Spinning Heat Shield Concept Could Provide a Lightweight Way to Survive Atmospheric Re-entry

One of the more challenging aspects of space exploration and spacecraft design is planning for re-entry. Even in the case of thinly-atmosphered planets like Mars, entering a planet’s atmosphere is known to cause a great deal of heat and friction. For this reason, spacecraft have always been equipped with heat shields to absorb this energy and ensure that the spacecraft do not crash or burn up during re-entry.

Unfortunately, current spacecraft must rely on huge inflatable or mechanically deployed shields, which are often heavy and complicated to use. To address this, a PhD student from the University of Manchester has developed a prototype for a heat shield that would rely on centrifugal forces to stiffen flexible, lightweight materials. This prototype, which is the first of its kind, could reduce the cost of space travel and facilitate future missions to Mars.

The concept was proposed by Rui Wu, a PhD student from Manchester’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE). He was joined by Peter C.E. Roberts and Carl Driver – a Senior Lecturer in Spacecraft Engineering and a Lecturer at MACE, respectively – and Constantinos Soutis of The University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute.

The CubeSat-sized prototype heat shield designed by the University of Manchester team. Credit: University of Manchester

To put it simply, planets with atmospheres allow spacecraft to utilize aerodynamic drag to slow down in preparation for landing. This process creates a tremendous amount of heat. In the case of Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures of 10,000 °C (18,000 °F) are generated and the air around the spacecraft can turn into plasma. For this reason, spacecraft require a front-end mounted heat shield that can tolerate extreme heat and is aerodynamic in shape.

When deploying to Mars, the circumstances are somewhat different, but the challenge remains the same. While the Martian atmosphere is less than 1% that of Earth’s – with an average surface pressure of 0.636 kPa compared to Earth’s 101.325 kPa – spacecraft still require heat shields to avoid burnup and carry heavy loads. Wu’s design potentially solves both of these issues.

The prototype’s design, which consists of a skirt-shaped shield designed to spin, seeks to create a heat shield that can accommodate the needs of current and future space missions. As Wu explained:

“Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage… Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage.”

Wu and his colleagues described their concept in a recent study that appeared in the journal Arca Astronautica (titled “Flexible heat shields deployed by centrifugal force“). The design consists of an advanced, flexible material that has a high temperature tolerance and allows for easy-folding and storage aboard a spacecraft. The material becomes rigid as the shield applies centrifugal force, which is accomplished by rotating upon entry.

Wu and his team performing the drop test of their heat shield prototype. Credit: University of Manchester

So far, Wu and his team have conducted a drop test with the prototype from an altitude of 100 m (328 ft) using a balloon (the video of which is posted below). They also conducted a structural dynamic analysis that confirmed that the heat shield is capable of automatically engaging in a sufficient spin rate (6 revolutions per second) when deployed from altitudes of higher than 30 km (18.64 mi) – which coincides with the Earth’s stratosphere.

The team also conducted a thermal analysis that indicated that the heat shield could reduce front end temperatures by 100 K (100 °C; 212 °F) on a CubeSat-sized vehicle without the need for thermal insulation around the shield itself (unlike inflatable structures). The design is also self-regulating, meaning that it does not rely on additional machinery, reducing the weight of a spacecraft even further.

And unlike conventional designs, their prototype is scalable for use aboard smaller spacecraft like CubeSats. By being equipped with such a shield, CubeSats could be recovered after they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, effectively becoming reusable. This is all in keeping with current efforts to make space exploration and research cost-effective, in part through the development of reusable and retrievable parts. As Wu explained:

“More and more research is being conducted in space, but this is usually very expensive and the equipment has to share a ride with other vehicles. Since this prototype is lightweight and flexible enough for use on smaller satellites, research could be made easier and cheaper. The heat shield would also help save cost in recovery missions, as its high induced drag reduces the amount of fuel burned upon re-entry.”

When it comes time for heavier spacecraft to be deployed to Mars, which will likely involve crewed missions, it is entirely possible that the heat shields that ensure they make it safely to the surface are composed of lightweight, flexible materials that spin to become rigid. In the meantime, this design could enable lightweight and compact entry systems for smaller spacecraft, making CubeSat research that much more affordable.

Such is the nature of modern space exploration, which is all about cutting costs and making space more accessible. And be sure to check out this video from the team’s drop test as well, courtesy of Rui Wui and the MACE team:

Further Reading: University of Manchester, Acta Astronica

About 2.3 Billion Years Ago, a Firehose of Oxygen was Released Into the Atmosphere

Billions of years ago, Earth’s environment was very different from the one we know today. Basically, our planet’s primordial atmosphere was toxic to life as we know it, consisting of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other gases. However, by the Paleoproterozoic Era (2.5–1.6 billion years ago), a dramatic change occurred where oxygen began to be introduced to the atmosphere – known as the Great Oxidation Event (GOE).

Until recently, scientists were not sure if this event – which was the result of photosynthetic bacteria altering the atmosphere – occurred rapidly or not. However, according to a recent study by a team of international scientists, this event was much more rapid than previously thought. Based on newly-discovered geological evidence, the team concluded that the introduction of oxygen to our atmosphere was “more like a fire hose” than a trickle.

The study, titled “Two-billion-year-old evaporites capture Earth’s great oxidation“, recently appeared in the journal Science. Led by Clara Blättler, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geosciences at Princeton, the team also included members from the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, the Karelian Science Center, the British Geological Survey, the Geological Survey of Norway, and multiple universities.

Roughly 2.5 billion years ago, towards the end of the Archaean Era, oxidation of our atmosphere began. Credit: ocean.si.edu

In short, the Great Oxygenation Event took began roughly 2.45 billion years ago at the beginning of the Proterozoic eon. This process is believed to have been the result of cyanobacteria slowly metabolizing the carbon dioxide (CO2) and producing oxygen gas, which now makes up about 20% of our atmosphere. However, until recently, scientists were unable to place much in the way of constraints on this period.

