With the dawning of the Space Age in the 1950s, human beings were no longer confined to studying the Solar planets and other astronomical bodies with Earth-based instruments alone. Instead crewed missions have gone into orbit and to the Moon while robotic missions have traveled to every corner of the Solar System. And in the process, we have learned some interesting things about the planets, planetoids, and asteroids in our Solar neighborhood.
For example, we have learned that all the Solar planets have their own particular patterns and cycles. For instance, even though Mercury is an airless body, it does have a tenuous exosphere and experiences seasons of a sort. And while it is known for being extremely hot, it also experiences extremes of cold, to the point that ice can exist on its surface. While it is by no means what we are used to here on Earth, Mercury still experiences a kind of “weather”.
As noted, Mercury has no atmosphere to speak of, owing to its small size and extremes in temperature. However, it does have a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure).
It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun (i.e solar wind) as well as volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts. In any case, Mercury’s lack of a viable atmosphere is the reason why it is unable to retain heat from the Sun, which leads to extreme variations between night and day for the rocky planet.
Mercury’s temperature variations are also attributed to its orbital eccentricity of 0.2056, which is the most extreme of any planet in the Solar System. Essentially, its distance from the Sun ranges from 46 million km (29 million mi) at its closest (perihelion) to 70 million km (43 million mi) at its farthest (aphelion). As a result, the side facing the Sun reaches temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), the side in shadow dips down to 100 K (-173° C).
With an average rotational speed of 10.892 km/h (6.768 mph), Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation. This means that Mercury has a spin-orbit resonance of 3:2, where it completes three rotations on its axis for every two rotations completed around the Sun. This does not, however, mean that three days last the same as two years on Mercury.
In fact, its high eccentricity and slow rotation mean that it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (aka. a solar day). In short, a single day on Mercury is twice as long as a single year! Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027 degrees compared to Jupiter’s 3.1 degrees (the second smallest).
This low tilt means that the polar regions are constantly in shadow, which leads to another interesting feature about Mercury. Yes, despite how hot its Sun-facing side can become, the existence of water ice and even organic molecules have been confirmed on Mercury’s surface. But this only true at the poles, where the floors of deep craters are never exposed to direct sunlight, and temperatures within them therefore remain below the planetary average.
These icy regions are believed to contain about 1014–1015 kg (1 to 10 billion metric tons, 1.1 to 11 billion US tons) of frozen water, and may be covered by a layer of regolith that inhibits sublimation. The origin of the ice on Mercury is not yet known, but the two most likely sources are from outgassing of water from the planet’s interior or deposition by the impacts of comets.
When one talks about the “weather” on Mercury, they are generally confined to talking about variations between the Sun-facing side and the night side. Over the course of two years, that weather will remain scorching hot or freezing cold. In that respect, we could say that a single season on Mercury lasts a full four years, and includes a “Midnight Sun” that lasts two years, and a “Polar Night” that lasts the same.
Between its rapid and very eccentric orbit, its slow rotation, and its strange diurnal and annual patterns, Mercury is a very extreme planet with a very extreme environment. It only makes sense that its weather would be similarly extreme. Hey, there’s a reason nobody lives there, at least not yet…
Mercury was appropriately named after the Roman messenger of the Gods. This is owed to the fact that its apparent motion in the night sky was faster than that of any of the other planets. As astronomers learned more about this “messenger planet”, they came to understand that its motion was due to its close orbit to the Sun, which causes it to complete a single orbit every 88 days.
Mercury’s proximity to the Sun is merely one of its defining characteristics. Compared to the other planets of the Solar System, it experiences severe temperature variations, going from very hot to very cold. It’s also very rocky, and has no atmosphere to speak of. But to truly get a sense of how Mercury stacks up compared to the other planets of the Solar System, we need to a look at how Mercury compares to Earth.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
The diameter of Mercury is 4,879 km, which is approximately 38% the diameter of Earth. In other words, if you put three Mercurys side by side, they would be a little larger than the Earth from end to end. While this makes Mercury smaller than the largest natural satellites in our system – such as Ganymede and Titan – it is more massive and far more dense than they are.
