Underneath its shell of ice, the globe-spanning ocean of Enceladus isn’t sitting still. Instead, it might possibly host massive ocean currents, driven by changes in salinity.Continue reading “There are Ocean Currents Under the ice on Enceladus”
Radar evidence shows that geysers on Enceladus are ejecting water that turns to snow. The snow not only falls back on Enceladus’ surface, but also makes its way to its neighboring moons, Mimas and Tethys, making them more reflective. Researchers are calling this a ‘snow cannon.’Continue reading “Enceladus Causes Snowfall On Other Moons of Saturn”
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Hubble has captured a new image of Saturn that makes you wonder if it’s even real. The image is so crisp it makes it look like Saturn is just floating in space. Which it is.Continue reading “Here’s Hubble’s Newest Image of Saturn”
Saturn’s moon Mimas is the smallest of the gas giant’s major moons. (Saturn has 62 moons, but some of them are tiny moonlets less than 1 km in diameter.) Two new studies show how Mimas acted as a kind of snow-plow, widening the Cassini division between Saturn’s rings.Continue reading “Mimas Pushes Through Saturn’s Rings Like a Snowplow”
Since the Cassini mission arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, it has provided some stunning images of the gas giant and its many moons. And in the course of capturing new views of Titan’s dense atmosphere, Iapetus’ curious “yin-yang” coloration, and the water plumes and “tiger stripes” of Enceladus, it snapped the most richly-detailed images of Mimas ever seen.
But like all good things, Cassini’s days of capturing close-up images of Mimas are coming to an end. As of January 30th, 2017, the probe made its final close approach to the moon, and took the last of it’s close-up pictures in the process. In the future, all observations (and pictures) of Mimas will take place at roughly twice this distance – and will therefore be less detailed.
To be fair, these close approaches were a pretty rare event during the Cassini mission. Over the course of the thirteen years that the probe has been in the Saturn system, only seven flybys have taken place, occurring at distances of less 50,000 km (31,000 mi). At its closest approach, Cassini passed within 41,230 km (25,620 mi) of Mimas.
During this time, the probe managed to take a series of images that allowed for the creation of a beautiful mosaic. This mosaic was made from ten combined narrow-angle camera images, and is one of the highest resolution views ever captured of the icy moon. It also comes in two versions. In one, the left side of Mimas is illuminated by the Sun and the picture is enhanced to show the full moon (seen at top).
In the second version (shown above), natural illumination shows only the Sun-facing side of the moon. They also created an animation that allows viewers to switch between mosaics, showing the contrast. And as you can see, these mosaics provide a very detailed look at Mimas heavily-cratered surface, a well as the large surface fractures that are believed to have been caused by the same impact that created the Herschel Crater.
This famous crater, from which Mimas gets it’s “Death Star” appearance, was photographed during Cassini’s first flyby – which occurred on February 13th, 2010. Named in honor of William Herschel (the discoverer of Uranus, its moons Oberon, and Titania, and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Mimas), this crater measures 130 km (81 mi) across, almost a third of Mimas’ diameter.
Its is also quite deep, as craters go, with walls that are approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) high. Parts of its floor reach as deep as 10 km (6.2 mi), and it’s central peak rises 6 km (3.7 mi) above the crater floor. The impact that created this crater is believed to have nearly shattered Mimas, and also caused the fractures visible on the opposite side of the moon.
It’s a shame we won’t be getting any more close ups of the moon’s many interesting features. However, we can expect a plethora of intriguing images of Saturn’s rings, which it will be exploring in depth as part of the final phase of its mission. The mission is scheduled to end on September 15th, 2017, which will culminate with the crash of the probe in Saturn’s atmosphere.
Further Reading: NASA
Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at the largest of Saturn’s Moons – Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.
From the 17th century onward, astronomers made some profound discoveries around the planet Saturn, which they believed was the most distant planet of the Solar System at the time. Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Domenico Cassini were the first, spotting the largest moons of Saturn – Titan, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus. More discoveries followed; and today, what we recognized as the Saturn system includes 62 confirmed satellites.
What we know of this system has grown considerably in recent decades, thanks to missions like Voyager and Cassini. And with this knowledge has come multiple proposals that claim how Saturn’s moons should someday be colonized. In addition to boasting the only body other than Earth to have a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, there are also abundant resources in this system that could be harnessed.
Much like the idea of colonizing the Moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and other bodies in the Solar System, the idea of establishing colonies on Saturn’s moons has been explored extensively in science fiction. At the same time, scientific proposals have been made that emphasize how colonies would benefit humanity, allowing us to mount missions deeper into space and ushering in an age of abundance!
Examples in Fiction:
The colonization of Saturn has been a recurring theme in science fiction over the decades. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Titan is home to a human colony of 250,000 people. The colony plays a vital role in commerce, where hydrogen is taken from the atmosphere of Saturn and used as fuel for interplanetary travel.
In Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant series (1983-2001), Saturn’s moons have been colonized by various nations in a post-diaspora era. In this story, Titan has been colonized by the Japanese, whereas Saturn has been colonized by the Russians, Chinese, and other former Asian nations.
In the novel Titan (1997) by Stephen Baxter, the plot centers on a NASA mission to Titan which must struggle to survive after crash landing on the surface. In the first few chapters of Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco (1986), a character ends up frozen on the surface of Titan, where they are stuck for several hundred years.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1996), nitrogen from Titan is used in the terraforming of Mars. In his novel 2312 (2012), humanity has colonized several of Saturn’s moons, which includes Titan and Iapetus. Several references are made to the “Enceladian biota” in the story as well, which are microscopic alien organisms that some humans ingest because of their assumed medicinal value.
As part of his Grand Tour Series, Ben Bova’s novels Saturn (2003) and Titan (2006) address the colonization of the Cronian system. In these stories, Titan is being explored by an artificially intelligent rover which mysteriously begins malfunctioning, while a mobile human Space Colony explores the Rings and other moons.
In his book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (1999), Robert Zubrin advocated colonizing the outer Solar System, a plan which included mining the atmospheres of the outer planets and establishing colonies on their moons. In addition to Uranus and Neptune, Saturn was designated as one of the largest sources of deuterium and helium-3, which could drive the pending fusion economy.
He further identified Saturn as being the most important and most valuable of the three, because of its relative proximity, low radiation, and excellent system of moons. Zubrin claimed that Titan is a prime candidate for colonization because it is the only moon in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere and is rich in carbon-bearing compounds.
On March 9th, 2006, NASA’s Cassini space probe found possible evidence of liquid water on Enceladus, which was confirmed by NASA in 2014. According to data derived from the probe, this water emerges from jets around Enceladus’ southern pole, and is no more than tens of meters below the surface in certain locations. This would would make collecting water considerably easier than on a moon like Europa, where the ice sheet is several km thick.
Data obtained by Cassini also pointed towards the presence of volatile and organic molecules. And Enceladus also has a higher density than many of Saturn’s moons, which indicates that it has a larger average silicate core. All of these resources would prove very useful for the sake of constructing a colony and providing basic operations.
In October of 2012, Elon Musk unveiled his concept for an Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), which was central to his long-term goal of colonizing Mars. At the time, Musk stated that the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT mission departing in 2024.
In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs. This system, which was originally intended to transport settlers to Mars, had evolved in its role to transport human beings to more distant locations in the Solar System – which could include the Jovian and Cronian moons.
Compared to other locations in the Solar System – like the Jovian system – Saturn’s largest moons are exposed to considerably less radiation. For instance, Jupiter’s moons of Io, Ganymede and Europa are all subject to intense radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field – ranging from 3600 to 8 rems day. This amount of exposure would be fatal (or at least very hazardous) to human beings, requiring that significant countermeasures be in place.
In contrast, Saturn’s radiation belts are significantly weaker than Jupiter’s – with an equatorial field strength of 0.2 gauss (20 microtesla) compared to Jupiter’s 4.28 gauss (428 microtesla). This field extends from about 139,000 km from Saturn’s center out to a distance of about 362,000 km – compared to Jupiter’s, which extends to a distance of about 3 million km.
Of Saturn’s largest moons, Mimas and Enceladus fall within this belt, while Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Iapetus all have orbits that place them from just outside of Saturn’s radiation belts to well beyond it. Titan, for example, orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,221,870 km, putting it safely beyond the reach of the gas giant’s energetic particles. And its thick atmosphere may be enough to shield residents from cosmic rays.
In addition, frozen volatiles and methane harvested from Saturn’s moons could be used for the sake of terraforming other locations in the Solar System. In the case of Mars, nitrogen, ammonia and methane have been suggested as a means of thickening the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect to warm the planet. This would cause water ice and frozen CO² at the poles to sublimate – creating a self-sustaining process of ecological change.
Colonies on Saturn’s moons could also serve as bases for harvesting deuterium and helium-3 from Saturn’s atmosphere. The abundant sources of water ice on these moons could also be used to make rocket fuel, thus serving as stopover and refueling points. In this way, a colonizing the Saturn system could fuel Earth’s economy, and the facilitate exploration deeper into the outer Solar System.
Naturally, there are numerous challenges to colonizing Saturn’s moons. These include the distance involved, the necessary resources and infrastructure, and the natural hazards colonies on these moons would have to deal with. For starters, while Saturn may be abundant in resources and closer to Earth than either Uranus or Neptune, it is still very far.
On average, Saturn is approximately 1,429 billion km away from Earth; or ~8.5 AU, the equivalent of eight and a half times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. To put that in perspective, it took the Voyager 1 probe roughly thirty-eight months to reach the Saturn system from Earth. For crewed spacecraft, carrying colonists and all the equipment needed to colonize the surface, it would take considerably longer to get there.