Luckily, a team of geologists from the Geological Survey of Norway – in collaboration with the Karelian Research Center in Petrozavodsk, Russia – recently recovered samples of preserved crystallized salts in Russia that are dated to this period. They were extracted from a 1.9 km-deep (1.2 mi) hole in Karelia in northwest Russia, from the the Onega Parametric Hole (OPH) drilling site on the western shores of Lake Onega.

These salt crystals, which are roughly 2 billion years ago, were the result of ancient seawater evaporating. Using these samples, Blättler and her team were able to learn things about the composition of the oceans and the atmosphere that existed on Earth around the time of the GOE. For starters, the team determined that they contained a surprisingly large amount of sulfate, which is the result of seawater reacting with oxygen.

As Aivo Lepland – a researcher at the Geological Survey of Norway, a geology specialist at Tallinn University of Technology, and senior author on the study – explained in recent Princeton press release:

“This is the strongest ever evidence that the ancient seawater from which those minerals precipitated had high sulfate concentrations reaching at least 30 percent of present-day oceanic sulfate as our estimations indicate. This is much higher than previously thought and will require considerable rethinking of the magnitude of oxygenation of Earth’s 2-billion year old atmosphere-ocean system.”

New evidence indicates that The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) may have been much more rapid than previously thought. Credit: MIT

Prior to this, scientists were unsure how long it took for our atmosphere to reach its current balance of nitrogen and oxygen, which is essential for life as we know it. Basically, opinion was divided between it being something that happened rapidly, or occurred over the course of millions of years. Much of this stems from the fact that the oldest rock salts discovered were dated to a billion years ago.

“It has been hard to test these ideas because we didn’t have evidence from that era to tell us about the composition of the atmosphere,” said Blättler. However, by discovering rock salts that are roughly 2 billion years old, scientists now have the evidence they need to place constraint on the GOE. The find was also very fortunate, given that such rock salts samples are rather fragile.

The samples used for this study contained halite (which is chemically identical to table salt or sodium chloride) as well as other salts of calcium, magnesium and potassium – which dissolve easily over time. However, the sample obtained in this case was exceptionally-well preserved deep within the Earth. As such, they are able to provide scientists with invaluable clues as to what happened around the time of the GOE.

Looking ahead, this latest study is likely to lead to new models that explain what occurred after the GOE to cause oxygen gas to accumulate in our atmosphere. As John Higgins, an assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton who provided interpretation of the geochemical analysis, explained:

“This is a pretty special class of geologic deposits. There has been a lot of debate as to whether the Great Oxidation Event, which is tied to increase and decrease in various chemical signals, represents a big change in oxygen production, or just a threshold that was crossed. The bottom line is that this paper provides evidence that the oxygenation of the Earth across this time period involved a lot of oxygen production… There may have been important changes in feedback cycles on land or in the oceans, or a large increase in oxygen production by microbes, but either way it was much more dramatic than we had an understanding of before.”

These models are also likely to help in the hunt for life beyond our Solar System. By understanding what took place on our own planet billions of years ago to make it suitable for life, we will be able to spot these same conditions and processes on other planets.

Further Reading: Princeton University, Science

NASA’s Aqua Satellite Watches Ships Crossing the Atlantic Ocean

Earth, when viewed from space, is a pretty spectacular thing to behold. From orbit, one can see every continent, landmass, and major feature. Weather patterns are also eerily clear from space, with everything from hurricanes to auroras appearing as a single system. On top of that, it is only from orbit that the full extent of human activity can be truly appreciated.

For instance, when one hemisphere of Earth passes from day into night, one can see the patchwork of urban development by picking out the filamentary structure of lights. And as NASA’s Aqua satellite recently demonstrated with a high-resolution image it captured over the Atlantic Ocean, ships criss-crossing the ocean can also create some beautiful patterns.

As part of the NASA-centered international Earth Observing System (EOS), the Aqua satellite was launched on May 4th, 2002, to collect information on Earth’s water cycle. Using a suite of six Earth-observing instruments, this satellite has gathered global data on ocean evaporation, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover.

NASA’s Aqua Earth-observing satellite. Credit: NASA

The image was acquired on January 16th, 2018, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). Pictured in this image are ships off the coast of Portugal and Spain producing cloud trails known as ship tracks. Some of these tracks stretch for hundreds of kilometers and grow broader with distance – i.e. the narrow ends are the youngest while the broader, wavier ends are older.

These clouds form when water vapor condenses around tiny particles of pollution emitted by the ship’s exhaust. This is due to the fact that some particles generated by ships (like sulfates) are soluble in water and seeds clouds. This also causes light hitting these clouds to scatter in many directions, making them appear brighter and thicker than unpolluted maritime clouds (which are seeded by larger particles like sea salt).

As always, seeing things from space provides an incredible sense of perspective. This is especially helpful when attempting to monitor and model something as complex as Earth’s environment and humanity’s impact on it. And of course, it also allows for some breathtaking photos!

Further Reading: NASA

ESA Discovers Where All The Missing Socks Have Been Going

We here at Earth are fortunate that we have a viable atmosphere, one that is protected by Earth’s magnetosphere. Without this protective envelope, life on the surface would be bombarded by harmful radiation emanating from the Sun. However, Earth’s upper atmosphere is still slowly leaking, with about 90 tonnes of material a day escaping from the upper atmosphere and streaming into space.

And although astronomers have been investigating this leakage for some time, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, how much material is being lost to space, what kinds, and how does this interact with solar wind to influence our magnetic environment? Such has been the purpose of the European Space Agency’s Cluster project, a series of four identical spacecraft that have been measuring Earth’s magnetic environment for the past 15 years.

Understanding our atmosphere’s interaction with solar wind first requires that we understand how Earth’s magnetic field works. For starters, it extends from the interior of our planet (and is believed to be the result of a dynamo effect in the core), and reaches all the way out into space. This region of space, which our magnetic field exerts influence over, is known as the magnetosphere.

