Harvard Physicist Creates Metallic Hydrogen Using Diamond Vise

For some time, scientists have been fascinated by the concept of metallic hydrogen. Such an element is believed to exist naturally when hydrogen is placed under extreme pressures (like in the interior of gas giants like Jupiter). But as a synthetic material, it would have endless applications, since it is believed to have superconducting properties at room temperature and the ability to retain its solidity once it has been brought back to normal pressure.

For this reason, condensed matter physicists have been attempting to create metallic hydrogen for decades. And according to a recent study published in Science Magazine, a pair of physicists from the Lyman Laboratory of Physics at Harvard University claim to have done this very thing. If true, this accomplishment could usher in a new age of super materials and high-pressure physics.

The existence of metallic hydrogen was first predicted in 1935 Princeton physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington. For years, Isaac Silvera (the Thomas D. Cabot Professor at Harvard University) and Ranga Dias, a postdoctorate fellow, have sought to create it. They claim to have succeeded, using a process which they described in their recently-published study, “Observation of the Wigner-Huntington transition to metallic hydrogen“.

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

Such a feat, which is tantamount to creating the heart of Jupiter between two diamonds, is unparalleled in the history of science. As Silvera described the accomplishment in a recent Harvard press release:

“This is the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics. It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”

In the past, scientists have succeeded in creating liquid hydrogen at high temperature conditions by ramping up the pressures it was exposed to (as opposed to cryogenically cooling it). But metallic hydrogen has continued to elude experimental scientists, despite repeated (and unproven) claims in the past to have achieved synthesis. The reason for this is because such experiments are extremely temperamental.

For instance, the diamond anvil method (which Silvera and Dias used a variation of) consists of holding a sample of hydrogen in place with a thin metal gasket, then compressing it between two diamond-tipped vices. This puts the sample under extreme pressure, and a laser sensor is used to monitor for any changes. In the past, this has proved problematic since the pressure can cause the hydrogen to fill imperfections in the diamonds and crack them.

While protective coatings can ensure the diamonds don’t crack, the additional materials makes it harder to get accurate readings from laser measurements. What’s more, scientists attempting to experiment with hydrogen have found that pressures of ~400 gigapascals (GPa) or more need to be involved – which turns the hydrogen samples black, thus preventing the laser light from being able to penetrate it.

Microscopic images of the stages in the creation of metallic hydrogen: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) at about 200 GPa, which is converted into black molecular hydrogen, and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa. Credit: Isaac Silvera

For the sake of their experiment, Professors Ranga Dias and Isaac Silvera took a different approach. For starters, they used two small pieces of polished synthetic diamond rather than natural ones. They then used a reactive ion etching process to shave their surfaces, then coated them with a thin layer of alumina to prevent hydrogen from diffusing into the crystal structure.

They also simplified the experiment by removing the need for high-intensity laser monitoring, relying on Raman spectroscopy instead. When they reached a pressure of 495 GPa (greater than that at the center of the Earth), their sample reportedly became metallic and changed from black to shiny red. This was revealed by measuring the spectrum of the sample, which showed that it had become highly reflective (which is expected for a sample of metal).

As Silvera explained, these experimental results (if verified) could lead to all kinds of possibilities:

“One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable. That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remain diamonds when that pressure and heat are removed. As much as 15 percent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story.”

Superconducting links developed to carry currents of up to 20,000 amperes are being tested at CERN. Credit: CERN

In short, metallic hydrogen could speed the revolution in electronics already underway, thanks to the discovery of materials like graphene. Since metallic hydrogen is also believed to be a superconductor at room temperature, its synthetic production would have immense implications for high-energy research and physics – such as that being conducted by CERN.

Beyond that, it would also enable research into the interior’s of gas giants. For some time, scientists have suspected that a layer of metallic hydrogen may surround the cores of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Naturally, the temperature and pressure conditions in the interiors of these planets make direct study impossible. But by being able to produce metallic hydrogen synthetically, scientists could conduct experiment to see how it behaves.

Naturally, the news of this experiment and its results is being met with skepticism. For instance, critics wonder if the pressure reading of 495 GPa was in fact accurate, since Silvera and Dias only obtained that as a final measurement and were forced to rely on estimates prior to that. Second, there are those who question if the reddish speck that resulted is in fact hydrogen, and some material that came from the gasket or diamond coating during the process.

However, Silvera and Dias are confident in their results and believe they can be replicated (which would go far to silence doubts about their results). For one, they emphasize that a comparative measurement of the reflective properties of the hydrogen dot and the surrounding gasket suggest that the hydrogen is pure. They also claim their pressure measurements were properly calibrated and verified.

In the future, they intend to obtain additional spectrographic readings from the sample to confirm that it is in fact metallic. Once that is done, they plan to test the sample to see if it is truly metastable, which will consist of them opening the vise and seeing if it remains in a solid state. Given the implications of success, there are many who would like to see their experiment borne out!

Be sure to check out this video produced by Harvard University that talks about the experiment:

Further Reading: Science Magazine, Harvard Gazette

Four Planet System Directly Imaged In Motion

Located about 129 light years from Earth in the direction of the Pegasus constellation is the relatively young star system of HR 8799. Beginning in 2008, four orbiting exoplanets were discovered in this system which – alongside the exoplanet Formalhaut b – were the very first to be confirmed using the direct imaging technique. And over time, astronomer have come to believe that these four planets are in resonance with each other.

In this case, the four planets orbit their star with a 1:2:4:8 resonance, meaning that each planet’s orbital period is in a nearly precise ratio with the others in the system. This is a relatively unique phenomena, one which inspired a Jason Wang – a graduate student from the Berkeley arm of the NASA-sponsored Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) – to produce a video that illustrates their orbital dance.

Using images obtained by the W.M. Keck Observatory over a seven year period, Wang’s video provides a glimpse of these four exoplanets in motion. As you can see below, the central star is blacked out so that the light reflecting off of its planets can be seen. And while it does not show the planets completing a full orbital period (which would take decades and even centuries) it beautifully illustrates the resonance that exists between the star’s four planets.

As Jason Wang told Universe Today via email:

“The data was obtained over 7 years from one of the 10 meter Keck telescopes by a team of astronomers (Christian Marois, Quinn Konopacky, Bruce Macintosh, Travis Barman, and Ben Zuckerman). Christian reduced each of the 7 epochs of data, to make 7 frames of data. I then made a movie by using a motion interpolation to interpolate those 7 frames into 100 frames to get a smooth video so that it’s not choppy (as if we could observe them every month from Earth).”

The images of the four exoplanets were originally captured by Dr. Christian Marois of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. It was in 2008 that Marois and his colleagues discovered the first three of HR 8799’s planets – HR 8799 b, c and d – using direct imaging technique. At around the same time, a team from UC Berkeley announced the discovery of Fomalhaut b, also using direct imaging.

These planets were all determined to be gas giants of similar size and mass, with between 1.2 and 1.3 times the size of Jupiter, and 7 to 10 times its mass. At the time of their discovery, HR 8799 d was believed to be the closest planet to its star, at a distance of about 27 Astronomical Units (AUs) – while the other two orbit at distances of about 42 and 68 AUs, respectively.

Image of HR 8799 (left) taken by the HST in 1998, image processed to remove scattered starlight (center), and illustration of the planetary system (right). Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/R. Soummer

It was only afterwards that the team realized the planets had already been observed in 1998. Back then, the Hubble Space Telescope’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) had obtained light from the system that indicated the presence of planets. However, this was not made clear until after a newly-developed image-processing technique had been installed. Hence, the “pre-discovery” went unnoticed.

Further observations in 2009 and 2010 revealed the existence of fourth planet – HR 8799 e – which had an orbit placing it inside the other three. Even so, this planet is fifteen times farther from its star than the Earth is from the Sun, which results in an orbital period of about 18,000 days (49 years). The others take around 112, 225, and 450 years (respectively) to complete an orbit of HR 8799.

Ultimately, Wang decided to produce the video (which was not his first), to illustrate how exciting the search for exoplanets can be. As he put it:

“I had written this motion interpolation algorithm for another exoplanet system, Beta Pictoris b, where we see one planet on an edge-on orbit looking like it’s diving into its star (it’s actually just circling in front of it). We wanted to do the same thing for HR 8799 to bring this system to life and share our excitement in directly imaging exoplanets. I think it’s quite amazing that we have the technology to watch other worlds orbit other stars.”