These ships, in order to avoid being overly large and expensive, would need to rely on cryogenics or hibernation-related technology in order to save room on storage and accommodations. While this sort of technology is being investigated for crewed missions to Mars, it is still very much in the research and development phase.
Any vessels involved in the colonization efforts, or used to ship resources to and from the Cronian system, would also need to have advanced propulsion systems to ensure that they could make the trips in a realistic amount of time. Given the distances involved, this would likely require rockets that used nuclear-thermal propulsion, or something even more advanced (like anti-matter rockets).
And while the former is technically feasible, no such propulsion systems have been built just yet. Anything more advanced would require many more years of research and development, and a major commitment in resources. All of this, in turn, raises the crucial issue of infrastructure.
Basically, any fleet operating between Earth and Saturn would require a network of bases between here and there to keep them supplied and fueled. So really, any plans to colonize Saturn’s moons would have to wait upon the creation of permanent bases on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and most likely the Jovian moons. This process would be punitively expensive by current standards and (again) would require a fleet of ships with advanced drive systems.
And while radiation is not a major threat in the Cronian system (unlike around Jupiter), the moons have been subject to a great deal of impacts over the course of their history. As a result, any settlements built on the surface would likely need additional protection in orbit, like a string of defensive satellites that could redirect comets and asteroids before they reached orbit.
Given its abundant resources, and the opportunities it would present for exploring deeper into the Solar System (and maybe even beyond), Saturn and its system of moons is nothing short of a major prize. On top of that, the prospect of colonizing there is a lot more appealing than other locations that come with greater hazards (i.e. Jupiter’s moons).
However, such an effort would be daunting and would require a massive multi-generational commitment. And any such effort would most likely have to wait upon the construction of colonies and/or bases in locations closer to Earth first – such as on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and around Jupiter. But we can certainly hold out hope for the long run, can’t we?
We have written many interesting articles on colonization here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Colonize the Moon First?, How Do We Colonize Mercury?, How Do We Colonize Venus?, Colonizing Venus with Floating Cities, Will We Ever Colonize Mars?, How Do We Colonize Jupiter’s Moons?, and The Definitive Guide to Terraforming.
Astronomy Cast also has many interesting episodes on the subject. Check out Episode 59: Saturn, Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons, Episode 95: Humans to Mars, Part 2 – Colonists, Episode 115: The Moon, Part 3 – Return to the Moon, and Episode 381: Hollowing Asteroids in Science Fiction.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is coming to an end.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. It will end its mission by plunging into the gas giant. But before then, it will dive through Saturn’s rings a total of 20 times.
The first dive through the rings was just completed, and represents the beginning of Cassini’s final mission phase. On December 4th at 5:09 PST the 2,150 kg, plutonium-powered probe, crossed through a faint and dusty ring created by the moons Janus and Epimetheus. This brought it to within 11,000 km of Saturn’s F-ring.
Though the end of a mission might seem sad, people behind the mission are excited about this final phase, a series of close encounters with the most iconic structures in our Solar System: Saturn’s glorious rings.
“This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.” – Linda Spilker, NASA/JPL
“It’s taken years of planning, but now that we’re finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.”
Even casual followers of space news have enjoyed the steady stream of eye candy from Cassini. But this first orbit through Saturn’s rings is more about science than pictures. The probe’s cameras captured images 2 days before crossing through the plane of the rings, but not during the closest approach. In future ring-grazing orbits, Cassini will give us some of the best views yet of Saturn’s outer rings and some of the small moons that reside there.
Cassini is about more than just beautiful images though. It’s a vital link in a series of missions that have opened up our understanding of the Solar System we inhabit. Here are some of Cassini’s important discoveries:
The Cassini mission discovered 7 new moons orbiting Saturn. Methone, Pallene and Polydeuces were all discovered in 2004. Daphnis, Anthe, and Aegaeon were discovered between 2005 and 2009. The final moon is currently named S/2009 S 1.
In 2014, NASA reported that yet another new moon may be forming in Saturn’s A ring.
Huygens lands on Titan
The Huygens lander detached from the Cassini orbiter on Christmas Day 2004. It landed on the frigid surface of Saturn’s moon Titan after a 2 1/2 hour descent. The lander transmitted 350 pictures of Titan’s descent to the surface. An unfortunate software error caused the loss of another 350 pictures.
Cassini performed several flybys of the moon Enceladus. The first was in 2005, and the last one was in 2015. The discovery of ice-plumes and a salty liquid ocean were huge for the mission. The presence of liquid water on Enceladus makes it one of the most likely places for microbial life to exist in our Solar System.
Each of Cassini’s final ring-grazing orbits will last one week. Cassini’s final orbit will bring it close to Saturn’s moon Titan. That encounter will change Cassini’s path. Cassini will leap over the rings and make the first of 22 plunges through the gap between Saturn and its rings.