In fact, Mercury’s mass is approximately 3.3 x 1023 kg (5.5% the mass of Earth) which means that its density – at 5.427 g/cm3 – is the second highest of any planet in the Solar System, only slightly less than Earth’s (5.515 g/cm3). This also means that Mercury’s surface gravity is 3.7 m/s2, which is the equivalent of 38% of Earth’s gravity (0.38 g). This means that if you weighed 100 kg (220 lbs) on Earth, you would weigh 38 kg (84 lbs) on Mercury.
Meanwhile, the surface area of Mercury is 75 million square kilometers, which is approximately 10% the surface area of Earth. If you could unwrap Mercury, it would be almost twice the area of Asia (44 million square km). And the volume of Mercury is 6.1 x 1010 km3, which works out to 5.4% the volume of Earth. In other words, you could fit Mercury inside Earth 18 times over and still have a bit of room to spare.
In terms of orbit, Mercury and Earth probably could not be more different. For one, Mercury has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System (0.205), compared to Earth’s 0.0167. Because of this, its distance from the Sun varies between 46 million km (29 million mi) at its closest (perihelion) to 70 million km (43 million mi) at its farthest (aphelion).
This puts Mercury much closer to the Sun than Earth, which orbits at an average distance of 149,598,023 km (92,955,902 mi), or 1 AU. This distance ranges from 147,095,000 km (91,401,000 mi) to 152,100,000 km (94,500,000 mi) – 0.98 to 1.017 AU. And with an average orbital velocity of 47.362 km/s (29.429 mi/s), it takes Mercury a total 87.969 Earth days to complete a single orbit – compared to Earth’s 365.25 days.
However, since Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation, it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (aka. a solar day). So on Mercury, a single day is twice as long as a single year. Meanwhile on Earth, a single solar day is 24 hours long, owing to its rapid rotation of 1674.4 km/h. Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027°, compared to Earth’s 23.439°.
Structure and Composition:
Much like Earth, Mercury is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between a solid metal core and a silicate crust and mantle. For Mercury, the breakdown of these elements is higher than Earth. Whereas Earth is primarily composed of silicate minerals, Mercury is composed of 70% metallic and 30% of silicate materials.
Also like Earth, Mercury’s interior is believed to be composed of a molten iron that is surrounded by a mantle of silicate material. Mercury’s core, mantle and crust measure 1,800 km, 600 km, and 100-300 km thick, respectively; while Earth’s core, mantle and crust measure 3478 km, 2800 km, and up to 100 km thick, respectively.
What’s more, geologists estimate that Mercury’s core occupies about 42% of its volume (compared to Earth’s 17%) and the core has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System. Several theories have been proposed to explain this, the most widely accepted being that Mercury was once a larger planet that was struck by a planetesimal that stripped away much of the original crust and mantle.
In terms of its surface, Mercury is much more like the Moon than Earth. It has a dry landscape pockmarked by asteroid impact craters and ancient lava flows. Combined with extensive plains, these indicate that the planet has been geologically inactive for billions of years.
Names for these features come from a variety of sources. Craters are named for artists, musicians, painters, and authors; ridges are named for scientists; depressions are named after works of architecture; mountains are named for the word “hot” in different languages; planes are named for Mercury in various languages; escarpments are named for ships of scientific expeditions, and valleys are named after radio telescope facilities.
During and following its formation 4.6 billion years ago, Mercury was heavily bombarded by comets and asteroids, and perhaps again during the Late Heavy Bombardment period. Due to its lack of an atmosphere and precipitation, these craters remain intact billions of years later. Craters on Mercury range in diameter from small bowl-shaped cavities to multi-ringed impact basins hundreds of kilometers across.
The largest known crater is Caloris Basin, which measures 1,550 km (963 mi) in diameter. The impact that created it was so powerful that it caused lava eruptions on the other side of the planet and left a concentric ring over 2 km (1.24 mi) tall surrounding the impact crater. Overall, about 15 impact basins have been identified on those parts of Mercury that have been surveyed.
Earth’s surface, meanwhile, is significantly different. For starters, 70% of the surface is covered in oceans while the areas where the Earth’s crust rises above sea level forms the continents. 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.
Mercury’s surface shows many signs of being geologically active in the past, mainly in the form of narrow ridges that extend up to hundreds of kilometers in length. It is believed that these were formed as Mercury’s core and mantle cooled and contracted at a time when the crust had already solidified. However, geological activity ceased billions of years ago and its crust has been solid ever since.
