on the phone.

“One of the things [Anthony and I] like to do is to pop outside to watch dad fly over, which you can do on occasion when the timing is just right,” Heidi said. “We were looking at the schedule to see when the flyover would be so we could go see him. I remembered that the Ladd was open to the public, so I thought I’d call over there and see if this is something we could visit the Ladd to do.”

Robert Horton, an astronomer with Brown University, was happy to meet Heidi and Anthony at the Ladd for the flyover.

Heidi and Anthony Ford's view of the ISS (Robert Horton/Brown University)
Heidi and Anthony Ford’s view of the ISS (Robert Horton/Brown University)

While the Ladd’s main 12″ telescope doesn’t have the ability to track fast-moving objects like the ISS, Horton had some at home that could. So he set one of them up at the observatory and prepared to track the station during its six-minute pass.

Just before the flyby, Heidi’s phone rang — it was her dad calling from the ISS.

“He told her, ‘I’m over Texas. I’ll be there in a few minutes,’” Horton said later in an interview with Brown reporters. “Sure enough the point of light appeared in the sky and we started to track it. They could look through the eyepiece and actually make out the solar panels while they were talking with him.”

The Brown University-run Ladd Observatory holds free public viewing nights every Tuesday, weather permitting. People line up inside the 122-year-old dome to peer through its recently restored 12″ refracting telescope at objects like the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, and local amateur astronomers set up their own ‘scopes on the observatory’s rooftop deck for additional viewing opportunities.

Heidi had told their dad that they’d be watching from Providence as he passed over, and luckily his schedule allowed him to make a phone call during that particular evening’s pass.

NASA astronauts Kevin Ford (foreground) and Tom Marshburn working with the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) Multi-user Droplet Combustion Apparatus (MDCA) in the ISS' Destiny laboratory on Jan. 9 (NASA)
NASA astronauts Kevin Ford (foreground) and Tom Marshburn working with the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) Multi-user Droplet Combustion Apparatus (MDCA) in the ISS’ Destiny laboratory on Jan. 9 (NASA)

While they had both watched flyovers before, it was the first time either of them had ever seen the ISS through a telescope.

It made for a “very special Valentine’s Day,” Heidi said.

And as for Horton, who had donated the use of his telescope? He got a chance to talk with Commander Ford as well — an experience he’ll likely never forget.

“I can think of a thousand questions to ask him now that I’m not on the phone with him,” Horton said. “But, frankly, I was awestruck at the time.”

Read more on the Brown University news article by Kevin Stacey here. (Excerpts used with permission.)

Ladd Observatory today and after its opening in 1891. (Brown University)
Ladd Observatory today and after its opening in 1891. (Brown University)

Thanks to Jim Hendrickson of Skyscrapers, Inc. for the story alert.

Water, Water Everywhere… Lunar Samples Show More Water Than Previously Thought

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A team of NASA-funded researchers led by Carnegie Institution’s Erik Hauri has recently announced the discovery of more water on the Moon, in the form of ancient magma that has been locked up in tiny crystals contained within soil samples collected by Apollo 17 astronauts. The amounts found indicate there may be 100 times more water within lunar magma than previously thought… truly a “watershed” discovery!

Orange-colored lunar soil sampled during Apollo 17 EVA missions was tested using a new ion microprobe instrument which measured the water contained within magma trapped inside lunar crystals, called “melt inclusions”. The inclusions are the result of volcanic eruptions on the Moon that occurred over 3.7 billion years ago.

Because these bits of magma are encased in crystals they were not subject to loss of water or “other volatiles” during the explosive eruption process.

“In contrast to most volcanic deposits, the melt inclusions are encased in crystals that prevent the escape of water and other volatiles during eruption. These samples provide the best window we have to the amount of water in the interior of the Moon.”

–  James Van Orman of Case Western Reserve University, team member

While it was previously found that water is contained within lunar magma during a 2008 study led by Alberto Saal of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, this new announcement is based upon the work of Brown undergraduate student Thomas Weinreich, who located the melt inclusions. By measuring the water content of the inclusions, the team could then infer the amount of water present in the Moon’s interior.

The results also make correlations to the proposed origins of the Moon. Currently-accepted models say the Moon was created following a collision between the newly-formed Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet 4.5 billion years ago. Material from the Earth’s outer layers was blasted out into space, forming a ring of molten material that encircled the Earth and eventually coalesced, cooled and became the Moon. This would also mean that the Moon should have similarities in composition to material that would have been found in the outer layers of the Earth at that time.

“The bottom line is that in 2008, we said the primitive water content in the lunar magmas should be similar to lavas coming from the Earth’s depleted upper mantle. Now, we have proven that is indeed the case.”

– Alberto Saal, Brown University, RI

The findings also suggest that the Moon’s water may not just be the result of comet or meteor impacts – as was suggested after the discovery of water ice in polar craters by the LCROSS mission in 2009 – but may also have come from within the Moon itself via ancient lunar eruptions.

The success of this study makes a strong case for finding and returning similar samples of ejected volcanic material from other worlds in our solar system.

“We can conceive of no sample type that would be more important to return to Earth than these volcanic glass samples ejected by explosive volcanism, which have been mapped not only on the Moon but throughout the inner solar system.”

– Erik Hauri, lead author, Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism

The results were published in the May 26 issue of Science Express.

Read the full NASA news release here.