In September 2017, the Cassini probe will finally reach the end of its epic mission. In order to prevent any possible contamination of Saturn’s moons, the probe will make one last glorious plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, transmitting data until it is destroyed.
During the Scientific Revolution, which took place between the 15th and 18th centuries, numerous inventions and discoveries were made that forever changed the way humanity viewed the Universe. And while this explosion in learning owed its existence to countless individuals, a few stand out as being especially worthy of praise and remembrance.
One such individual is Gionvanni Domenico Cassini, also known by his French name Jean-Dominique Cassini. An Italian astronomer, engineer, and astrologer, Cassini made many valuable contributions to modern science. However, it was his discovery of the gaps in Saturn’s rings and four of its largest moons for which he is most remembered, and the reason why the Cassini spacecraft bears his name.
Early Life and Education:
Giovanni Domenico Cassini was born on June 8th, 1625, in the small town of Perinaldo (near Nice, France) to Jacopo Cassini and Julia Crovesi. Educating by Jesuit scientists, he showed an aptitude for mathematics and astronomy from an early age. In 1648, he accepted a position at the observatory at Panzano, near Bologna, where he was employed by a rich amateur astronomer named Marquis Cornelio Malvasia.
During his time at the Panzano Observatory, Cassini was able to complete his education and went on to become the principal chair of astronomy at the University of Bologna by 1650. While there, he made several scientific contributions that would have a lasting mark.
This included the calculation of an important meridian line, which runs along the left aisle of the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna. At 66.8 meters (219 ft) in length, it is one of the largest astronomical instruments in the worl and allowed for measurements that were (at the time) uniquely precise. This meridian also helped to settle the debate about whether or not the Universe was geocentric or heliocentric.
During his time in Italy, Cassini determined the obliquity of the Earth’s ecliptic – aka. it’s axial tilt, which he calculated to be 23° and 29′ at the time. He also studied the effects of refraction and the Solar parallax, worked on planetary theory, and observed the comets of 1664 and 1668.
In recognition of his engineering skills, Pope Clement IX employed Cassini with regard to fortifications, river management and flooding along the Po River in northern Italy. In 1663, Cassini was named superintendent of fortifications and oversaw the fortifying of Urbino. And in 1665, he was named the inspector for the town of Perugia in central Italy.
In 1669, Cassini received an invitation by Louis XIV of France to move to Paris and help establish the Paris Observatory. Upon his arrival, he joined the newly-founded Academie Royale des Sciences (Royal Academy of Sciences), and became the first director of the Paris Observatory, which opened in 1671. He would remain the director of the observatory until his death in 1712.
In 1673, Cassini obtained his French citizenship and in the following year, he married Geneviève de Laistre, the daughter of the lieutenant general of the Comte de Clermont. During his time in France, Cassini spent the majority of his time dedicated to astronomical studies. Using a series of very long air telescopes, he made several discoveries and collaborated with Christiaan Huygens in many projects.
In the 1670s, Cassini began using the triangulation method to create a topographic map of France. It would not be completed until after his death (1789 or 1793), when it was published under the name Carte de Cassini. In addition to being the first topographical map of France, it was the first map to accurately measure longitude and latitude, and showed that the nation was smaller than previously thought.
In 1672, Cassini and his colleague Jean Richer made simultaneous observations of Mars (Cassini from Paris and Richer from French Guiana) and determined its distance to Earth through parallax. This enabled him to refine the dimensions of the Solar System and determine the value of the Astronomical Unit (AU) to within 7% accuracy. He and English astronomer Robert Hooke share credit for the discovery of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter (ca. 1665).
In 1683, Cassini presented an explanation for “zodiacal light” – the faint glow that extends away from the Sun in the ecliptic plane of the sky – which he correctly assumed to be caused by a cloud of small particles surrounding the Sun. He also viewed eight more comets before his death, which appeared in the night sky in 1672, 1677, 1698, 1699, 1702 (two), 1706 and 1707.
In ca. 1690, Cassini was the first to observe differential rotation within Jupiter’s atmosphere. He created improved tables for the positions of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, and discovered the periodic delays between the occultations of Jupiter’s moons and the times calculated. This would be used by Ole Roemer, his colleague at the Paris Observatory, to calculate the velocity of light in 1675.
In 1683, Cassini began the measurement of the arc of the meridian (longitude line) through Paris. From the results, he concluded that Earth is somewhat elongated. While in fact, the Earth is flattened at the poles, the revelation that Earth is not a perfect sphere was groundbreaking.
Cassini also observed and published his observations about the surface markings on Mars, which had been previously observed by Huygens but not published. He also determined the rotation periods of Mars and Jupiter, and his observations of the Moon led to the Cassini Laws, which provide a compact description of the motion of the Moon. These laws state that:
- The Moon takes the same amount of time to rotate uniformly about its own axis asit takes to revolve around the Earth. As a consequence, the same face is always pointed towards Earth.