In addition, the video draws attention to a star system that presents some unique opportunities for exoplanet research. Since HR 8799 was the first multi-planetary system to be directly-imaged means that astronomers can directly observe the orbits of the four planets, observe their dynamical interactions, and determine how they came to their present-day configuration.

Astronomers will also be able to take spectra of these planet’s atmospheres to study their composition, and compare this to our own Solar System’s gas giants. And since the system is really quite young (just 40 million years old), it can tell us much about the planet-formation process. Last, but not least, their wide orbits (a necessity given their size) could mean the system is less than stable.

In the future, according to Wang, astronomers will be watching to see if any planets get ejected from the system. I don’t know about you, but I would consider a video that illustrates one of HR 8799’s gas giants getting booted out of its system would be pretty inspiring too!

Further Reading: NASA

Beautiful Planetary Rings Are Dead Dwarf Planets! Dead Dwarf Planets!!!

In 1655, astronomer Christiaan Huygens became the first person to observe the beautiful ring system that surrounds Saturn. And while they are certainly the most spectacular, astronomers have since discovered that all the gas and ice giants of the Solar System (i.e. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have their own system of rings.

These systems have remained a source of fascination for astronomers, largely because their origins are still something of a mystery. But thanks to a recent study by researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kobe University, the origins of these rings may be solved. According to their study, the rings are pieces of Dwarf Planets that got torn off in passing, which were then ripped to pieces!

This research could help to resolve many of the burning questions about the ring systems around our system’s giant planets, as well as details about the Solar Systems past. For the sake of their study – titled “Ring Formation around Giant Planets by Tidal Disruption of a Single Passing Large Kuiper Belt Object” – the Japanese team of researchers considered a number of factors.

The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. The first Kuiper Belt object was discovered in 1992. We now know of more than a thousand objects there, and it's estimated it's home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL
The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. Credit: JHUAPL

First, they considered the diversity of the various ring systems in our Solar System. For instance, Saturn’s rings are massive (about 100,000 trillion kg!) and composed overwhelmingly (90-95%) of water ice. In contrast, the much less massive rings of Uranus and Neptune are composed of darker material, and are believed to have higher percentages of rocky material in them.

To shed some light on this, the team looked to the Nice Model – a theory of Solar System formation that states that the gas giant migrated to their present location during the Late Heavy Bombardment. This period took place between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago, and was characterized by a disproportionately high number of asteroids from Trans-Neptunian space striking planets in the Inner Solar System.

They then considered other recent models of Solar System formation which postulate that the giant planets experienced close encounters with Pluto-sized objects during this time. From this, they developed the theory that the rings could be the result of some of these objects getting trapped and ripped apart by the gas giants’ gravity. To test this theory, they performed a number of computer simulations to see what would happen in these instances.

As Ryuki Hyodo – a researcher at the Department of Planetology, Kobe University, and the lead author on the paper – told Universe Today via email:

“We performed two simulations. First, using SPH (Smoothed-particle hydrodynamics) simulations, we investigated tidal disruption of Pluto-sized objects during the close encounters with giant planets and calculated the amount of fragments that are captured around giant planets. We found enough mass/fragments to explain current rings is captured. Then, we performed the longer-term evolution of the captured mass/fragments by using N-body simulations. We found that the captured fragments can collide each other with destruction and form thin equatorial circular rings around giant planets.”

A composite image of Uranus in two infrared bands, showing the planet and its ring system. Picture taken by the Keck II telescope and released in 2007. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory (Marcos van Dam)
A composite image of Uranus in two infrared bands, showing the planet and its ring system. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory (Marcos van Dam)

The results of these simulation were  consistent with the mass of the ring systems observed around Saturn and Uranus. This included the inner regular satellites of both planets – which would have also been the product of the past encounters with KBOs. It also accounted for the differences in the rings’ composition, showing how the planet’s Roche limits can influence what kind of material can be effectively captured.

This study is especially significant because it offers verifiable evidence for one of the enduring mysteries of our Solar System. And as Hyodo points out, it could come in mighty handy when it comes time to examine extra-solar planetary systems as well.

“Our theory suggested that, in the past, we had two possible epochs to form rings,” he said. “One is during the planet accretion phase and the other is during the Late heavy bombardment. Also, our model is naturally applicable to other planetary systems. So, our theory predicts that exoplanets also have massive rings around them.”

In the meantime, some might find the idea that ring systems are the corpses of Dwarf Planets troublesome. But I think we can all agree, a Soylent Green allusion might be just a bit over the top!

Further Reading: arXiv

What Does “Earthlike” Even Mean & Should It Apply To Proxima Centauri b?

The ESO’s recent announcement that they have discovered an exoplanet candidate orbiting Proxima Centauri – thus confirming weeks of speculation – has certainly been exciting news! Not only is this latest find the closest extra-solar planet to our own Solar System, but the ESO has also indicated that it is rocky, similar in size and mass to Earth, and orbits within the star’s habitable zone.

However, in the midst of this news, there has been some controversy regarding certain labels. For instance, when a planet like Proxima b is described as “Earth-like”, “habitable”, and/or “terrestrial“, there are naturally some questions as to what this really means. For each term, there are particular implications, which in turn beg for clarification.

For starters, to call a planet “Earth-like” generally means that it is similar in composition to Earth. This is where the term “terrestrial” really comes into play, as it refers to a rocky planet that is composed primarily of silicate rock and metals which are differentiated between a metal core and a silicate mantle and crust.

This applies to all planets in the inner Solar System, and is often used in order to differentiate rocky exoplanets from gas giants. This is important within the context of exoplanet hunting, as the majority of the 4,696 exoplanet candidates – of which 3,374 have been confirmed (as of August 18th, 2016) – have been gas giants.

What this does not mean, at least not automatically, is that the planet is habitable in the way Earth is. Simply being terrestrial in nature is not an indication that the planet has a suitable atmosphere or a warm enough climate to support the existence of liquid water or microbial life on its surface.

What’s more, Earth-like generally implies that a planet will be similar in mass and size to Earth. But this is not the same as composition, as many exoplanets that have been discovered have been labeled as “Earth-sized” or “Super-Earths” – i.e. planets with around 10 times the mass of Earth – based solely on their mass.

This term also distinguishes an exoplanet candidate from those that are 15 to 17 masses (which are often referred to as “Neptune-sized”) and those that have masses similar to, or many times greater than that of Jupiter (i.e. Super-Jupiters). In all these cases, size and mass are the qualifiers, not composition.

Ergo, finding a planet that is greater in size and mass than Earth, but significantly less than that of a gas giant, does not mean it is terrestrial. In fact, some scientists have recommended that the term “mini-Neptune” be used to describe planets that are more massive than Earth, but not necessarily composed of silicate minerals and metals.

And estimates of size and mass are not exactly metrics for determining whether or not a planet is “habitable”. This term is especially sticky when it comes to exoplanets. When scientists attach this word to extra-solar planets like Proxima b, Gliese 667 Cc, Kepler-452b, they are generally referring to the fact that the planet exists within its parent star’s “habitable zone” (aka. Goldilocks zone).

This term describes the region around a star where a planet will experience average surface temperatures that allow for liquid water to exist on its surface. For those planets that orbit too close to their star, they will experience intense heat that transforms surface water into hydrogen and oxygen – the former escaping into space, the latter combining with carbon to form CO².

This is what scientists believe happened to Venus, where thick clouds of CO² and water vapor triggered a runaway greenhouse effect. This turned Venus from a world that once had oceans into the hellish environment we know today, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, atmospheric density if off the charts, and sulfuric acid rains from its thick clouds.

Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It's located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-62f, an exoplanet that is about 40% larger than Earth. It’s located about 1,200 light-years from our solar system in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

For planets that orbit beyond a star’s habitable zone, water ice will become frozen solid, and the only liquid water will likely be found in underground reservoirs (this is the case on Mars). As such, finding planets that are just right in terms of average surface temperature is intrinsic to the “low-hanging fruit” approach of searching for life in our Universe.