Meanwhile, Earth is still geologically active, owning to convection of the mantle. The lithosphere (the crust and upper layer of the mantle) is broken into pieces called tectonic plates. These plates move in relation to one another and interactions between them is what causes earthquakes, volcanic activity (such as the “Pacific Ring of Fire“), mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation.
Atmosphere and Temperature:
When it comes to their atmospheres, Earth and Mercury could not be more different. Earth has a dense atmosphere composed of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. 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.
Because of this, the average surface temperature on Earth 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.
Mercury, meanwhile, has a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure). It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun, volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts.
Because it lacks a viable atmosphere, Mercury has no way to retain the heat from the Sun. As a result of this and its high eccentricity, the planet experiences far more extreme variations in temperature than Earth does. Whereas the side that faces the Sun can reach temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), the side that is in darkness can reach temperatures as low as 100 K (-173° C).
Despite these highs in temperature, the existence of water ice and even organic molecules has been confirmed on Mercury’s surface. The floors of deep craters at the poles are never exposed to direct sunlight, and temperatures there remain below the planetary average. In this respect, Mercury and Earth have something else in common, which is the presence of water ice in its polar regions.
Much like Earth, Mercury has a significant, and apparently global, magnetic field, one which is about 1.1% the strength of Earth’s. It is likely that this magnetic field is generated by a dynamo effect, in a manner similar to the magnetic field of Earth. This dynamo effect would result from the circulation of the planet’s iron-rich liquid core.
Mercury’s magnetic field is strong enough to deflect the solar wind around the planet, thus creating a magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetosphere, though small enough to fit within Earth, is strong enough to trap solar wind plasma, which contributes to the space weathering of the planet’s surface.
All told, Mercury and Earth are in stark contrast. While both are terrestrial in nature, Mercury is significantly smaller and less massive than Earth, though it has a similar density. Mercury’s composition is also much more metallic than that of Earth, and its 3:2 orbital resonance results in a single day being twice as long as a year.
But perhaps most stark of all are the extremes in temperature variations that Mercury goes through compared to Earth. Naturally, this is due to the fact that Mercury orbits much closer to the Sun than the Earth does and has no atmosphere to speak of. And its long days and long nights also mean that one side is constantly being baked by the Sun, or in freezing darkness.
The extra-solar planet known as Proxima b has occupied a special place in the public mind ever since its existence was announced in August of 2016. As the closest exoplanet to our Solar System, its discovery has raised questions about the possibility of exploring it in the not-too-distant future. And even more tantalizing are the questions relating to its potential habitability.
Despite numerous studies that have attempted to indicate whether the planet could be suitable for life as we know it, nothing definitive has been produced. Fortunately, a team of astrophysics from the University of Exeter – with the help of meteorology experts from the UK’s Met Office – have taken the first tentative steps towards determining if Proxima b has a habitable climate.
According to their study, which appeared recently in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the team conducted a series of simulations using the state-of-the-art Met Office Unified Model (UM). This numerical model has been used for decades to study Earth’s atmosphere, with applications ranging from weather prediction to the effects of climate change.
With this model, the team simulated what the climate of Proxima b would be like if it had a similar atmospheric composition to Earth. They also conducted simulations on what the planet would be like it if had a much simpler atmosphere – one composed of nitrogen with trace amounts of carbon dioxide. Last, but not least, they made allowances for variations in the planet’s orbit.
For instance, given the planet’s distance from its sun – 0.05 AU (7.5 million km; 4.66 million mi) – there have been questions about the planet’s orbital characteristics. On the one hand, it could be tidally-locked, where one face is constantly facing towards Proxima Centauri. On the other, the planet could be in a 3:2 orbital resonance with its sun, where it rotates three times on its axis for every two orbits (much like Mercury experiences with our Sun).
In either case, this would result in one side of the planet being exposed to quite a bit of radiation. Given the nature of M-type red dwarf stars, which are highly variable and unstable compared to other types of stars, the sun-facing side would be periodically irradiated. Also, in both orbital scenarios, the planet would be subject to significant variations in temperature that would make it difficult for liquid water to exist.
For example, on a tidally-locked planet, the main atmospheric gases on the night-facing side would be likely to freeze, which would leave the daylight zone exposed and dry. And on a planet with a 3:2 orbital resonance, a single solar day would most likely last a very long time (a solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days), causing one side to become too hot and dry the other side too cold and dry.