The four Cluster spacecraft crossing the northern cusp of Earth's magnetosphere. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab
The four Cluster spacecraft crossing the northern cusp of Earth’s magnetosphere. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

The inner portion of this magnetosphere is called the plasmasphere, a donut-shaped region which extends to a distance of about 20,000 km from the Earth and co-rotates with it. The magnetosphere is also flooded with charged particles and ions that get trapped inside, and then are sent bouncing back and forth along the region’s field lines.

At its forward, Sun-facing edge, the magnetosphere meets the solar wind – a stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun into space. The spot where they make contact is known as the “Bow Shock”, which is so-named because its magnetic field lines force solar wind to take on the shape of a bow as they pass over and around us.

As the solar wind passes over Earth’s magnetosphere, it comes together again behind our planet to form a magnetotail – an elongated tube which contains trapped sheets of plasma and interacting field lines. Without this protective envelope, Earth’s atmosphere would have been slowly stripped away billions of years ago, a fate that is now believed to have befallen Mars.

That being said, Earth’s magnetic field is not exactly hermetically sealed. For example, at our planet’s poles, the field lines are open, which allows solar particles to enter and fill our magnetosphere with energetic particles. This process is what is responsible for Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis (aka. the Northern and Southern Lights).

An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.
An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.

At the same time, particles from Earth’s upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) can escape the same way, traveling up through the poles and being lost to space. Despite learning much about Earth’s magnetic fields and how plasma is formed through its interaction with various particles, much about the whole process has been unclear until quite recently.

As Arnaud Masson, ESA’s Deputy Project Scientist for the Cluster mission stated in an ESA press release:

The question of plasma transport and atmospheric loss is relevant for both planets and stars, and is an incredibly fascinating and important topic. Understanding how atmospheric matter escapes is crucial to understanding how life can develop on a planet. The interaction between incoming and outgoing material in Earth’s magnetosphere is a hot topic at the moment; where exactly is this stuff coming from? How did it enter our patch of space?

Given that our atmosphere contains 5 quadrillion tons of matter (that’s 5 x 1015, or 5,000,000 billion tons), a loss of 90 tons a day doesn’t amount to much. However, this number does not include the mass of “cold ions” that are regularly being added. This term is typically used to described the hydrogen ions that we now know are being lost to the magnetosphere on a regular basis (along with oxygen and helium ions).

Since hydrogen requires less energy to escape our atmosphere, the ions that are created once this hydrogen becomes part of the plasmasphere also have low energy. As a result, they have been very difficult to detect in the past. What’s more, scientists have only known about this flow of oxygen, hydrogen and helium ions – which come from the Earth’s polar regions and replenish plasma in the magnetosphere – for a few decades.

Illustration of ions flowing out from the polar cap towards the magnetotail. Credit: ESA - C. Carreau
Illustration of ions flowing out from the polar cap towards the magnetotail. Credit: ESA – C. Carreau

Prior to this, scientists believed that solar particles alone were responsible for plasma in Earth’s magnetosphere. But in more recent years, they have come to understand that two other sources contribute to the plasmasphere. The first are sporadic “plumes” of plasma that grow within the plasmasphere and travel outwards towards the edge of the magnetosphere, where they interact with solar wind plasma coming the other way.

The other source? The aforementioned atmospheric leakage. Whereas this consists of abundant oxygen, helium and hydrogen ions, the cold hydrogen ions appear to play the most important role. Not only do they constitute a significant amount of matter lost to space, and may play a key role in shaping our magnetic environment. What’s more, most of the satellites currently orbiting Earth are unable to detect the cold ions being added to the mix, something which Cluster is able to do.

In 2009 and in 2013, the Cluster probes were able to characterize their strength, as well as that of other sources of plasma being added to the Earth’s magnetosphere. When only the cold ions are considered, the amount of atmosphere being lost o space amounts to several thousand tons per year. In short, its like losing socks. Not a big deal, but you’d like to know where they are going, right?

This has been another area of focus for the Cluster mission, which for the last decade and a half has been attempting to explore how these ions are lost, where they come from, and the like. As Philippe Escoubet, ESA’s Project Scientist for the Cluster mission, put it:

In essence, we need to figure out how cold plasma ends up at the magnetopause. There are a few different aspects to this; we need to know the processes involved in transporting it there, how these processes depend on the dynamic solar wind and the conditions of the magnetosphere, and where plasma is coming from in the first place – does it originate in the ionosphere, the plasmasphere, or somewhere else?

Color illustration showing the scale of planets in our solar system, focusing on Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: NASA
Color illustration showing the scale of planets in our solar system, focusing on Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: NASA

The reasons for understanding this are clear. High energy particles, usually in the form of solar flares, can pose a threat to space-based technology. In addition, understanding how our atmosphere interacts with solar wind is also useful when it comes to space exploration in general. Consider our current efforts to locate life beyond our own planet in the Solar System. If there is one thing that decades of missions to nearby planets has taught us, it is that a planet’s atmosphere and magnetic environment are crucial in determining habitability.

Within close proximity to Earth, there are two examples of this: Mars, which has a thin atmosphere and is too cold; and Venus, who’s atmosphere is too dense and far too hot. In the outer Solar System, Saturn’s moon Titan continues to intrigue us, mainly because of the unusual atmosphere. As the only body with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere besides Earth, it is also the only known planet where liquid transfer takes place between the surface and the atmosphere – albeit with petrochemicals instead of water.

Moreover, NASA’s Juno mission will spend the next two years exploring Jupiter’s own magnetic field and atmosphere. This information will tell us much about the Solar System’s largest planet, but it is also hoped to shed some light on the history planetary formation in the Solar System.

In the past fifteen years, Cluster has been able to tell astronomers a great deal about how Earth’s atmosphere interacts with solar wind, and has helped to explore magnetic field phenomena that we have only begun to understand. And while there is much more to be learned, scientists agree that what has been uncovered so far would have been impossible without a mission like Cluster.