But of course, just because a planet is warm enough to have water on its surface doesn’t mean that life can thrive on it. As our own Solar System beautifully demonstrates, a planet can have the necessary conditions for life, but still become a sterile environment because it lacks a protective magnetosphere.

This is what scientists believe happened to Mars. Located within our Sun’s Goldilocks zone (albeit on the outer edge of it), Mars is believed to have once had an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. But today, atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is only 1% that of Earth’s, and the surface is dry, cold, and devoid of life.

The reason for this, it has been determined, is because Mars lost its magnetosphere 4.2 Billion years ago. According to NASA’s MAVEN mission, this resulted in Mars’ atmosphere being slowly stripped away over the course of the next 500 million years by solar wind. What little atmosphere it had left was not enough to retain heat, and its surface water evaporated.

Billions of years ago, Mars was a very different world. Liquid water flowed in long rivers that emptied into lakes and shallow seas. A thick atmosphere blanketed the planet and kept it warm. Credit: NASA
Billions of years ago, Mars was a very different world. Liquid water flowed in long rivers that emptied into lakes and shallow seas. A thick atmosphere blanketed the planet and kept it warm. Credit: NASA

By the same token, planets that do not have protective magnetospheres are also subject to an intense level of radiation on their surfaces. On the Martian surface, the average dose of radiation is about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day, which is about a fifth of what people are exposed to here on Earth in the course of a year.

We can expect similar situations on extra-solar planets where a magnetosphere does not exist. Essentially, Earth is fortunate in that it not only orbits in a pretty cushy spot around our Sun, but that its core is differentiated between a solid inner core and a liquid, rotating outer core. This rotation, it is believed, is responsible for creating a dynamo effect that in turn creates Earth’s magnetic field.

However, using our own Solar System again as a model, we find that magnetic fields are not entirely uncommon. While Earth is the only terrestrial planet in our Solar System to have on (all the gas giants have powerful fields), Jupiter’s moon Ganymede also has a magnetosphere of its own.

Similarly, there are orbital parameters to consider. For instance, a planet that is similar in size, mass and composition could still have a very different climate than Earth due to its orbit. For one, it may be tidally-locked with its star, which would mean that one side is permanently facing towards it, and is therefore much warmer.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl
An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

On the other hand, it may have a slow rotational velocity, and a rapid orbital velocity, which means it only experiences a few rotations per orbit (as is the case with Mercury). Last, but certainly not least, its distance from its respective star could mean it receives far more radiation than Earth does – regardless of whether or not it has a magnetosphere.

This is believed to the be the case with Proxima Centauri b, which orbits its red dwarf star at a distance of 7 million km (4.35 million mi) – only 5% of the Earth’s distance from the Sun. It also orbits Proxima Centauri with an orbital period of 11 days, and either has a synchronous rotation, or a 3:2 orbital resonance (i.e. three rotations for every two orbits).

Because of this, the climate is likely to be very different than Earth’s, with water confined to either its sun-facing side (in the case of a synchronous rotation), or in its tropical zone (in the case of a 3:2 resonance). In addition, the radiation it receives from its red dwarf star would be significantly higher than what we are used to here on Earth.

So what exactly does “Earth-like” mean? The short answer is, it can mean a lot of things. And in this respect, its a pretty dubious term. If Earth-like can mean similarities in mass, size, composition, and can allude to the fact that planet orbits within its star’s habitable zone – but not necessarily all of the above – then its not a very reliable term.

Earth-like planets. Image Credit: JPL
Artist’s impression of the Earth-like planets that have been observed in other star systems. Image Credit: JPL

In the end, the only way to keep things clear would be to describe a planet as “Earth-like” if it in fact shows similarities in terms of size, mass and composition, all at the same time. The word “terrestrial” can certainly be substituted in a pinch, but only where the composition of the planet is known with a fair degree of certainty (and not just its size and mass).

And words like “habitable” should probably only be used when chaperoned by words like “potentially”. After all, being within a star’s habitable zone certainly means there’s the potential for life. But it doesn’t not necessarily entail that life could have emerged there, or that humans could live there someday.

And should these words apply to Proxima b? Perhaps, but one should consider the fact that the ESO has announced the detection of a exoplanet using the Radial Velocity method. Until such time as it is confirmed using direct detection methods, its remains a candidate exoplanet (not a confirmed one).

But even these simple measures would likely not be enough to erase all the ambiguity or controversy. When it comes right down to it, planet-hunting – like all aspects of space exploration and science – is a divisive issue. And new findings always have a way of drawing criticism and disagreement from several quarters at once.

And you thought Pluto’s classification confused things! Well, Pluto has got nothing on the exoplanet database! So be prepared for many years of classification debates and controversy!

Further Reading: NASA Exoplanet Archive

Centaurs Keep Their Rings From Greedy Gas Giants

When we think of ring systems, what naturally comes to mind are planets like Saturn. It’s beautiful rings are certainly the most well known, but they are not the only planet in our Solar System to have them. As the Voyager missions demonstrated, every planet in the outer Solar System – from Jupiter to Neptune – has its own system of rings. And in recent years, astronomers have discovered that even certain minor planets – like the Centaur asteroids 10199 Chariklo and 2006 Chiron – have them too.

This was a rather surprising find, since these objects have such chaotic orbits. Given that their paths through the Solar System are frequently altered by the powerful gravity of gas giants, astronomers have naturally wondered how a minor planet could retain a system of rings. But thanks to a team of researchers from the Sao Paulo State University in Brazil, we may be close to answering that question.

In a study titled “The Rings of Chariklo Under Close Encounters With The Giant Planets“, which appeared recently in The Astrophysical Journal, they explained how they constructed a model of the Solar System that incorporated 729 simulated objects. All of these objects were the same size as Chariklo and had their own system of rings. They then went about the process of examining how interacting with gas giant effected them.

Artist's impression of rings around the asteroid Chariklo. This was the first asteroid where rings were discovered. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)
Artist’s impression of rings around the Centaur Chariklo, the first asteroid where rings were discovered. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

To break it down, Centaurs are a population of objects within our Solar System that behave as both comets and asteroids (hence why they are named after the hybrid beasts of Greek mythology). 10199 Chariklo is the largest known member of the Centaur population, a possible former Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) which currently orbits between Saturn and Uranus.

The rings around this asteroid were first noticed in 2013 when the asteroid underwent a stellar occultation. This revealed a system of two rings, with a radius of 391 and 405 km and widths of about 7 km 3 km, respectively. The absorption features of the rings showed that they were partially composed of water ice. In this respect, they were much like the rings of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and the other gas giants, which are composed largely of water ice and dust.

This was followed by findings made in 2015 that indicated that 2006 Chiron – another major Centaur – could have a ring of its own. This led to further speculation that there might be many minor planets in our Solar System that have a system of rings. Naturally, this was a bit perplexing to astronomers, since rings are fragile structures that were thought to be exclusive to the gas giants of our System.

As Professor Othon Winter, the lead researcher of the Sao Paulo team, told Universe Today via email:

“At first it was a surprise to find a Centaur with rings, since the Centaurs have chaotic orbits wandering between the giant planets and having frequent close encounters with them. However, we have shown that in most of the cases the ring system can survive all the close encounters with the giant planets. Therefore,  Centaurs with rings might be much more common than we thought before.”

Arist's impression of Chiron and its possible ring. Credit: dailygalaxy.com
Artist’s impression of Chiron, showing a possible ring system. Credit: dailygalaxy.com

For the sake of their study, Winter and his colleagues considered the orbits of 729 simulated clones of Chariklo as they orbited the Sun over the course of 100 million years. From this, Winter and his colleagues found that each Centaur averaged about 150 close encounters with a gas giant, within one Hill radius of the planet in question. As Winter described it:

“The study was made in two steps. First we considered a set of more than 700 clones of Chariklo. The clones had initial trajectories that were slightly different from Chariklo for statistical purposes (since we are dealing with chaotic trajectories) and computationally simulated their orbital evolution forward in time (to see their future) and also backward in time (to see their past). During these simulations we archived the information of all the close encounters (many thousands) they had with each of the giant planets.”

“In the second step, we performed simulations of each one of the close encounters found in the first step, but now including a disk of particles around Chariklo  (representing the ring particles). Then, at the end of each simulation we analyzed what happened to the particles. Which ones were removed from Chariklo  (escaping its gravitational field)? Which ones were strongly disturbed (still orbiting around Chariklo)? Which ones did not suffer any significant effect?”