By taking all this into account, the team’s simulations allowed for some crucial comparisons with previous studies, but also allowed the team to reach beyond them. As Dr. Ian Boutle, an Honorary University Fellow at the University of Exeter and the lead author of the paper, explained in a University press release:
“Our research team looked at a number of different scenarios for the planet’s likely orbital configuration using a set of simulations. As well as examining how the climate would behave if the planet was ‘tidally-locked’ (where one day is the same length as one year), we also looked at how an orbit similar to Mercury, which rotates three times on its axis for every two orbits around the sun (a 3:2 resonance), would affect the environment.”
In the end, the results were quite favorable, as the team found that Proxima b would have a remarkably stable climate with either atmosphere and in either orbital configuration. Essentially, the UM software simulations showed that when both atmospheres and both the tidally-locked and 3:2 resonance configurations were accounted for, there would still be regions on the planet where water was able to exist in liquid form.
Naturally, the 3:2 resonance example resulted in more substantial areas of the planet falling within this temperature range. They also found that an eccentric orbit, where the distance between the planet and Proxima Centauri varied to a significant degree over the course of a single orbital period, would lead to a further increase in potential habitability.
As Dr James Manners, another Honorary University Fellow and one of the co-authors on the paper, said:
“One of the main features that distinguishes this planet from Earth is that the light from its star is mostly in the near infra-red. These frequencies of light interact much more strongly with water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which affects the climate that emerges in our model.”
Of course, much more work needs be done before we can truly understand whether this planet is capable of supporting life as we know it. Beyond feeding the hopes of those who would like to see it colonized someday, studies into Proxima b’s conditions are also of extreme importance in determining whether or not indigenous life exists there right now.
But in the meantime, studies such as this are extremely helpful when it comes to anticipating what kinds of environments we might find on distant planets. Dr Nathan Mayne – the scientific lead on exoplanet modelling at the University of Exeter and a co-author on the paper – also indicated that climate studies of this kind could have applications for scientists here at home.
“With the project we have at Exeter we are trying to not only understand the somewhat bewildering diversity of exoplanets being discovered, but also exploit this to hopefully improve our understanding of how our own climate has and will evolve,” he said. What’s more, it helps to illustrate how conditions here on Earth can be used to predict what may exist in extra-solar environments.
While that might sound a bit Earth-centric, it is entirely reasonable to assume that planets in other star systems are subject to processes and mechanics similar to what we’ve seen on the Solar planets. And this is something we are invariably forced to do when it comes to searching for habitable planets and life beyond our Solar System. Until we can go there directly, we will be forced to measure what we don’t know by what we do.
Mercury is one of the most unusual planets in our Solar System, at least by the standards of us privileged Earthlings. Despite being the closest planet to our Sun, it is not the hottest (that honor goes to Venus). And because of its virtually non-existence atmosphere and slow rotation, temperatures on its surface range from being extremely hot to extremely cold.
Equally unusual is the diurnal cycle on Mercury – i.e. the cycle of day and night. A single year lasts only 88 days on Mercury, but thanks again to its slow rotation, a day lasts twice as long! That means that if you could stand on the surface of Mercury, it would take a staggering 176 Earth days for the Sun to rise, set and rise again to the same place in the sky just once!
Distance and Orbital Period:
Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun, but it also has the most eccentric orbit (0.2056) of any of the Solar Planets. This means that while its average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 57,909,050 km (35,983,015 mi) or 0.387 AUs, this ranges considerably – from 46,001,200 km (2,8583,820 mi) at perihelion (closet) to 69,816,900 km (43,382,210 mi) at aphelion (farthest).
Because of this proximity, Mercury has a rapid orbital period, which varies depending on where it is in its orbit. Naturally, it moves fastest when it is at its closest to the Sun, and slowest when it is farthest. On average, its orbital velocity is 47.362 km/s (29.43 mi/s), which means it takes only 88 days to complete a single orbit of the Sun.
Astronomers used to suspect that Mercury was tidally locked to the Sun, meaning that it always showed the same face to the Sun – similar to how the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth. But radar-Doppler measurements obtained in 1965 demonstrated that Mercury is actually rotating very slowly compared to the Sun.