- The Moon’s equator is tilted at a constant angle (about 1°32′ of arc) to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun (i.e. the ecliptic)
- The point where the lunar orbit passes from south to north on the ecliptic (aka. the ascending node of the lunar orbit) always coincides with the point where the lunar equator passes from north to south on the ecliptic (the descending node of the lunar equator).
Thanks to his leadership, Giovanni Cassini was the first of four successive Paris Observatory directors that bore his name. This would include his son, Jaques Cassini (Cassini II, 1677-1756); his grandson César François Cassini (Cassini III, 1714-84); and his great grandson, Jean Dominique Cassini (Cassini IV, 1748-1845).
Observations of Saturn:
During his time in France, Cassini also made his famous discoveries of many of Saturn’s moons – Iapetus in 1671, Rhea in 167, and Tethys and Dione in 1684. Cassini named these moons Sidera Lodoicea (the stars of Louis), and correctly explained the anomalous variations in brightness to the presence of dark material on one hemisphere (now called Cassini Regio in his honor).
In 1675, Cassini discovered that Saturn’s rings are separated into two parts by a gap, which is now called the “Cassini Division” in his honor. He also theorized that the rings were composed of countless small particles, which was proven to be correct.
Death and Legacy:
After dedicating his life to astronomy and the Paris Observatory, Cassini went blind in 1711 and then died on September 14th, 1712, in Paris. And although he resisted many new theories and ideas that were proposed during his lifetime, his discoveries and contributions place him among the most important astronomers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
As a traditionalist, Cassini initially held the Earth to be the center of the Solar System. In time, he would come to accept the Solar Theory of Nicolaus Copernicus within limits, to the point that he accepted the model proposed by Tycho Brahe. However, he rejected the theory of Johannes Kepler that planets travel in ellipses and proposed hat their paths were certain curved ovals (i.e. Cassinians, or Ovals of Cassini)
Cassini also rejected Newton’s Theory of Gravity, after measurements he conducted which (wrongly) suggested that the Earth was elongated at its poles. After forty years of controversy, Newton’s theory was adopted after the measurements of the French Geodesic Mission (1736-1744) and the Lapponian Expedition in 1737, which showed that the Earth is actually flattened at the poles.
For his lifetime of work, Cassini has been honored in many ways by the astronomical community. Because of his observations of the Moon and Mars, features on their respective surfaces were named after him. Both the Moon and Mars have their own Cassini Crater, and Cassini Regio on Saturn’s moon Iapetus also bears his name.
Then there is Asteroid (24101) Cassini, which was discovered by C.W. Juels at in 1999 using the Fountain Hills Observatory telescope. Most recently, there was the joint NASA-ESA Cassini-Huygens missions which recently finished its mission to study Saturn and its moons. This robotic orbiter and lander mission was named in honor of the two astronomers who were chiefly responsible for discovering Saturn system of moons.
In the end, Cassini’s passion for astronomy and his contributions to the sciences have ensured him a lasting place in the annals of history. In any discussion of the Scientific Revolution and of the influential thinkers who made it happen, his name appears alongside such luminaries as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.
We have written many interesting articles about Giovanni Cassini here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Moons Does Saturn Have?, The Planet Saturn, Saturn’s Moon Rhea, Saturn’s “Yin-Yang” Moon Iapetus, Saturn’s Moon Dione.
For millennia, human beings stared up at the night sky and were held in awe by the Moon. To many ancient cultures, it represented a deity, and its cycles were accorded divine significance. By the time of Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Moon was considered to be a heavenly body that orbited Earth, much like the other known planets of the day (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).
However, our understanding of moons was revolutionized when in 1610, astronomer Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope to Jupiter and noticed ” four wandering stars” around Jupiter. From this point onward, astronomers have come to understand that planets other than Earth can have their own moons – in some cases, several dozen or more. So just how many moons are there in the Solar System?
In truth, answering that question requires a bit of a clarification first. If we are talking about confirmed moons that orbit any of the planets of the Solar System (i.e. those that are consistent with the definition adopted by the IAU in 2006), then we can say that there are currently 173 known moons. If, however, we open the floor to dwarf planets that have objects orbiting them, the number climbs to 182.
However, over 200 minor-planet moons have also been observed in the Solar System (as of Jan. 2012). This includes the 76 known objects in the asteroid belt with satellites, four Jupiter Trojans, 39 near-Earth objects (two with two satellites each), 14 Mars-crossers, and 84 natural satellites of Trans-Neptunian Objects. And some 150 additional small bodies have been observed within the rings of Saturn. If we include all these, then we can say that the Solar System has 545 known satellites.
Inner Solar System:
The planets of the Inner Solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – are all terrestrial planets, which means that they are composed of silicate rock and minerals that are differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust. For a number of reasons, few satellites exist within this region of the Solar System.
All told, only three natural satellites exist orbiting planetary bodies in the Inner Solar System – Earth and Mars. While scientist theorize that there were moons around Mercury and Venus in the past, it is believed that these moons impacted on the surface a long time ago. The reason for this sparseness of satellites has a lot to do with the gravitational influence of the Sun.