In the end, the simulations showed that in 90 percent of the cases, the rings of the Centaurs survived their close encounters with gas giants, whereas they were disturbed in 4 percent of cases, and were stripped away only 3 percent of the time. Thus, they concluded that if there is an efficient mechanism that creates the rings, then it is strong enough to let Centaurs keep them.

Due to their dual nature, astronomers refer to asteroids that behave as both comets and asteroids as Centaurs. Credit: jpl.nasa.gov
Due to their dual nature, the name Centaur has stuck when referring to objects that act as both comets and asteroids. Credit: jpl.nasa.gov

More than that, their research would seem to indicate that what was considered unique to certain planetary bodies may actually be more commonplace. “It reveals that our Solar System is complex not just as whole or for large bodies,” said Winter, “but even small bodies may show complex structures and even more complex temporal evolution.”

The next step for the research team is to study ring formation, which could show that they in fact picking them up from the gas giants themselves. But regardless of where they come from, its becoming increasingly clear that Centaurs like 10199 Chariklo are not alone. What’s more, they aren’t giving up their rings anytime soon!

Further Reading: iopscience.iop.org

Surveying the “Fossils of Planet Formation”: The Lucy Mission

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for mission proposals, one or two of which will have the honor of taking part in Discovery Mission Thirteen. Hoping to focus the next round of exploration efforts to places other than Mars, the five semifinalists (which were announced this past September) include proposed missions to Venus, Near-Earth Objects, and asteroids.

When it comes to asteroid exploration, one of the possible contenders is Lucy – a proposed reconnaissance orbiter that would study Jupiter‘s Trojan Asteroids. In addition to being the first mission of its kind, examining the Trojans Asteroids could also lead to several scientific finds that will help us to better understand the history of the Solar System.

By definition, Trojan are populations of asteroids that share their orbit with other planets or moons, but do not collide with it because they orbit in one of the two Lagrangian points of stability. The most significant population of Trojans in the Solar System are Jupiter’s, with a total of 6,178 having been found as of January 2015. In accordance with astronomical conventions, objects found in this population are named after mythical figures from the Trojan War.

There are two main theories as to where Jupiter’s Trojans came from. The first suggests that they formed in the same part of the Solar System as Jupiter and were caught by the gas giant’s gravity as it accumulated hydrogen and helium from the protoplanetary disk. Since they would have shared the same approximate orbit as the forming gas giant, they would have been caught in its gravity and orbited it ever since.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the Inner Solar System and Jupiter. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The second theory, part of the Nice model, proposes that the Jupiter Trojans were captured about 500-600 million years after the Solar System’s formation. During this period Uranus, Neptune – and to a lesser extent, Saturn – moved outward, whereas Jupiter moved slightly inward. This migration could have destabilized the primordial Kuiper Belt, throwing millions of objects into the inner Solar System, some of which Jupiter then captured.

In either case, the presence of Trojan asteroids around Jupiter can be traced back to the early Solar System. Studying them therefore presents an opportunity to learn more about its history and formation. And if in fact the Trojans are migrant from the Kuiper Belt, it would also be a chance for scientists to learn more about the most distant reaches of the solar system without having to send a mission all the way out there.

The mission would be led by Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, with the Goddard Space Center managing the project. Its targets would most likely include asteroid (3548) Eurybates, (21900) 1999 VQ10, (11351) 1997 TS25, and the binary (617) Patroclus/Menoetius.  It would also visit a main-belt asteroid (1981 EQ5) on the way.

The spacecraft would perform scans of the asteroids and determine their geology, surface features, compositions, masses and densities using a sophisticated suite of remote-sensing and radio instruments. In addition, during it’s proposed 11-year mission, Lucy would also gather information on the asteroids thermal and other physical properties from close range.

Artit's concept of the Trojan asteroids. By sheer number, small bodies dominate our solar system — and NASA's latest Discovery competition. Credit: NASA artist's concept - See more at: http://spacenews.com/small-bodies-dominate-nasas-latest-discovery-competition/#sthash.pOgot1ye.dpuf
Artist’s concept of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids hovering in the foreground in Jupiter’s path, with the “Greeks” at left in the background. Credit: NASA.

The project is named Lucy in honor of one of the most influential human fossils found on Earth. Discovered in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy’s remains – several hundred bone fragments that belonged to a member the hominid species of Australopithecus afarensis – proved to be an extraordinary find that advanced our knowledge of hominid species evolution.

Levison and his team are hoping that a similar find can be made using the probe of the same name. As he and his colleagues describe it, the Lucy mission is aimed at “Surveying the diversity of Trojan asteroids: The fossils of planet formation.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Levinson. “Because the Trojan asteroids are remnants of that primordial material, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. These asteroids are in an area that really is the last population of objects in the solar system to be visited.”

The payload is expected to include three complementary imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer. NASA has also offered an additional $5 to $30 million in funding if mission planners choose to incorporate a laser communications system, a 3D woven heat shield, a Deep Space atomic clock, and/or ion engines.

As one of the semifinalists, the Lucy mission has received $3 million dollars to conduct concept design studies and analyses over the course of the next year. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016. In the end, one or two missions will receive the mission’s budget of $450 million (not including launch vehicle funding or post-launch operations) and will be launched by 2020 at the earliest.

Solar System Guide

The Solar System. Image Credit: NASA

The Universe is a very big place, and we occupy a very small corner of it. Known as the Solar System, our stomping grounds are not only a tiny fraction of the Universe as we know it, but is also a very small part of our galactic neighborhood (aka. the Milky Way Galaxy). When it comes right down to it, our world is just a drop of water in an endless cosmic sea.

Nevertheless, the Solar System is still a very big place, and one which is filled with its fair share of mysteries. And in truth, it was only within the relatively recent past that we began to understand its true extent. And when it comes to exploring it, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface.


With very few exceptions, few people or civilizations before the era of modern astronomy recognized the Solar System for what it was. In fact, the vast majority of astronomical systems posited that the Earth was a stationary object and that all known celestial objects revolved around it. In addition, they viewed it as being fundamentally different from other stellar objects, which they held to be ethereal or divine in nature.

Although there were some Greek, Arab and Asian astronomers during Antiquity and the Medieval period who believed that the universe was heliocentric in nature (i.e. that the Earth and other bodies revolved around the Sun) it was not until Nicolaus Copernicus developed his mathematically predictive model of a heliocentric system in the 16th century that it began to become widespread.

The first star party? Galileo shows of the sky in Saint Mark's square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. (Illustration in the Public Domain).
Galileo (1564 – 1642) would often show people how to use his telescope to view the sky in Saint Mark’s square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. Credit: Public Domain

During the 17th-century, scientists like Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton developed an understanding of physics which led to the gradual acceptance that the Earth revolves round the Sun. The development of theories like gravity also led to the realization that the other planets are governed by the same physical laws as Earth.

The widespread use of the telescope also led to a revolution in astronomy. After Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610, Christian Huygens would go on to discover that Saturn also had moons in 1655. In time, new planets would also be discovered (such as Uranus and Neptune), as well as comets (such as Halley’s Comet) and the Asteroids Belt.

By the 19th century, three observations made by three separate astronomers determined the true nature of the Solar System and its place the universe. The first was made in 1839 by German astronomer Friedrich Bessel, who successfully measured an apparent shift in the position of a star created by the Earth’s motion around the Sun (aka. stellar parallax). This not only confirmed the heliocentric model beyond a doubt, but revealed the vast distance between the Sun and the stars.

In 1859, Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff (a German chemist and physicist) used the newly invented spectroscope to examined the spectral signature of the Sun. They discovered that it was composed of the same elements as existed on Earth, thus proving that Earth and the heavens were composed of the same elements.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth's orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. CREDIT: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.
With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

Then, Father Angelo Secchi  – an Italian astronomer and director at the Pontifical Gregorian University – compared the spectral signature of the Sun with those of other stars, and found them to be virtually identical. This demonstrated conclusively that our Sun was composed of the same materials as every other star in the universe.

Further apparent discrepancies in the orbits of the outer planets led American astronomer Percival Lowell to conclude that yet another planet, which he referred to as “Planet X“, must lie beyond Neptune. After his death, his Lowell Observatory conducted a search that ultimately led to Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930.