Sidereal vs. Solar Day:
Based on data obtained by these radar measurements, Mercury is now known to be in 3:2 orbital resonance with the Sun. This means that the planet completes three rotations on its axis for every two orbits it makes around the Sun. At it’s current rotational velocity – 3.026 m/s, or 10.892 km/h (6.77 mph) – it takes Mercury 58.646 days to complete a single rotation on its axis.
While this might lead some to conclude that a single day on Mercury is about 58 Earth days – thus making the length of a day and year correspond to the same 3:2 ratio – this would be inaccurate. Due to its rapid orbital velocity and slow sidereal rotation, a Solar Day on Mercury (the time it takes for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky) is actually 176 days.
In that respect, the ratio of days to years on Mercury is actually 1:2. The only places that are exempt to this day and night cycle are the polar regions. The cratered northern polar region, for example, exists in a state of perpetual shadow. Temperatures in these craters are also cool enough that significant concentrations of water ice can exist in stable form.
For over 20 years, scientists believed that radar-bright images from Mercury’s northern polar regions might indicate the presence of water ice there. In November of 2012, NASA’s MESSENGER probe examined the northern polar region using its neutron spectrometer and laser altimeter and confirmed the presence of both water ice and organic molecules.
Yes, as if Mercury weren’t strange enough, it turns out that a single day on Mercury lasts as long as two years! Just another oddity for a planet that likes to keep things really hot, really cold, and is really eccentric.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?
Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.
As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.
On January 20th, 2016, researchers Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech announced that they had found evidence that hinted at the existence of a massive planet at the edge of the Solar System. Based on mathematical modeling and computer simulations, they predicted that this planet would be a super-Earth, two to four times Earth’s size and 10 times as massive. They also estimated that, given its distance and highly elliptical orbit, it would take 10,000 – 20,000 years to orbit the Sun.
Since that time, many researchers have responded with their own studies about the possible existence of this mysterious “Planet 9”. One of the latest comes from the University of Arizona, where a research team from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have indicated that the extreme eccentricity of distant Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) might indicate that they crossed paths with a massive planet in the past.
For some time now, it has been understood that there are a few known KBOs who’s dynamics are different than those of other belt objects. Whereas most are significantly controlled by the gravity of the gas giants planets in their current orbits (particularly Neptune), certain members of the scattered disk population of the Kuiper Belt have unusually closely-spaced orbits.
When Batygin and Brown first announced their findings back in January, they indicated that these objects instead appeared to be highly clustered with respect to their perihelion positions and orbital planes. What’s more, their calculation showed that the odds of this being a chance occurrence were extremely low (they calculated a probability of 0.007%).
Instead, they theorized that it was a distant eccentric planet that was responsible for maintaining the orbits of these KBOs. In order to do this, the planet in question would have to be over ten times as massive as Earth, and have an orbit that lay roughly on the same plane (but with a perihelion oriented 180° away from those of the KBOs).
Such a planet not only offered an explanation for the presence of high-perihelion Sedna-like objects – i.e. planetoids that have extremely eccentric orbits around the Sun. It would also help to explain where distant and highly inclined objects in the outer Solar System come from, since their origins have been unclear up until this point.
In a paper titled “Coralling a distant planet with extreme resonant Kuiper belt objects“, the University of Arizona research team – which included Professor Renu Malhotra, Dr. Kathryn Volk, and Xianyu Wang – looked at things from another angle. If in fact Planet 9 were crossing paths with certain high-eccentricity KBOs, they reasoned, it was a good bet that its orbit was in resonance with these objects.
To break it down, small bodies are ejected from the Solar System all the time due to encounters with larger objects that perturb their orbits. In order to avoid being ejected, smaller bodies need to be protected by orbital resonances. While the smaller and larger objects may pass within each others’ orbital path, they are never close enough that they would able to exert a significant influence on each other.
This is how Pluto has remained a part of the Solar System, despite having an eccentric orbit that periodically cross Neptune’s path. Though Neptune and Pluto cross each others orbit, they are never close enough to each other that Neptune’s influence would force Pluto out of our Solar System. Using this same reasoning, they hypothesized that the KBOs examined by Batygin and Brown might be in an orbital resonance with the Planet 9.
As Dr. Malhotra, Volk and Wang told Universe Today via email:
“The extreme Kuiper belt objects we investigate in our paper are distinct from the others because they all have very distant, very elliptical orbits, but their closest approach to the Sun isn’t really close enough for them to meaningfully interact with Neptune. So we have these six observed objects whose orbits are currently fairly unaffected by the known planets in our Solar System. But if there’s another, as yet unobserved planet located a few hundred AU from the Sun, these six objects would be affected by that planet.”