Further Reading: ESA

What Causes Air Pollution?

By definition, pollution refers to any matter that is “out of place”. In other words, it is what happens when toxins, contaminants, and other harmful products are introduced into an environment, disrupting its normal patterns and functions. When it comes to our atmosphere, pollution refers to the introduction of chemicals, particulates, and biological matter that can be harmful to humans, plants and animals, and cause damage to the natural environment.

Whereas some causes of pollution are entirely natural – being the result of sudden changes in temperature, seasonal changes, or regular cycles – others are the result of human impact (i.e. anthropogenic, or man-made). More and more, the effects of air pollution on our planet, especially those that result from human activity, are of great concern to developers, planners and environmental organizations, given the long-term effect they can have.

Continue reading “What Causes Air Pollution?”

Mars Compared to Earth

At one time, astronomers believed the surface of Mars was crisscrossed by canal systems. This in turn gave rise to speculation that Mars was very much like Earth, capable of supporting life and home to a native civilization. But as human satellites and rovers began to conduct flybys and surveys of the planet, this vision of Mars quickly dissolved, replaced by one in which the Red Planet was a cold, desiccated and lifeless world.

However, over the past few decades, scientists have come to learn a great deal about the history of Mars that has altered this view as well. We now know that though Mars may currently be very cold, very dry, and very inhospitable, this wasn’t always the case. What’s more, we have come to see that even in its current form, Mars and Earth actually have a lot in common.

Between the two planets, there are similarities in size, inclination, structure, composition, and even the presence of water on their surfaces. That being said, they also have a lot of key differences that would make living on Mars, a growing preoccupation among many humans (looking at you, Elon Musk and Bas Lansdorp!), a significant challenge. Let’s go over these similarities and the difference in an orderly fashion, shall we?

Sizes, Masses and Orbits:

In terms of their size and mass, Earth and Mars are quite different. With a mean radius of 6371 km and a mass of 5.97×1024 kg, Earth is the fifth largest and fifth most-massive planet in the Solar System, and the largest of the terrestrial planets. Mars, meanwhile, has a radius of approximately 3,396 km at its equator (3,376 km at its polar regions), which is the equivalent of roughly 0.53 Earths. However, it’s mass is just 6.4185 x 10²³ kg, which is around 10.7% that of Earth’s.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
Artistic representation of the orbits of Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA

Similarly, Earth’s volume is a hefty 1.08321 x 1012 km3, which works out 1,083 billion cubic kilometers. By comparison, Mars has a volume of 1.6318 x 10¹¹ km³ (163 billion cubic kilometers) which is the equivalent of 0.151 Earths. Between this difference in size, mass, and volume, Mars’s surface gravity is 3.711 m/s², which works out to 37.6% of Earths (0.376 g).

In terms of their orbits, Earth and Mars are also quite different. For instance, Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance (aka. semi-major axis) of 149,598,261 km – or one Astronomical Unit (AU). This orbit has a very minor eccentricity (approx. 0.0167), which means its orbit ranges from 147,095,000 km (0.983 AU) at perihelion to 151,930,000 km (1.015 AU) at aphelion.

At its greatest distance from the Sun (aphelion), Mars orbits at a distance of approximately 249,200,000 million km (1.666 AU). At perihelion, when it is closest to the Sun, it orbits at a distance of approximately 206,700,000 million km (1.3814 AU). At these distances, the Earth has an orbital period of 365.25 days (1.000017 Julian years) while Mars has an orbital period of 686.971 days (1.88 Earth years). 

However, in terms of their sidereal rotation (time it takes for the planet to complete a single rotation on its axis) Earth and Mars are again in the same boat. While Earth takes precisely 23h 56m and 4 s to complete a single sidereal rotation (0.997 Earth days), Mars does the same in about 24 hours and 40 minutes. This means that one Martian day (aka. Sol) is very close to single day on Earth.

Earth's axial tilt (or obliquity) and its relation to the rotation axis and plane of orbit. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Earth’s axial tilt (or obliquity) and its relation to the rotation axis and plane of orbit. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Mars’s axial tilt is very similar to Earth’s, being inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (whereas Earth’s axial tilt is just over 23°). This means that Mars also experiences seasons and temperature variations similar to that of Earth (see below).

Structure and Composition:

Earth and Mars are similar when it comes to their basic makeups, given that they are both terrestrial planets. This means that both are differentiated between a dense metallic core and an overlying mantle and crust composed of less dense materials (like silicate rock). However, Earth’s density is higher than that of Mars – 5.514 g/cm3 compared to 3.93 g/cm³ (or 0.71 Earths) – which indicates that Mars’ core region contains more lighter elements than Earth’s.

Earth’s core region is made up of a solid inner core that has a radius of about 1,220 km and a liquid outer core that extends to a radius of about 3,400 km. Both the inner and outer cores are composed of iron and nickel, with trace amounts of lighter elements, and together, they add to a radius that is as large as Mars itself. Current models of Mars’ interior suggest that its core region is roughly  1,794 ± 65 kilometers (1,115 ± 40 mi) in radius, and is composed primarily of iron and nickel with about 16-17% sulfur.

Both planets have a silicate mantle surrounding their cores and a surface crust of solid material. Earth’s mantle – consisting of an upper mantle of slightly viscous material and a lower mantle that is more solid – is roughly 2,890 km (1,790 mi) thick and is composed of silicate rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium. The Earth’s crust is on average 40 km (25 mi) thick, and is composed of rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium (i.e. igneous rocks) and granite (rich in sodium, potassium, and aluminum).

Artist's impression of the interior of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the interior of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Comparatively, Mars’ mantle is quite thin, measuring some 1,300 to 1,800 kilometers (800 – 1,100 mi) in thickness. Like Earth, this mantle is believed to be composed of silicate rock that are rich in minerals compared to the crust, and to be partially viscous (resulting in convection currents which shaped the surface). The crust, meanwhile, averages about 50 km (31 mi) in thickness, with a maximum of 125 km (78 mi). This makes it about three times as hick as Earth’s crust, relative to the sizes of the two planets.