Also in 1992, astronomers David C. Jewitt of the University of Hawaii and Jane Luu of the MIT discovered the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) known as (15760) 1992 QB1. This would prove to be the first of a new population, known as the Kuiper Belt, which had already been predicted by astronomers to exist at the edge of the Solar System.

Further investigation of the Kuiper Belt by the turn of the century would lead to additional discoveries. The discovery of Eris and other “plutoids” by Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, David Rabinowitz and other astronomers would lead to the Great Planet Debate – where IAU policy and the convention for designating planets would be contested.

Structure and Composition:

At the core of the Solar System lies the Sun (a G2 main-sequence star) which is then surrounded by four terrestrial planets (the Inner Planets), the main Asteroid Belt, four gas giants (the Outer Planets), a massive field of small bodies that extends from 30 AU to 50 AU from the Sun (the Kuiper Belt). The system is then surrounded a spherical cloud of icy planetesimals (the Oort Cloud) that is believed to extend to a distance of 100,000 AU from the Sun into the Interstellar Medium.

The Sun contains 99.86% of the system’s known mass, and its gravity dominates the entire system. Most large objects in orbit around the Sun lie near the plane of Earth’s orbit (the ecliptic) and most planets and bodies rotate around it in the same direction (counter-clockwise when viewed from above Earth’s north pole). The planets are very close to the ecliptic, whereas comets and Kuiper belt objects are frequently at greater angles to it.

It’s four largest orbiting bodies (the gas giants) account for 99% of the remaining mass, with Jupiter and Saturn together comprising more than 90%. The remaining objects of the Solar System (including the four terrestrial planets, the dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, and comets) together comprise less than 0.002% of the Solar System’s total mass.

Sun and Planets
The Sun and planets to scale. Credit: Illustration by Judy Schmidt, texture maps by Björn Jónsson

Astronomers sometimes informally divide this structure into separate regions. First, there is the Inner Solar System, which includes the four terrestrial planets and the Asteroid Belt. Beyond this, there’s the outer Solar System that includes the four gas giant planets. Meanwhile, there’s the outermost parts of the Solar System are considered a distinct region consisting of the objects beyond Neptune (i.e. Trans-Neptunian Objects).

Most of the planets in the Solar System possess secondary systems of their own, being orbited by planetary objects called natural satellites (or moons). In the case of the four giant planets, there are also planetary rings – thin bands of tiny particles that orbit them in unison. Most of the largest natural satellites are in synchronous rotation, with one face permanently turned toward their parent.

The Sun, which comprises nearly all the matter in the Solar System, is composed of roughly 98% hydrogen and helium. The terrestrial planets of the Inner Solar System are composed primarily of silicate rock, iron and nickel. Beyond the Asteroid Belt, planets are composed mainly of gases (such as hydrogen, helium) and ices – like water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide.

Objects farther from the Sun are composed largely of materials with lower melting points. Icy substances comprise the majority of the satellites of the giant planets, as well as most of Uranus and Neptune (hence why they are sometimes referred to as “ice giants”) and the numerous small objects that lie beyond Neptune’s orbit.

Together, gases and ices are referred to as volatiles. The boundary in the Solar System beyond which those volatile substances could condense is known as the frost line, which lies roughly 5 AU from the Sun. Within the Kuiper Belt, objects and planetesimals are composed mainly of these materials and rock.

Formation and Evolution:

The Solar System formed 4.568 billion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a region within a large molecular cloud composed of hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of heavier elements fused by previous generations of stars. As the region that would become the Solar System (known as the pre-solar nebula) collapsed, conservation of angular momentum caused it to rotate faster.

The center, where most of the mass collected, became increasingly hotter than the surrounding disc. As the contracting nebula rotated faster, it began to flatten into a protoplanetary disc with a hot, dense protostar at the center. The planets formed by accretion from this disc, in which dust and gas gravitated together and coalesced to form ever larger bodies.

Due to their higher boiling points, only metals and silicates could exist in solid form closer to the Sun, and these would eventually form the terrestrial planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Because metallic elements only comprised a very small fraction of the solar nebula, the terrestrial planets could not grow very large.

In contrast, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) formed beyond the point between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where material is cool enough for volatile icy compounds to remain solid (i.e. the frost line).

The ices that formed these planets were more plentiful than the metals and silicates that formed the terrestrial inner planets, allowing them to grow massive enough to capture large atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. Leftover debris that never became planets congregated in regions such as the asteroid belt, Kuiper belt, and Oort cloud.

Within 50 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the center of the protostar became great enough for it to begin thermonuclear fusion. The temperature, reaction rate, pressure, and density increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved.

At this point, the Sun became a main-sequence star. Solar wind from the Sun created the heliosphere and swept away the remaining gas and dust from the protoplanetary disc into interstellar space, ending the planetary formation process.

The terrestrial planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The terrestrial planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

The Solar System will remain roughly as we know it today until the hydrogen in the core of the Sun has been entirely converted to helium. This will occur roughly 5 billion years from now and mark the end of the Sun’s main-sequence life. At this time, the core of the Sun will collapse, and the energy output will be much greater than at present.

The outer layers of the Sun will expand to roughly 260 times its current diameter, and the Sun will become a red giant. The expanding Sun is expected to vaporize Mercury and Venus and render Earth uninhabitable as the habitable zone moves out to the orbit of Mars. Eventually, the core will be hot enough for helium fusion and the Sun will burn helium for a time, after which nuclear reactions in the core will start to dwindle.

At this point, the Sun’s outer layers will move away into space, leaving a white dwarf – an extraordinarily dense object that will have half the original mass of the Sun, but will be the size of Earth. The ejected outer layers will form what is known as a planetary nebula, returning some of the material that formed the Sun to the interstellar medium.

Inner Solar System:

In the inner Solar System, we find the “Inner Planets” – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – which are so named because they orbit closest to the Sun. In addition to their proximity, these planets have a number of key differences that set them apart from planets elsewhere in the Solar System.

For starters, the inner planets are rocky and terrestrial, composed mostly of silicates and metals, whereas the outer planets are gas giants. The inner planets are also much more closely spaced than their outer Solar System counterparts. In fact, the radius of the entire region is less than the distance between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn.

Generally, inner planets are smaller and denser than their counterparts, and have few to no moons or rings circling them. The outer planets, meanwhile, often have dozens of satellites and rings composed of particles of ice and rock.

The terrestrial inner planets are composed largely of refractory minerals such as the silicates, which form their crusts and mantles, and metals such as iron and nickel which form their cores. Three of the four inner planets (Venus, Earth and Mars) have atmospheres substantial enough to generate weather. All of them have impact craters and tectonic surface features as well, such as rift valleys and volcanoes.

Of the inner planets, Mercury is the closest to our Sun and the smallest of the terrestrial planets. Its magnetic field is only about 1% that of Earth’s, and it’s very thin atmosphere means that it is hot during the day (up to 430°C) and freezing at night (as low as -187 °C) because the atmosphere can neither keep heat in or out. It has no moons of its own and is comprised mostly of iron and nickel. Mercury is one of the densest planets in the Solar System.

Venus, which is about the same size as Earth, has a thick toxic atmosphere that traps heat, making it the hottest planet in the Solar System. This atmosphere is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, along with nitrogen and a few other gases. Dense clouds within Venus’ atmosphere are composed of sulphuric acid and other corrosive compounds, with very little water. Much of Venus’ surface is marked with volcanoes and deep canyons – the biggest of which is over 6400 km (4,000 mi) long.

Earth is the third inner planet and the one we know best. Of the four terrestrial planets, Earth is the largest, and the only one that currently has liquid water, which is necessary for life as we know it. Earth’s atmosphere protects the planet from dangerous radiation and helps keep valuable sunlight and warmth in, which is also essential for life to survive.

Like the other terrestrial planets, Earth has a rocky surface with mountains and canyons, and a heavy metal core. Earth’s atmosphere contains water vapor, which helps to moderate daily temperatures. Like Mercury, the Earth has an internal magnetic field. And our Moon, the only one we have, is comprised of a mixture of various rocks and minerals.

Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA
Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA

Mars is the fourth and final inner planet, and is also known as the “Red Planet” due to the oxidization of iron-rich materials that form the planet’s surface. Mars also has some of the most interesting terrain features of any of the terrestrial planets. These include the largest mountain in the Solar System (Olympus Mons) which rises some 21,229 m (69,649 ft) above the surface, and a giant canyon called Valles Marineris – which is 4000 km (2500 mi) long and reaches depths of up to 7 km (4 mi).

Much of Mars’ surface is very old and filled with craters, but there are geologically newer areas of the planet as well. At the Martian poles are polar ice caps that shrink in size during the Martian spring and summer. Mars is less dense than Earth and has a smaller magnetic field, which is indicative of a solid core, rather than a liquid one.

Mars’ thin atmosphere has led some astronomers to believe that the surface water that once existed there might have actually taken liquid form, but has since evaporated into space. The planet has two small moons called Phobos and Deimos.

Outer Solar System:

The outer planets (sometimes called Jovian planets or gas giants) are huge planets swaddled in gas that have rings and plenty of moons. Despite their size, only two of them are visible without telescopes: Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune were the first planets discovered since antiquity, and showed astronomers that the solar system was bigger than previously thought.

The outer planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The outer planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System and spins very rapidly (10 Earth hours) relative to its orbit of the sun (12 Earth years). Its thick atmosphere is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, perhaps surrounding a terrestrial core that is about Earth’s size. The planet has dozens of moons, some faint rings and a Great Red Spot – a raging storm that has happening for the past 400 years at least.

Saturn is best known for its prominent ring system – seven known rings with well-defined divisions and gaps between them. How the rings got there is one subject under investigation. It also has dozens of moons. Its atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, and it also rotates quickly (10.7 Earth hours) relative to its time to circle the Sun (29 Earth years).

Uranus was first discovered by William Herschel in 1781. The planet’s day takes about 17 Earth hours and one orbit around the Sun takes 84 Earth years. Its mass contains water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen and helium surrounding a rocky core. It has dozens of moons and a faint ring system. The only spacecraft to visit this planet was the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986.

Neptune is a distant planet that contains water, ammmonia, methane, hydrogen and helium and a possible Earth-sized core. It has more than a dozen moons and six rings. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft also visited this planet and its system by 1989 during its transit of the outer Solar System.

How many moons are there in the Solar System? Image credit: NASA
How many moons are there in the Solar System? Image credit: NASA

Trans-Neptunian Region:

There have been more than a thousand objects discovered in the Kuiper Belt, and it’s theorized that there are as many as 100,000 objects larger than 100 km in diameter. Given to their small size and extreme distance from Earth, the chemical makeup of KBOs is very difficult to determine.

However, spectrographic studies conducted of the region since its discovery have generally indicated that its members are primarily composed of ices: a mixture of light hydrocarbons (such as methane), ammonia, and water ice – a composition they share with comets. Initial studies also confirmed a broad range of colors among KBOs, ranging from neutral grey to deep red.

This suggests that their surfaces are composed of a wide range of compounds, from dirty ices to hydrocarbons. In 1996, Robert H. Brown et al. obtained spectroscopic data on the KBO 1993 SC, revealing its surface composition to be markedly similar to that of Pluto (as well as Neptune’s moon Triton) in that it possessed large amounts of methane ice.

Water ice has been detected in several KBOs, including 1996 TO66, 38628 Huya and 20000 Varuna. In 2004, Mike Brown et al. determined the existence of crystalline water ice and ammonia hydrate on one of the largest known KBOs, 50000 Quaoar. Both of these substances would have been destroyed over the age of the Solar System, suggesting that Quaoar had been recently resurfaced, either by internal tectonic activity or by meteorite impacts.

Keeping Pluto company out in the Kuiper belt are many other objects worthy of mention. Quaoar, Makemake, Haumea, Orcus and Eris are all large icy bodies in the Belt and several of them even have moons of their own. These are all tremendously far away, and yet, very much within reach.

Oort Cloud and Farthest Regions:

The Oort Cloud is thought to extend from between 2,000 and 5,000 AU (0.03 and 0.08 ly) to as far as 50,000 AU (0.79 ly) from the Sun, though some estimates place the outer edge as far as 100,000 and 200,000 AU (1.58 and 3.16 ly). The Cloud is thought to be comprised of two regions – a spherical outer Oort Cloud of 20,000 – 50,000 AU (0.32 – 0.79 ly), and disc-shaped inner Oort (or Hills) Cloud of 2,000 – 20,000 AU (0.03 – 0.32 ly).

The outer Oort cloud may have trillions of objects larger than 1 km (0.62 mi), and billions that measure 20 kilometers (12 mi) in diameter. Its total mass is not known, but – assuming that Halley’s Comet is a typical representation of outer Oort Cloud objects – it has the combined mass of roughly 3×1025 kilograms (6.6×1025 pounds), or five Earths.

The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA
The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA

Based on the analyses of past comets, the vast majority of Oort Cloud objects are composed of icy volatiles – such as water, methane, ethane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and ammonia. The appearance of asteroids thought to be originating from the Oort Cloud has also prompted theoretical research that suggests that the population consists of 1-2% asteroids.

Earlier estimates placed its mass up to 380 Earth masses, but improved knowledge of the size distribution of long-period comets has led to lower estimates. The mass of the inner Oort Cloud, meanwhile, has yet to be characterized. The contents of both Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud are known as Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), because the objects of both regions have orbits that that are further from the Sun than Neptune’s orbit.


Our knowledge of the Solar System also benefited immensely from the advent of robotic spacecraft, satellites, and robotic landers. Beginning in the mid-20th century, in what was known as “The Space Age“, manned and robotic spacecraft began exploring planets, asteroids and comets in the Inner and Outer Solar System.

All planets in the Solar System have now been visited to varying degrees by spacecraft launched from Earth. Through these unmanned missions, humans have been able to get close-up photographs of all the planets. In the case of landers and rovers, tests have been performed on the soils and atmospheres of some.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

The first artificial object sent into space was the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, which was launched in space in 1957, successfully orbited the Earth for months, and collected information on the density of the upper atmosphere and the ionosphere. The American probe Explorer 6, launched in 1959, was the first satellite to capture images of the Earth from space.

Robotic spacecraft conducting flybys also revealed considerable information about the planet’s atmospheres, geological and surface features. The first successful probe to fly by another planet was the Soviet Luna 1 probe, which sped past the Moon in 1959. The Mariner program resulted in multiple successful planetary flybys, consisting of the Mariner 2 mission past Venus in 1962, the Mariner 4 mission past Mars in 1965, and the Mariner 10 mission past Mercury in 1974.

By the 1970’s, probes were being dispatched to the outer planets as well, beginning with the Pioneer 10 mission which flew past Jupiter in 1973 and the Pioneer 11 visit to Saturn in 1979. The Voyager probes performed a grand tour of the outer planets following their launch in 1977, with both probes passing Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980-1981. Voyager 2 then went on to make close approaches to Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.

Launched on January 19th, 2006, the New Horizons probe is the first man-made spacecraft to explore the Kuiper Belt. This unmanned mission flew by Pluto in July 2015. Should it prove feasible, the mission will also be extended to observe a number of other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) in the coming years.

Orbiters, rovers, and landers began being deployed to other planets in the Solar System by the 1960’s. The first was the Soviet Luna 10 satellite, which was sent into lunar orbit in 1966. This was followed in 1971 with the deployment of the Mariner 9 space probe, which orbited Mars, and the Soviet Venera 9 which orbited Venus in 1975.

The Galileo probe became the first artificial satellite to orbit an outer planet when it reached Jupiter in 1995, followed by the CassiniHuygens probe orbiting Saturn in 2004. Mercury and Vesta were explored by 2011 by the MESSENGER and Dawn probes, respectively, with Dawn establishing orbit around the asteroid/dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.

The first probe to land on another Solar System body was the Soviet Luna 2 probe, which impacted the Moon in 1959. Since then, probes have landed on or impacted on the surfaces of Venus in 1966 (Venera 3), Mars in 1971 (Mars 3 and Viking 1 in 1976), the asteroid 433 Eros in 2001 (NEAR Shoemaker), and Saturn’s moon Titan (Huygens) and the comet Tempel 1 (Deep Impact) in 2005.

Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop where the robot conducted historic first sample drilling inside the Yellowknife Bay basin, on Feb. 8 (Sol 182) at lower left in front of rover. The photo mosaic was stitched from raw images snapped on Sol 177, or Feb 3, 2013, by the robotic arm camera - accounting for foreground camera distortion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).
Curiosity Rover self portrait mosaic, taken with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop in Feb. 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer

To date, only two worlds in the Solar System, the Moon and Mars, have been visited by mobile rovers. The first robotic rover to land on another planet was the Soviet Lunokhod 1, which landed on the Moon in 1970. The first to visit another planet was Sojourner, which traveled 500 meters across the surface of Mars in 1997, followed by Spirit (2004), Opportunity (2004), and Curiosity (2012).

Manned missions into space began in earnest in the 1950’s, and was a major focal point for both the United States and Soviet Union during the “Space Race“. For the Soviets, this took the form of the Vostok program, which involved sending manned space capsules into orbit.

The first mission – Vostok 1 – took place on April 12th, 1961, and was piloted by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first human being to go into space). On June 6th, 1963, the Soviets also sent the first woman – Valentina Tereshvoka – into space as part of the Vostok 6 mission.

In the US, Project Mercury was initiated with the same goal of placing a crewed capsule into orbit. On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard went into space aboard the Freedom 7 mission and became the first American (and second human) to go into space.

After the Vostok and Mercury programs were completed, the focus of both nations and space programs shifted towards the development of two and three-person spacecraft, as well as the development of long-duration spaceflights and extra-vehicular activity (EVA).

Bootprint in the moon dust from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA
Bootprint in the moon dust from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

This took the form of the Voshkod and Gemini programs in the Soviet Union and US, respectively. For the Soviets, this involved developing a two to three-person capsule, whereas the Gemini program focused on developing the support and expertise needed for an eventual manned mission to the Moon.

These latter efforts culminated on July 21st, 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. As part of the Apollo program, five more Moon landings would take place through 1972, and the program itself resulted in many scientific packages being deployed on the Lunar surface, and samples of moon rocks being returned to Earth.

After the Moon Landing took place, the focus of the US and Soviet space programs then began to shift to the development of space stations and reusable spacecraft. For the Soviets, this resulted in the first crewed orbital space stations dedicated to scientific research and military reconnaissance – known as the Salyut and Almaz space stations.

The first orbital space station to host more than one crew was NASA’s Skylab, which successfully held three crews from 1973 to 1974. The first true human settlement in space was the Soviet space station Mir, which was continuously occupied for close to ten years, from 1989 to 1999. It was decommissioned in 2001, and its successor, the International Space Station, has maintained a continuous human presence in space since then.

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

The United States’ Space Shuttle, which debuted in 1981, became the only reusable spacecraft to successfully make multiple orbital flights. The five shuttles that were built (Atlantis, Endeavour, Discovery, Challenger, Columbia and Enterprise) flew a total of 121 missions before being decommissioned in 2011.

During their history of service, two of the craft were destroyed in accidents. These included the Space Shuttle Challenger – which exploded upon take-off on Jan. 28th, 1986 – and the Space Shuttle Columbia which disintegrated during re-entry on Feb. 1st, 2003.

In 2004, then-U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which called for a replacement for the aging Shuttle, a return to the Moon and, ultimately, a manned mission to Mars. These goals have since been maintained by the Obama administration, and now include plans for an Asteroid Redirect mission, where a robotic craft will tow an asteroid closer to Earth so a manned mission can be mounted to it.

All the information gained from manned and robotic missions about the geological phenomena of other planets – such as mountains and craters – as well as their seasonal, meteorological phenomena (i.e. clouds, dust storms and ice caps) have led to the realization that other planets experience much the same phenomena as Earth. In addition, it has also helped scientists to learn much about the history of the Solar System and its formation.

As our exploration of the Inner and Outer Solar System has improved and expanded, our conventions for categorizing planets has also changed. Our current model of the Solar System includes eight planets (four terrestrial, four gas giants), four dwarf planets, and a growing number of Trans-Neptunian Objects that have yet to be designated. It also contains and is surrounded by countless asteroids and planetesimals.

Given its sheer size, composition and complexity, researching our Solar System in full detail would take an entire lifetime. Obviously, no one has that kind of time to dedicate to the topic, so we have decided to compile the many articles we have about it here on Universe Today in one simple page of links for your convenience.

There are thousands of facts about the solar system in the links below. Enjoy your research.

The Solar System:

Theories about the Solar System:


Anything EXTREME!:

Solar System Stuffs:

Which Planets Have Rings?

Which Planets Have Rings?

Planetary rings are an interesting phenomena. The mere mention of these two words tends to conjure up images of Saturn, with its large and colorful system of rings that form an orbiting disk. But in fact, several other planets in our Solar System have rings. It’s just that, unlike Saturn, their systems are less visible, and perhaps less beautiful to behold.

Thanks to exploration efforts mounted in the past few decades, which have seen space probes dispatched to the outer Solar System, we have come to understand that all the gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – all have their own ring systems. And that’s not all! In fact, ring systems may be more common than previously thought…

Jupiter’s Rings:

In was not until 1979 that the rings of Jupiter were discovered when the Voyager 1 space probe conducted a flyby of the planet. They were also thoroughly investigated in the 1990s by the Galileo orbiter. Because it is composed mainly of dust, the ring system is faint and can only be observed by the most powerful telescopes, or up-close by orbital spacecraft. However, during the past twenty-three years, it has been observed from Earth numerous times, as well as by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A schema of Jupiter's ring system showing the four main components. For simplicity, Metis and Adrastea are depicted as sharing their orbit. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University
A schema of Jupiter’s ring system showing the four main components. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

The ring system has four main components: a thick inner torus of particles known as the “halo ring”; a relatively bright, but extremely thin “main ring”; and two wide, thick, and faint outer “gossamer rings”. These outer rings are composed of material from the moons Amalthea and Thebe and are named after these moons (i.e. the “Amalthea Ring” and “Thebe Ring”).

The main and halo rings consist of dust ejected from the moons Metis, Adrastea, and other unobserved parent bodies as the result of high-velocity impacts. Scientists believe that a ring could even exist around the moon of Himalia’s orbit, which could have been created when another small moon crashed into it and caused material to be ejected from the surface.

Saturn’s Rings:

The rings of Saturn, meanwhile, have been known for centuries. Although Galileo Galilei became the first person to observe the rings of Saturn in 1610, he did not have a powerful enough telescope to discern their true nature. It was not until 1655 that Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch mathematician and scientist, became the first person to describe them as a disk surrounding the planet.

Subsequent observations, which included spectroscopic studies by the late 19th century, confirmed that they are composed of smaller rings, each one made up of tiny particles orbiting Saturn. These particles range in size from micrometers to meters that form clumps orbiting the planet, and which are composed almost entirely of water ice contaminated with dust and chemicals.

Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Assembled by Gordan Ugarkovic.
Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Gordan Ugarkovic

In total, Saturn has a system of 12 rings with 2 divisions. It has the most extensive ring system of any planet in our solar system. The rings have numerous gaps where particle density drops sharply. In some cases, this due to Saturn’s Moons being embedded within them, which causes destabilizing orbital resonances to occur.

However, within the Titan Ringlet and the G Ring, orbital resonance with Saturn’s moons has a stabilizing influence. Well beyond the main rings is the Phoebe ring, which is tilted at an angle of 27 degrees to the other rings and, like Phoebe, orbits in retrograde fashion.

Uranus’ Rings:

The rings of Uranus are thought to be relatively young, at not more than 600 million years old. They are believed to have originated from the collisional fragmentation of a number of moons that once existed around the planet. After colliding, the moons probably broke up into numerous particles, which survived as narrow and optically dense rings only in strictly confined zones of maximum stability.

Uranus has 13 rings that have been observed so far. They are all very faint, the majority being opaque and only a few kilometers wide. The ring system consists mostly of large bodies 0.2 to 20 m in diameter. A few rings are optically thin and are made of small dust particles which makes them difficult to observe using Earth-based telescopes.