After examining the orbital periods of these six KBOs – Sedna, 2010 GB174, 2004 VN112, 2012 VP113, and 2013 GP136 – they concluded that a hypothetical planet with an orbital period of about 17,117 years (or a semimajor axis of about 665 AU), would have the necessary period ratios with these four objects. This would fall within the parameters estimated by Batygin and Brown for the planet’s orbital period (10,000 – 20,000 years).
Their analysis also offered suggestions as to what kind of resonance the planet has with the KBOs in question. Whereas Sedna’s orbital period would have a 3:2 resonance with the planet, 2010 GB174 would be in a 5:2 resonance, 2994 VN112 in a 3:1, 2004 VP113 in 4:1, and 2013 GP136 in 9:1. These sort of resonances are simply not likely without the presence of a larger planet.
“For a resonance to be dynamically meaningful in the outer Solar System, you need one of the objects to have enough mass to have a reasonably strong gravitational effect on the other,” said the research team. “The extreme Kuiper belt objects aren’t really massive enough to be in resonances with each other, but the fact that their orbital periods fall along simple ratios might mean that they each are in resonance with a massive, unseen object.”
But what is perhaps most exciting is that their findings could help to narrow the range of Planet 9’s possible location. Since each orbital resonance provides a geometric relationship between the bodies involved, the resonant configurations of these KBOs can help point astronomers to the right spot in our Solar System to find it.
But of course, Malhotra and her colleagues freely admit that several unknowns remain, and further observation and study is necessary before Planet 9 can be confirmed:
“There are a lot of uncertainties here. The orbits of these extreme Kuiper belt objects are not very well known because they move very slowly on the sky and we’ve only observed very small portions of their orbital motion. So their orbital periods might differ from the current estimates, which could make some of them not resonant with the hypothetical planet. It could also just be chance that the orbital periods of the objects are related; we haven’t observed very many of these types of objects, so we have a limited set of data to work with.”
Ultimately, astronomers and the rest of us will simply have to wait on further observations and calculations. But in the meantime, I think we can all agree that the possibility of a 9th Planet is certainly an intriguing one! For those who grew up thinking that the Solar System had nine planets, these past few years (where Pluto was demoted and that number fell to eight) have been hard to swallow.
But with the possible confirmation of this Super-Earth at the outer edge of the Solar System, that number could be pushed back up to nine soon enough!
Ever since the Voyager space probes ventured into the outer Solar System, scientists and astronomers have come to understand a great deal of this region of space. In addition to the four massive gas giants that call the outer Solar System home, a great deal has been learned about the many moons that circle them. And thanks to photographs and data obtained, human beings as a whole have come to understand just how strange and awe-inspiring our Solar System really is.
This is especially true of Miranda, the smallest and innermost of Uranus’ large moons – and some would say, the oddest-looking! Like the other major Uranian moons, its orbits close to its planet’s equator, is perpendicular to the Solar System’s ecliptic, and therefore has an extreme seasonal cycle. Combined with one of the most extreme and varied topographies in the Solar System, this makes Miranda an understandable source of interest!
Discovery and Naming:
Miranda was discovered on February 16th, 1948, by Gerard Kuiper using the McDonald Observatory‘s Otto Struve Telescope at the University of Texas in Austin. Its motion around Uranus was confirmed on March 1st of the same year, making it the first satellite of Uranus to be discovered in almost a century (the previous ones being Ariel and Umbriel, which were both discovered in 1851 by William Lassell).
Consistent with the names of the other moons, Kuiper decided to the name the object “Miranda” after the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This continued the tradition set down by John Herschel, who suggested that all the large moons of Uranus – Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon – be named after characters from either The Tempest or Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.
Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of 235.8 ± 0.7 km and a mass of 6.59 ± 0.75 ×1019 kg, Miranda is 0.03697 Earths times the size of Earth and roughly 0.000011 as massive. Its modest size also makes it one of the smallest object in the Solar System to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium, with only Saturn’s moon of Mimas being smaller.
Of Uranus’ five larger moons, Miranda is the closest, orbiting at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 129,390 km. It has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0013 and an inclination of 4.232° to Uranus’ equator. This is unusually high for a body so close to its parent planet – roughly ten times that of the other Uranian satellites.