Both Mercury and Venus are too close to the Sun (and in Mercury’s case, too weak in terms of its own gravitational pull) to have grabbed onto a passing object, or held onto rings of debris in orbit that could have coalesced to form a satellite over time. Earth and Mars were able to retain satellites, but mainly because they are the outermost of the Inner planets.
Earth has only the one natural satellite, which we are familiar with – the Moon. With a mean radius of 1737 km and a mass of 7.3477 x 10²² kg, the Moon is 0.273 times the size of Earth and 0.0123 as massive, which is quite large for a satellite. It is also the second densest moon in our Solar System (after Io), with a mean density of 3.3464 g/cm³.
Several theories have been proposed for the formation of the Moon. The prevailing hypothesis today is that the Earth-Moon system formed as a result of an impact between the newly-formed proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object (named Theia) roughly 4.5 billion years ago. This impact would have blasted material from both objects into orbit, where it eventually accreted to form the Moon.
Mars, meanwhile, has two moons – Phobos and Deimos. Like our own Moon, both of the Martian moons are tidally locked to Mars, so they always present the same face to the planet. Compared to our Moon, they are rough and asteroid-like in appearance, and also much smaller. Hence the prevailing theory that they were once asteroids that were kicked out of the Main Belt by Jupiter’s gravity, and were then acquired by Mars.
The larger moon is Phobos, whose name comes from the Greek word which means “fear” (i.e. phobia). Phobos measures just 22.7 km across and has an orbit that places it closer to Mars than Deimos. Compared to Earth’s own Moon — which orbits at a distance of 384,403 km away from our planet — Phobos orbits at an average distance of only 9,377 km above Mars.
Mars’ second moon is Deimos, which takes its name from the Greek word for panic. It is even smaller, measuring just 12.6 km across, and is also less irregular in shape. Its orbit places it much farther away from Mars, at a distance of 23,460 km, which means that Deimos takes 30.35 hours to complete an orbit around Mars.
These three moons are the sum total of moons to be found within the Inner Solar System (at least, by the conventional definition). But looking further abroad, we see that this is really just the tip of the iceberg. To think we once believed that the Moon was the only one of its kind!
Outer Solar System:
Beyond the Asteroid Belt (and Frost Line), things become quite different. In this region of the Solar System, every planet has a substantial system of Moons; in the case of Jupiter and Saturn, reaching perhaps even into the hundreds. So far, a total of 170 moons have been confirmed orbiting the Outer Planets, while several hundred more orbit minor bodies and asteroids.
Due to its immense size, mass, and gravitational pull, Jupiter has the most satellites of any planet in the Solar System. At present, the Jovian system includes 67 known moons, though it is estimated that it may have up to 200 moons and moonlets (the majority of which are yet to been confirmed and classified).
The four largest Jovian moons are known as the Galilean Moons (named after their discoverer, Galileo Galilei). They include: Io, the most volcanically active body in our Solar System; Europa, which is suspected of having a massive subsurface ocean; Ganymede, the largest moon in our Solar System; and Callisto, which is also thought to have a subsurface ocean and features some of the oldest surface material in the Solar System.
Then there’s the Inner Group (or Amalthea group), which is made up of four small moons that have diameters of less than 200 km, orbit at radii less than 200,000 km, and have orbital inclinations of less than half a degree. This groups includes the moons of Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe. Along with a number of as-yet-unseen inner moonlets, these moons replenish and maintain Jupiter’s faint ring system.
Jupiter also has an array of Irregular Satellites, which are substantially smaller and have more distant and eccentric orbits than the others. These moons are broken down into families that have similarities in orbit and composition, and are believed to be largely the result of collisions from large objects that were captured by Jupiter’s gravity.
Similar to Jupiter, it is estimated that Saturn has at least 150 moons and moonlets, but only 53 of these moons have been given official names. Of these, 34 are less than 10 km in diameter and another 14 are between 10 and 50 km in diameter. However, some of its inner and outer moons are rather large, ranging from 250 to over 5000 km.
Traditionally, most of Saturn’s moons have been named after the Titans of Greek mythology, and are grouped based on their size, orbits, and proximity to Saturn. The innermost moons and regular moons all have small orbital inclinations and eccentricities and prograde orbits. Meanwhile, the irregular moons in the outermost regions have orbital radii of millions of kilometers, orbital periods lasting several years, and move in retrograde orbits.
The Inner Large Moons, which orbit within the E Ring, includes the larger satellites Mimas Enceladus, Tethys, and Dione. These moons are all composed primarily of water ice, and are believed to be differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle and crust. The Large Outer Moons, which orbit outside of the Saturn’s E Ring, are similar in composition to the Inner Moons – i.e. composed primarily of water ice and rock.