Ergo, the two planets are similar in composition, owing to their common status as terrestrial planets. And while they are both differentiated between a metallic core and layers of less dense material, there is some variance in terms of how proportionately thick their respective layers are.

Surface Features:

When it comes to the surfaces of Earth and Mars, things once again become a case of contrasts. Naturally, it is the differences that are most apparent when comparing Blue Earth to the Red Planet – as the nicknames would suggest. Unlike other planet’s in our Solar System, the vast majority of Earth is covered in liquid water, about 70% of the surface – or 361.132 million km² (139.43 million sq mi) to be exact.

The surface of Mars is dry, dusty, and covered in dirt that is rich iron oxide (aka. rust, leading to its reddish appearance). However, large concentrations of ice water are known to exist within the polar ice caps – Planum Boreum and Planum Australe. In addition, a permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°, meaning that ice water exists beneath much of the Martian surface. Radar data and soil samples have confirmed the presence of shallow subsurface water at the middle latitudes as well.

As for the similarities, Earth and Mars’ both have terrains that varies considerably from place to place. On Earth, both above and below sea level, there are mountainous features, volcanoes, scarps (trenches), canyons, plateaus, and abyssal plains. The remaining portions of the surface are covered by mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other landforms.

Mars is quite similar, with a surface covered by mountain ranges, sandy plains, and even some of the largest sand dunes in the Solar System. It also has the largest mountain in the Solar System, the shield volcano Olympus Mons, and the longest, deepest chasm in the Solar System: Valles Marineris.

Earth and Mars have also experienced many impacts from asteroids and meteors over the years. However, Mars’ own impact craters are far better preserved, with many dating back billions of years. The reason for this is the low air pressure and lack of precipitation on Mars, which results in a very slow rate of erosion. However, this was not always the case.

Mars has discernible gullies and channels on its surface, and many scientists believe that liquid water used to flow through them. By comparing them to similar features on Earth, it is believed that these were were at least partially formed by water erosion.  Some of these channels are quite large, reaching 2,000 kilometers in length and 100 kilometers in width.

Color mosaic of Mars' greatest mountain, Olympus Mons, viewed from orbit. Credit NASA/JPL
Color mosaic of Mars’ greatest mountain, Olympus Mons, viewed from orbit. Credit NASA/JPL

So while they look quite different today, Earth and Mars were once quite similar. And similar geological processes occurred on both planets to give them the kind of varied terrain they both currently have.

Atmosphere and Temperature:

Atmospheric pressure and temperatures are another way in which Earth and Mars are quite different. Earth has a dense atmosphere composed of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. Mars’ is very thin by comparison, with pressure ranging from 0.4 – 0.87 kPa – which is equivalent to about 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

Earth’s atmosphere is also primarily composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with trace concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gaseous molecules. Mars’ is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen along with traces of oxygen and water. Recent surveys have also noted trace amounts of methane, with an estimated concentration of about 30 parts per billion (ppb).

Because of this, there is a considerable difference between the average surface temperature on Earth and Mars. On Earth, it is approximately 14°C, with plenty of variation due to geographical region, elevation, and time of year. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C (159°F) in the Lut Desert of Iran, while the coldest temperature was -89.2°C (-129°F) at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau.

Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere.[1] (The shuttle is actually orbiting at an altitude of more than 320 km (200 mi), far above all three layers.) Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Endeavor silhouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere. Credit: NASA
Because of its thin atmosphere and its greater distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder, averaging at -46 °C (-51 °F). However, because of its tilted axis and orbital eccentricity, Mars also experiences considerable variations in temperature. These can be seen in the form of a low temperature of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles, and a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator.

The atmosphere of Mars is also quite dusty, containing particulates that measure 1.5 micrometers in diameter, which is what gives the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface. The planet also experiences dust storms, which can turn into what resembles small tornadoes. Larger dust storms occur when the dust is blown into the atmosphere and heats up from the Sun.

So basically, Earth has a dense atmosphere that is rich in oxygen and water vapor, and which is generally warm and conducive to life. Mars, meanwhile, is generally very cold, but can become quite warm at times. It’s also quite dry and very dusty.

Magnetic Fields:

When it comes to magnetic fields, Earth and Mars are in stark contrast to each other. On Earth, the dynamo effect created by the rotation of Earth’s inner core, relative to the rotation of the planet, generates the currents which are presumed to be the source of its magnetic field. The presence of this field is of extreme importance to both Earth’s atmosphere and to life on Earth as we know it.

Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Essentially, Earth’s magnetosphere serves to deflect most of the solar wind’s charged particles which would otherwise strip away the ozone layer and expose Earth to harmful radiation. The field ranges in strength between approximately 25,000 and 65,000 nanoteslas (nT), or 0.25–0.65 Gauss units (G).

Today, Mars has weak magnetic fields in various regions of the planet which appear to be the remnant of a magnetosphere. These fields were first measured by the Mars Global Surveyor, which indicated fields of inconsistent strengths measuring at most 1500 nT (~16-40 times less than Earth’s). In the northern lowlands, deep impact basins, and the Tharsis volcanic province, the field strength is very low. But in the ancient southern crust, which is undisturbed by giant impacts and volcanism, the field strength is higher.

This would seem to indicate that Mars had a magnetosphere in the past, and explanations vary as to how it lost it. Some suggest that it was blown off, along with the majority of Mars’ atmosphere, by a large impact during the Late Heavy Bombardment. This impact, it is reasoned, would have also upset the heat flow in Mars’ iron core, arresting the dynamo effect that would have produced the magnetic field.