The labeled ring arcs of Neptune as seen in newly processed data. The image spans 26 exposures combined into a equivalent 95 minute exposure, and the ring trace and an image of the occulted planet Neptune is added for reference. (Credit: M. Showalter/SETI Institute).
The labeled ring arcs of Neptune as seen in newly processed data. Credit: M. Showalter/SETI Institute

Neptune’s Rings:

The rings of Neptune were not discovered until 1989 until the Voyager 2 space probe conducted a flyby of the planet. Six rings have been observed in the system, which are best described as faint and tenuous. The rings are very dark, and are likely composed by organic compounds processed by radiation, similar to that found in the rings of Uranus. Much like Uranus, and Saturn, four of Neptune’s moons orbit within the ring system.

Other Bodies:

Back in 2008, it was suggested that the magnetic effects around the Saturnian moon of Rhea may indicate that it has its own ring system. However, a subsequent study indicated that observations obtained the Cassini mission suggested that some other mechanism was responsible for the magnetic effects.

Years before the the New Horizons probe visited the system, astronomers speculated that Pluto might also have a ring system. However, after conducting its historic flyby of the system in July of 2015, the New Horizons probe did not find any evidence of a ring system. While the dwarf planet had many satellites aside from its largest (Charon), debris from around the planet has not coalesced into rings, as was theorized.

Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto (Charon is seen in the background). Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto (Charon is seen in the background). Credit: NASA/JPL

The minor planet of Chariklo – an asteroid that orbits the Sun between Saturn and Uranus – also has two rings that orbit it. These are perhaps due to a collision that caused a chain of debris to form in orbit around it. The announcement of these rings was made on March 26th of 2014, and was based on observations made during a stellar occultation on June 3rd, 2013.

This was followed by findings made in 2015 that indicated that 2006 Chiron – another major Centaur – could have a ring of its own. This led to further speculation that there might be many minor planets in our Solar System that have a system of rings.

In short, four planets in our Solar System have intricate ring systems, as well as the minor planet Chariklo, and perhaps even many other smaller objects. In this sense, ring systems appear to be a lot more common in our Solar System than previously thought.

We have written many articles about planets with rings for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the composition of Saturn’s rings, and here’s an article about the planets with rings.

If you’d like more info on the planets, check out NASA’s Solar System exploration page, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Simulator.

We’ve also recorded a series of episodes of Astronomy Cast about every planet in the Solar System. Start here, Episode 49: Mercury.

Is Our Solar System Weird?

This artist’s view shows an extrasolar planet orbiting a star (the white spot in the right).

Is our Solar System normal? Or is it weird? How does the Solar System fit within the strange star systems we’ve discovered in the Milky Way so far?

With all the beautiful images that come down the pipe from Hubble, our Solar System has been left with celestial body image questions rivaling that of your average teenager. They’re questions we’re all familiar with. Is my posture crooked? Do I look pasty? Are my arms too long? Is it supposed to bulge out like this in the middle? Some of my larger asteroids are slightly asymmetrical. Can everyone tell? And of course the toughest question of all… Am I normal?

The idea that stars are suns with planets orbiting them dates back to early human history. This was generally accompanied by the idea that other planetary systems would be much like our own. It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve had real evidence of planets around other stars, known as exoplanets. The first extrasolar planet was discovered around a pulsar in 1992 and the first “hot jupiter” was discovered in 1995.

Most of the known exoplanets have been discovered by the amazing Kepler spacecraft. Kepler uses the transit method, observing stars over long periods of time to see if they dim as a planet passes in front of the star. Since then, astronomers have found more than 1700 exoplanets, and 460 stars are known to have multiple planets. Most of these stellar systems are around main sequence stars, just like the Sun. Leaving us with plenty of systems for comparison.

Artist's impression of the solar system showing the inner planets (Mercury to Mars), the outer planets (Jupiter to Neptune) and beyond. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the solar system showing the inner planets (Mercury to Mars), the outer planets (Jupiter to Neptune) and beyond. Credit: NASA

So, is our Solar System normal? Planets in a stellar system tend to have roughly circular orbits, just like our Solar system. They have a range of larger and smaller planets, just like ours. Most of the known systems are even around G-type stars. Just like ours.….and we are even starting to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of their stars. JUST LIKE OURS!

Not so fast…Other stellar systems don’t seem to have the division of small rocky planets closer to the star and larger gas planets farther away. In fact, large Jupiter-type planets are generally found close to the star. This makes our solar system rather unusual.

Computer simulations of early planetary formation shows that large planets tend to move inward toward their star as they form, due to its interaction with the material of the protoplanetary disk. This would imply that large planets are often close to the star, which is what we observe. Large planets in our own system are unusually distant from the Sun because of a gravitational dance between Jupiter and Saturn that happened when our Solar System was young.

55 Cancri. Image credit: NASA/JPL
55 Cancri. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Although our Solar System is slightly unusual, there are some planetary systems that are downright quirky. There are planetary systems where the orbits are tilted at radically different angles, like Kepler 56, and a sci-fi favorite, the planets that orbit two stars like Kepler 16 and 34. There is even a planet so close to its star that its year lasts only 18 hours, known 55 Cancri e.

And so, the Kepler telescope has presented us with a wealth of exoplanets, that we can compare our beautiful Solar System to. Future telescopes such as Gaia, which was launched in 2013, TESS and PLATO slated for launch in 2017 and 2024 will likely discover even more. Perhaps even discovering the holy grail of exoplanets, a habitable planet with life…

And the who knows, maybe we’ll find another planet… just like ours.

What say you? Where should we go looking for habitable worlds in this big bad universe of ours? Tell us in the comments.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Physicists Reveal the Hidden Interiors of Gas Giants

In astronomy we love focusing on the bigger picture. We’re searching for exoplanets in the vast hope that we may begin to paint a picture of how planetary systems form; We’re using the Hubble Space Telescope to peer into the earliest history of the cosmos; And we’re building gravitational wave detectors in order to better understand the physical laws that dominate our universe.

All the while we continue to learn about our very own neighborhood. Only recently we learned that Europa has geysers, Mars was perhaps once a lush planet, and comets can in fact disintegrate. Discoveries in our solar system alone never cease to amaze.

For the first time researchers are able to probe the hidden interiors of gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn. With very little experimental knowledge about the hydrogen deep within such planets, we have always had to rely on mathematical models. But now, researchers have simulated the lower atmospheric layers of these planets in the lab.

The team of physicists led by Dr. Ulf Zastrau from the University of Jena heated cold liquid hydrogen to resemble the dense liquid hydrogen deep within a gas giant’s atmospheric layers.

The team used an X-ray laser operated by a national research center in Germany, Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), to heat the liquid hydrogen, nearly instantaneously, from -253 to +12,000 degrees Celsius. Initially the X-ray heats only the electrons. But because each electron is bound to a proton, they transfer heat to the proton until a thermal equilibrium is reached. The molecular bonds break during this process, and a plasma of electrons and protons is formed.

In just under a trillionth of a second, physicists are able to create a plasma that’s thought to be radically similar to the plasma deep within the atmospheres of our beloved gas giants.

But first the team had to create cold hydrogen. While it’s abundant throughout the universe, it’s hard to get our hands on the stuff here on Earth. Instead researchers cooled gaseous hydrogen to -253 degrees Celsius using liquid helium. This was a very temperamental process, requiring precise temperature control. If the hydrogen got too cold it would freeze and the researchers would have to use a small heater to re-liquefy it. At the end of the day a jet of cold liquid hydrogen with a diameter no greater than 20 micrometers would flow into a vacuum.

Physicists would then shoot intense pulses of the X-ray laser at the cold hydrogen. They could control the precise timing of the X-ray laser’s “flash” in order to study the properties of liquid hydrogen. The first half of the flash heats up the hydrogen, but the second half of the flash is delayed by varying lengths, which allows the team to understand exactly how thermal equilibrium is established between the electrons and the protons.

The experimental results provide information on the liquid hydrogen’s thermal conductivity and its internal energy exchange, which are both crucial to better understanding gas giants. The experiments will have to be repeated at other temperatures and pressures in order to create a detailed picture of the entire planetary atmosphere.

“Hopefully the results will provide us among others with an experimentally based answer to the question, why the planets discovered outside our solar system do not exist in all imaginable combinations of properties as age, mass, size or elemental composition, but may be allocated to certain groups,” said Dr. Thomas Tschentscher, scientific director of the European XFEL X-ray laser in a press release.

The paper has been accepted in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters and is available for download here.