At 5150 km in diameter, and 1,350×1020 kg in mass, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and comprises more than 96% of the mass in orbit around the planet. Titan is also the only large moon to have its own atmosphere, which is cold, dense, and composed primarily of nitrogen with a small fraction of methane. Scientists have also noted the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, as well as methane ice crystals.
The surface of Titan, which is difficult to observe due to persistent atmospheric haze, shows only a few impact craters, evidence of cryo-volcanoes, and longitudinal dune fields that were apparently shaped by tidal winds. Titan is also the only body in the Solar System beside Earth with bodies of liquid on its surface, in the form of methane–ethane lakes in Titan’s north and south polar regions.
Uranus has 27 known satellites, which are divided into the categories of larger moons, inner moons, and irregular moons (similar to other gas giants). The largest moons of Uranus are, in order of size, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Oberon and Titania. These moons range in diameter and mass from 472 km and 6.7 × 1019 kg for Miranda to 1578 km and 3.5 × 1021 kg for Titania. Each of these moons is particularly dark, with low bond and geometric albedos. Ariel is the brightest while Umbriel is the darkest.
All of the large moons of Uranus are believed to have formed in the accretion disc, which existed around Uranus for some time after its formation, or resulted from the large impact suffered by Uranus early in its history. Each one is comprised of roughly equal amounts of rock and ice, except for Miranda which is made primarily of ice.
The ice component may include ammonia and carbon dioxide, while the rocky material is believed to be composed of carbonaceous material, including organic compounds (similar to asteroids and comets). Their compositions are believed to be differentiated, with an icy mantle surrounding a rocky core.
Neptune has 14 known satellites, all but one of which are named after Greek and Roman deities of the sea (except for S/2004 N 1, which is currently unnamed). These moons are divided into two groups – the regular and irregular moons – based on their orbit and proximity to Neptune. Neptune’s Regular Moons – Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, S/2004 N 1, and Proteus – are those that are closest to the planet and which follow circular, prograde orbits that lie in the planet’s equatorial plane.
Neptune’s irregular moons consist of the planet’s remaining satellites (including Triton). They generally follow inclined eccentric and often retrograde orbits far from Neptune. The only exception is Triton, which orbits close to the planet, following a circular orbit, though retrograde and inclined.
In order of their distance from the planet, the irregular moons are Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Neso and Psamathe – a group that includes both prograde and retrograde objects. With the exception of Triton and Nereid, Neptune’s irregular moons are similar to those of other giant planets and are believed to have been gravitationally captured by Neptune.
With a mean diameter of around 2700 km ( mi) and a mass of 214080 ± 520 x 1017 kg, Triton is the largest of Neptune’s moons, and the only one large enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. is spherical in shape). At a distance of 354,759 km from Neptune, it also sits between the planet’s inner and outer moons.
These moons make up the lion’s share of natural satellites found in the Solar System. However, thanks to ongoing exploration and improvements made in our instrumentation, satellites are being discovered in orbit around minor bodies as well.
Dwarf Planets and Other Bodies:
As already noted, there are several dwarf planets, TNOs, and other bodies in the Solar System that also have their own moons. These consist mainly of the natural satellites that have been confirmed orbiting Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake. With five orbiting satellites, Pluto has the most confirmed moons (though that may change with further observation).
The largest, and closest in orbit to Pluto, is Charon. This moon was first identified in 1978 by astronomer James Christy using photographic plates from the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) in Washington, D.C. Beyond Charon lies the four other circumbinary moons – Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, respectively.
Nix and Hydra were discovered simultaneously in 2005 by the Pluto Companion Search Team using the Hubble Space Telescope. The same team discovered Kerberos in 2011. The fifth and final satellite, Styx, was discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2012 while capturing images of Pluto and Charon.
Charon, Styx and Kerberos are all massive enough to have collapsed into a spheroid shape under their own gravity. Nix and Hydra, meanwhile, are oblong in shape. The Pluto-Charon system is unusual, since it is one of the few systems in the Solar System whose barycenter lies above the primary’s surface. In short, Pluto and Charon orbit each other, causing some scientists to claim that it is a “double-dwarf system” instead of a dwarf planet and an orbiting moon.
In addition, it is unusual in that each body is tidally locked to the other. Charon and Pluto always present the same face to each other; and from any position on either body, the other is always at the same position in the sky, or always obscured. This also means that the rotation period of each is equal to the time it takes the entire system to rotate around its common center of gravity.
In 2007, observations by the Gemini Observatory of patches of ammonia hydrates and water crystals on the surface of Charon suggested the presence of active cryo-geysers. This would seem indicate that Pluto does have a subsurface ocean that is warm in temperature, and that the core is geologically active. Pluto’s moons are believed to have been formed by a collision between Pluto and a similar-sized body early in the history of the Solar System. The collision released material that consolidated into the moons around Pluto.