Another theory, based on NASA’s MAVEN mission to study the Martian atmosphere, has it that Mars’ lost its magnetosphere when the smaller planet cooled, causing its dynamo effect to cease some 4.2 billion years ago. During the next several hundred million years, the Sun’s powerful solar wind stripped particles away from the unprotected Martian atmosphere at a rate 100 to 1,000 times greater than that of today. This in turn is what caused Mars to lose the liquid water that existed on its surface, as the environment to become increasing cold, desiccated, and inhospitable.

Satellites:

Earth and Mars are also similar in that both have satellites that orbit them. In Earth’s case, this is none other than The Moon, our only natural satellite and the source of the Earth’s tides. It’s existence has been known of since prehistoric times, and it has played a major role in the mythological and astronomical traditions of all human cultures. In addition, its size, mass and other characteristics are used as a reference point when assessing other satellites.

The Moon is one of the largest natural satellites in the Solar System and is the second-densest satellite of those whose moons who’s densities are known (after Jupiter’s satellite Io). Its diameter, at 3,474.8 km, is one-fourth the diameter of Earth; and at 7.3477 × 1022 kg, its mass is 1.2% of the Earth’s mass. It’s mean density is 3.3464 g/cm3 , which is equivalent to roughly 0.6 that of Earth. All of this results in our Moon possessing gravity that is about 16.54% the strength of Earth’s (aka. 1.62 m/s2).

The Moon varies in orbit around Earth, going from 362,600 km at perigee to 405,400 km at apogee. And like most known satellites within our Solar System, the Moon’s sidereal rotation period (27.32 days) is the same as its orbital period. This means that the Moon is tidally locked with Earth, with one side is constantly facing towards us while the other is facing away.

Thanks to examinations of Moon rocks that were brought back to Earth, the predominant theory states that the Moon was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago from a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object (known as Theia). This collision created a massive cloud of debris that began circling our planet, which eventually coalesced to form the Moon we see today.

Mars has two small satellites, Phobos and Deimos. These moons were discovered in 1877 by the astronomer Asaph Hall and were named after mythological characters. In keeping with the tradition of deriving names from classical mythology, Phobos and Deimos are the sons of Ares – the Greek god of war that inspired the Roman god Mars. Phobos represents fear while Deimos stands for terror or dread.

Phobos measures about 22 km (14 mi) in diameter, and orbits Mars at a distance of 9,234.42 km when it is at periapsis (closest to Mars) and 9,517.58 km when it is at apoapsis (farthest). At this distance, Phobos is below synchronous altitude, which means that it takes only 7 hours to orbit Mars and is gradually getting closer to the planet. Scientists estimate that in 10 to 50 million years, Phobos could crash into Mars’ surface or break up into a ring structure around the planet.

Meanwhile, Deimos measures about 12 km (7.5 mi) and orbits the planet at a distance of 23,455.5 km (periapsis) and 23,470.9 km (apoapsis). It has a longer orbital period, taking 1.26 days to complete a full rotation around the planet. Mars may have additional moons that are smaller than 50- 100 meters (160 to 330 ft) in diameter, and a dust ring is predicted between Phobos and Deimos.

Scientists believe that these two satellites were once asteroids that were captured by the planet’s gravity. The low albedo and the carboncaceous chondrite composition of both moons – which is similar to asteroids – supports this theory, and Phobos’ unstable orbit would seem to suggest a recent capture. However, both moons have circular orbits near the equator, which is unusual for captured bodies.

So while Earth has a single satellite that is quite large and dense, Mars has two satellites that are small and orbit it at a comparatively close distance. And whereas the Moon was formed from Earth’s own debris after a rather severe collision, Mars’ satellites were likely captured asteroids.

Conclusion:

Okay, let’s review. Earth and Mars have their share of similarities, but also some rather stark differences.

Mean Radius:                6,371 km                      3,396 km

Mass:                                59.7×1023 kg              6.42 x 10²³ kg

Volume:                           10.8 x 1011 km3         1.63 x 10¹¹ km³

Semi-Major Axis:         0.983 – 1.015 AU      1.3814 – 1.666 AU

Air Pressure:                 101.325 kPa                0.4 – 0.87 kPa

Gravity:                            9.8 m/s²                     3.711 m/s²

Avg. Temperature:      14°C (57.2 °F)            -46 °C (-51 °F)

Temp. Variations:       ±160 °C (278°F)        ±178 °C (320°F)

Axial Tilt:                          23°                               25.19°

Length of Day:               24 hours                     24h 40m

Length of Year:             365.25 days                686.971 days

Water:                              Plentiful                      Intermittent (mostly frozen)

Polar Ice Caps:               Yep                              Yep

In short, compared to Earth, Mars is a pretty small, dry, cold, and dusty planet. It has comparatively low gravity, very little atmosphere and no breathable air. And the years are also mighty long, almost twice that of Earth, in fact. However, the planet does have its fair share of water (albeit mostly in ice form), has seasonal cycles similar to Earth, temperature variations that are similar, and a day that is almost as long.

All of these factors will have to be addressed if ever human beings want to live there. And whereas some can be worked with, others will have to be overcome or adapted to. And for that, we will have to lean pretty heavily on our technology (i.e. terraforming and geoengineering). Best of luck to those who would like to venture there someday, and who do not plan on coming home!

We have written many articles about Mars here on Universe Today. Here’s an article about how difficult it will be to land large payloads onto the surface of Mars, and here’s an article about the Mars methane mystery.

And here are some on the distance between Earth and Mars, Mars’ gravity, and if humans can live on Mars.

If you’d like more info on Mars, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and here’s a link to the NASA Mars Exploration home page.

And be sure to check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration: Earth and Mars Comparison Chart

We have recorded several podcasts just about Mars. Including Episode 52: Mars and Episode 92: Missions to Mars, Part 1.

Sources:

Earth May Have Lost Some Primoridial Atmosphere to Meteors

Earth's Hadean Eon is a bit of a mystery to us, because geologic evidence from that time is scarce. Researchers at the Australian National University have used tiny zircon grains to get a better picture of early Earth. Credit: NASA

During the Hadean Eon, some 4.5 billion years ago, the world was a much different place than it is today. As the name Hades would suggest (Greek for “underworld”), it was a hellish period for Earth, marked by intense volcanism and intense meteoric impacts. It was also during this time that outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and water vapor.