Since there are no mean-motion resonances to explain this, it has been hypothesized that the moons occasionally pass through secondary resonances. At some point, this would have led Miranda into being locked in a temporary 3:1 resonance with Umbriel, and perhaps a 5:3 resonance with Ariel as well. This resonance would have altered the moon’s inclination, and also led to tidal heating in its interior (see below).
With an average orbital speed of 6.66 km/s, Miranda takes 1.4 days to complete a single orbit of Uranus. Its orbital period (also 34 hours) is synchronous with its rotational period, meaning that it is tidally-locked with Uranus and maintains one face towards it at all times. Given that it orbits around Uranus’ equator, which means its orbit is perpendicular to the Sun’s ecliptic, Uranus goes through an extreme seasonal cycle where the northern and southern hemispheres experience 42 years of lightness and darkness at a time.
Composition and Surface Structure:
Miranda’s mean density (1.2 g/cm3) makes it the least dense of the Uranian moons. It also suggests that Miranda is largely composed of water ice (at least 60%), with the remainder likely consisting of silicate rock and organic compounds in the interior. The surface of Miranda is also the most diverse and extreme of all moons in the Solar System, with features that appear to be jumbled together in a haphazard fashion.
This consists of huge fault canyons as deep as 20 km (12 mi), terraced layers, and the juxtaposition of old and young surfaces seemingly at random. This patchwork of broken terrain indicates that intense geological activity took place in Miranda’s past, which is believed to have been driven by tidal heating during the time when it was in orbital resonance with Umbriel (and perhaps Ariel).
This resonance would have increased orbital eccentricity, and along with varying tidal forces from Uranus, would have caused warming in Miranda’s interior and led to resurfacing. In addition, the incomplete differentiation of the moon, whereby rock and ice were distributed more uniformly, could have led to an upwelling of lighter material in some areas, thus leading to young and older regions existing side by side.
Another theory is that Miranda was shattered by a massive impact, the fragments of which reassembled to produce a fractured core. In this scenario – which some scientists believe could have happened as many as five times – the denser fragments would have sunk deep into the interior, with water ice and volatiles setting on top of them and mirroring their fractured shape.
Overall, scientists recognize five types of geological features on Miranda, which includes craters, coronae (large grooved features), regiones (geological regions), rupes (scarps or canyons) and sulci (parallel grooves).
Miranda’s cratered regions are differentiated between younger, lightly-cratered regions and older, more-heavily cratered ones. The lightly cratered regions include ridges and valleys, which are separated from the more heavily-cratered areas by sharp boundaries of mismatched features. The largest known craters are about 30 km (20 mi) in diameter, with others lying in the range of 5 to 10 km (3 to 6 mi).
Miranda has the largest known cliff in the Solar System, which is known as Verona Rupes (named after the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). This rupes has a drop-off of over 5 km (3.1 mi) – making it 12 times as deep as the Grand Canyon. Scientists suspect that Miranda’s ridges and canyons represent extensional tilt blocks – a tectonic event where tectonic plates stretch apart, forming patterns of jagged terrain with steep drops.
The most well known coronae exist in the southern hemisphere, with three giant ‘racetrack’-like grooved structures that measure at least 200 km (120 mi) wide and up to 20 km (12 mi) deep. These features, named Arden, Elsinore and Inverness – all locations in Shakespeare’s plays – may have formed via extensional processes at the tops of diapirs (aka. upwellings of warm ice).
Other features may be due to cryovolcanic eruptions of icy magma, which would have been driven by tidal flexing and heating in the past. With an albedo of 0.32, Miranda’s surface is nearly as bright as that of Ariel, the brightest of the larger Uranian moons. It’s slightly darker appearance is likely due to the presence of carbonaceous material within its surface ice.
Miranda’s apparent magnitude makes it invisible to many amateur telescopes. As a result, virtually all known information regarding its geology and geography was obtained during the only flyby of the Uranian system, which was made by Voyager 2 in 1986. During the flyby, Miranda’s southern hemisphere pointed towards the Sun (while the northern was shrouded in darkness), so only the southern hemisphere could be studied.
At this time, no future missions have been planned or are under consideration. But given Miranda’s “Frankenstein”-like appearance and the mysteries that still surround its history and geology, any future missions to study Uranus and its system of moons would be well-advised.