Little of this primordial atmosphere remains, and geothermal evidence suggests that the Earth’s atmosphere may have been completely obliterated at least twice since its formation more than 4 billion years ago. Until recently, scientists were uncertain as to what could have caused this loss.

But a new study from MIT, Hebrew Univeristy, and Caltech indicates that the intense bombardment of meteorites in this period may have been responsible.

This meteoric bombardment would have taken place at around the same time that the Moon was formed. The intense bombardment of space rocks would have kicked up clouds of gas with enough force to permanent eject the atmosphere into space. Such impacts may have also blasted other planets, and even peeled away the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.

In fact, the researchers found that small planetesimals may be much more effective than large impactors –  such as Theia, whose collision with Earth is believed to have formed the Moon – in driving atmospheric loss. Based on their calculations, it would take a giant impact to disperse most of the atmosphere; but taken together, many small impacts would have the same effect.

Artist's concept of a collision between proto-Earth and Theia, believed to happened 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a collision between proto-Earth and Theia, believed to happened 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

Hilke Schlichting, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says understanding the drivers of Earth’s ancient atmosphere may help scientists to identify the early planetary conditions that encouraged life to form.

“[This finding] sets a very different initial condition for what the early Earth’s atmosphere was most likely like,” Schlichting says. “It gives us a new starting point for trying to understand what was the composition of the atmosphere, and what were the conditions for developing life.”

What’s more, the group examined how much atmosphere was retained and lost following impacts with giant, Mars-sized and larger bodies and with smaller impactors measuring 25 kilometers or less.

What they found was that a collision with an impactor as massive as Mars would have the necessary effect of generating a massive a shockwave through the Earth’s interior and potentially ejecting a significant fraction of the planet’s atmosphere.

However, the researchers determined that such an impact was not likely to have occurred, since it would have turned Earth’s interior into a homogenous slurry. Given the appearance of diverse elements observed within the Earth’s interior, such an event does not appear to have happened in the past.

A series of smaller impactors, by contrast, would generate an explosion of sorts, releasing a plume of debris and gas. The largest of these impactors would be forceful enough to eject all gas from the atmosphere immediately above the impact zone. Only a fraction of this atmosphere would be lost following smaller impacts, but the team estimates that tens of thousands of small impactors could have pulled it off.

An artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impact, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. Credit: Simone Marchi
Artist’s concept of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts. Credit: Simone Marchi

Such a scenario did likely occur 4.5 billion years ago during the Hadean Eon. This period was one of galactic chaos, as hundreds of thousands of space rocks whirled around the solar system and many are believed to have collided with Earth.

“For sure, we did have all these smaller impactors back then,” Schlichting says. “One small impact cannot get rid of most of the atmosphere, but collectively, they’re much more efficient than giant impacts, and could easily eject all the Earth’s atmosphere.”

However, Schlichting and her team realized that the sum effect of small impacts may be too efficient at driving atmospheric loss. Other scientists have measured the atmospheric composition of Earth compared with Venus and Mars; and compared to Venus, Earth’s noble gases have been depleted 100-fold. If these planets had been exposed to the same blitz of small impactors in their early history, then Venus would have no atmosphere today.

She and her colleagues went back over the small-impactor scenario to try and account for this difference in planetary atmospheres. Based on further calculations, the team identified an interesting effect: Once half a planet’s atmosphere has been lost, it becomes much easier for small impactors to eject the rest of the gas.

The researchers calculated that Venus’ atmosphere would only have to start out slightly more massive than Earth’s in order for small impactors to erode the first half of the Earth’s atmosphere, while keeping Venus’ intact. From that point, Schlichting describes the phenomenon as a “runaway process — once you manage to get rid of the first half, the second half is even easier.”

This gave rise to another important question: What eventually replaced Earth’s atmosphere? Upon further calculations, Schlichting and her team found the same impactors that ejected gas also may have introduced new gases, or volatiles.

“When an impact happens, it melts the planetesimal, and its volatiles can go into the atmosphere,” Schlichting says. “They not only can deplete, but replenish part of the atmosphere.”

The "impact farm:, an area on Venus marked by impact craters and volcanic activity. Credit: NASA/JPL
The “impact farm:, an area on Venus marked by impact craters and volcanic activity. Credit: NASA/JPL

The group calculated the amount of volatiles that may be released by a rock of a given composition and mass, and found that a significant portion of the atmosphere may have been replenished by the impact of tens of thousands of space rocks.

“Our numbers are realistic, given what we know about the volatile content of the different rocks we have,” Schlichting notes.

Jay Melosh, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University, says Schlichting’s conclusion is a surprising one, as most scientists have assumed the Earth’s atmosphere was obliterated by a single, giant impact. Other theories, he says, invoke a strong flux of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, as well as an “unusually active solar wind.”

“How the Earth lost its primordial atmosphere has been a longstanding problem, and this paper goes a long way toward solving this enigma,” says Melosh, who did not contribute to the research. “Life got started on Earth about this time, and so answering the question about how the atmosphere was lost tells us about what might have kicked off the origin of life.”

Going forward, Schlichting hopes to examine more closely the conditions underlying Earth’s early formation, including the interplay between the release of volatiles from small impactors and from Earth’s ancient magma ocean.

“We want to connect these geophysical processes to determine what was the most likely composition of the atmosphere at time zero, when the Earth just formed, and hopefully identify conditions for the evolution of life,” Schlichting says.

Schlichting and her colleagues have published their results in the February edition of the journal Icarus.

Further Reading: MIT News

Why Is The Sunset Red?

Sunset

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Why is the sunset red? Awesome question. The most basic answer is that light is refracted by particles in the atmosphere and the red end of the spectrum is what is visible. To better understand that you have to have a basic understanding of how light behaves in the air, the atmosphere’s composition, the color of light, wavelengths, and Rayleigh scattering and here is all of the information that you need to understand those things.

The Earth’s atmosphere is one of the main factors in determining what color a sunset is. The atmosphere is made up mostly of gases with a few other molecules thrown in. Since it completely surrounds the Earth it affects what you see in every direction. The most common gasses in our atmosphere are nitrogen(78%) and oxygen(21%). The remaining single percent is made up of trace gasses, like argon, and water vapor and many small solid particles, like dust, soot and ashes, pollen, and salt from the oceans. There may be more water in the air after a rainstorm, or near the ocean. Volcanoes can put large amounts of dust particles high into the atmosphere. Pollution can add different gases or dust and soot.

Next, you have to look at light waves and the color of light. Light is an energy that travels in waves. Light is a wave of vibrating electric and magnetic fields and is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic waves travel through space at the speed of light(299,792 km/sec). The energy of the radiation depends on its wavelength and frequency. A wavelength is the distance between the tops of the waves. The frequency is the number of waves that pass by each second. The longer the wavelength of the light, the lower the frequency, and the less energy it contains. Visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can see. Light from a light bulb or the Sun may look white, but it is actually a combination of many colors. Light can be split into its different colors with a prism. A rainbow is a natural prism effect. The colors of the spectrum blend into one another. The colors have different wavelengths, frequencies, and energies. Violet has the shortest wavelength meaning that it has the highest frequency and energy. Red has the longest wavelength and lowest frequency and energy.

In order to put it all together, we have to look at the action of light in the air of our planet. Light moves in a straight line until it is interfered with(gas molecule, dust, or anything else). What happens to that light depends on the wavelength of the light and size of the particle. Dust particles and water droplets are much larger than the wavelength of visible light, so it bounces off in different directions. The reflected light appears white because it still contains all of the same colors, but gas molecules are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. When light bumps into them it acts differently. After light hits a gas molecule some of it may get absorbed. Later, the molecule radiates the light in a different direction. The color that is radiated is the same color that was absorbed. The different colors of light are affected differently. All of the colors can be absorbed, but the higher frequencies (blues) are absorbed more often than the lower frequencies (reds). This process is called Rayleigh scattering.

Long story short,, the answer to ‘why is the sunset red?’ is: At sunset, light must travel farther through the atmosphere before it gets to you, so more of it is reflected and scattered and the sun appears dimmer. The color of the sun itself appears to change, first to orange and then to red because even more of the short wavelength blues and greens are now scattered and only the longer wavelengths(reds, oranges) are left to be seen.

We have written many articles about the sunset for Universe Today. Here’s an article about sunrise and sunset, and here are some sunset pictures.

If you’d like more info on the Sun, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Sun, and here’s a link to the SOHO mission homepage, which has the latest images from the Sun.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

Reference:
NASA Space Place

What Is The Atmosphere?

[/caption]What is the atmosphere? It is only the thing that keeps you from being burned to death every day, helps to bring the rain that our plants need to survive, no to mention it holds the oxygen that you need to breath. Essentially, the atmosphere is is a collection of gases that makes the Earth habitable.

The atmosphere consists of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% water vapor, and a minute amount of other trace gases like argon, and carbon monoxide. All of these gases combine to absorb ultraviolet radiation from the Sun and warm the planet’s surface through heat retention. The mass of the atmosphere is around 5×1018kg. 75% of the atmospheric mass is within 11 km of the surface. While the atmosphere becomes thinner the higher you go, there is no clear line demarcating the atmosphere from space; however, the Karman line , at 100 km, is often regarded as the boundary between atmosphere and outer space. The effects of reentry can be felt at 120 km.

Over the vast history of Earth there have been three different atmospheres or one that has evolved in three major stages. The first atmosphere came into being as a result of a major rainfall over the entire planet that caused the build up of a major ocean. The second atmosphere began to develop around 2.7 billion years ago. The presence oxygen began to appear apparently from being released by photosynthesizing algae. The third atmosphere came into play when the planet began to stretch its legs, so to speak. Plate tectonics began constantly rearranging the continents about 3.5 billion years ago and helped to shape long-term climate evolution by allowing the transfer of carbon dioxide to large land-based carbonate stores. Free oxygen did not exist until about 1.7 billion years ago and this can be seen with the development of the red beds and the end of the banded iron formations. This signifies a shift from a reducing atmosphere to an oxidizing atmosphere. Oxygen showed major ups and downs until reaching a steady state of more than 15%.

The Earth’s atmosphere performs a couple of cool optical tricks. The blue color of the sky is due to Rayleigh scattering which means as light moves through the atmosphere, most of the longer wavelengths pass straight through. Very little of the red, orange and yellow light is affected by the air; however, much of the shorter wavelength light(blue) is absorbed by the gas molecules. The absorbed blue light is then radiated in every direction. So, no matter where you look, you see the scattered blue light. The atmosphere is also responsible for the aurora borealis. Auroras are caused by the bombardment of solar electrons on oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere. The electrons literally excite the oxygen and nitrogen atoms high in the atmosphere to create the beautiful light show we know as an aurora.

The atmosphere is divided into 5 major zones. The troposphere begins at the surface and extends to between 7 km at the poles and 17 km at the equator, with some variation due to weather. The stratosphere extends to about 51 km. The mesosphere extends to about 85 km. Most meteors burn up in this zone of the atmosphere. The thermosphere extends up to between 320 and 380 km. This is where the International Space Station orbits. The temperature here can rise to 1,500 °C. The exosphere is the last bastion of the atmosphere. Here the particles are so far apart that they can travel hundreds of km without colliding with one another. The exosphere is mainly composed of hydrogen and helium.

Check out the NASA page about the Earth’s atmosphere. Here on Universe Today we have a great article about an alternative idea about the atmosphere’s origin. Astronomy Cast offers a good episode about atmospheres around the Universe.