Coming in second is Haumea, which has two known moons – Hi’iaka and Namaka – which are named after the daughters of the Hawaiian goddess. Both were discovered in 2005 by Brown’s team while conducting observations of Haumea at the W.M. Keck Observatory. Hi’iaka, which was initially nicknamed “Rudolph” by the Caltech team, was discovered January 26th, 2005.
It is the outer and – at roughly 310 km in diameter – the larger and brighter of the two, and orbits Haumea in a nearly circular path every 49 days. Infrared observations indicate that its surface is almost entirely covered by pure crystalline water ice. Because of this, Brown and his team have speculated that the moon is a fragment of Haumea that broke off during a collision.
Namaka, the smaller and innermost of the two, was discovered on June 30th, 2005, and nicknamed “Blitzen”. It is a tenth the mass of Hi‘iaka and orbits Haumea in 18 days in a highly elliptical orbit. Both moons circle Haumea is highly eccentric orbits. No estimates have been made yet as to their mass.
Eris has one moon called Dysnomia, which is named after the daughter of Eris in Greek mythology, which was first observed on September 10th, 2005 – a few months after the discovery of Eris. The moon was spotted by a team using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, who were busy carrying out observations of the four brightest TNOs (Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, and Eris) at the time.
In April of 2016, observations using the Hubble Space Telescope‘s Wide Field Camera 3 revealed that Makemake had a natural satellite – which was designated S/2015 (136472) 1 (nicknamed MK 2 by the discovery team). It is estimated to be 175 km (110 mi) km in diameter and has a semi-major axis at least 21,000 km (13,000 mi) from Makemake.
Largest and Smallest Moons:
The title for largest moon in the Solar System goes to Ganymede, which measures 5262.4 kilometers (3270 mi) in diameter. This not only makes it larger than Earth’s Moon, but larger even than the planet Mercury – though it has only half of Mercury’s mass. As for the smallest satellite, that is a tie between S/2003 J 9 and S/2003 J 12. These two satellites, both of which orbit Jupiter, measure about 1 km (0.6 mi) in diameter.
An important thing to note when discussing the number of known moons in the Solar System is that the key word here is “known”. With every passing year, more satellites are being confirmed, and the vast majority of those we now know about were only discovered in the past few decades. As our exploration efforts continue, and our instruments improve, we may find that there are hundreds more lurking around out there!
We have written many interesting articles about the moons of the Solar System here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Biggest moon in the Solar System? What are the Planets of the Solar System?, How Many Moons Does Earth Have?, How Many Moons Does Mars Have?, How Many Moons Does Jupiter Have?, How Many Moons Does Saturn Have?, How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?, How Many Moons Does Neptune Have?
For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page.
We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Check them out here.
Terraforming. Chances are you’ve heard that word uttered before, most likely in the context of some science fiction story. However, in recent years, thanks to renewed interest in space exploration, this word is being used in an increasingly serious manner. And rather than being talked about like a far-off prospect, the issue of terraforming other worlds is being addressed as a near-future possibility.
In recent years, we’ve heard luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking claiming that humanity needs a “backup location” to ensure our survival, private ventures like Mars One enlisting thousands of volunteers to colonize the Red Planet, and space agencies like NASA, the ESA, and China discussing the prospect of long-term habitability on Mars or the Moon. From all indications, it looks like terraforming is yet another science-fiction concept that is migrating into the realm of science fact.
But just what does terraforming entail? Where exactly could we go about using this process? What kind of technology would we need? Does such technology already exist, or do we have to wait? How much in the way of resources would it take? And above all, what are the odds of it succeeding? Answering any or all of these questions requires a bit of digging. Not only is terraforming a time-honored concept, but as it turns out, humanity already has quite a bit of experience in this area!
Origin Of The Term:
To break it down, terraforming is the process whereby a hostile environment (i.e., a planet that is too cold, too hot, and/or has an unbreathable atmosphere) is altered to make it suitable for human life. This could involve modifying the temperature, atmosphere, surface topography, ecology, or all of the above to make a planet or moon more “Earth-like.”
The term was coined by Jack Williamson, an American science fiction writer who has also been called “the Dean of science fiction” (after the death of Robert Heinlein in 1988). The term appeared as part of a science-fiction story, titled “Collision Orbit,” published in the 1942 edition of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. This is the first known mention of the concept, though there are examples of it appearing in fiction beforehand.
Terraforming in Fiction:
Science fiction is filled with examples of altering planetary environments to be more suitable to human life, many of which predate scientific studies by many decades. For example, in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, he mentions at one point how the Martian invaders begin transforming Earth’s ecology for the sake of long-term habitation.
In Olaf Stapleton’s Last And First Men (1930), two chapters are dedicated to describing how humanity’s descendants terraform Venus after Earth becomes uninhabitable. In the process, they commit genocide against the native aquatic life. By the 1950s and 60s, due to the beginning of the Space Age, terraforming appeared in works of science fiction with increasing frequency.
One such example is Farmer in the Sky (1950) by Robert A. Heinlein. In this novel, Heinlein offers a vision of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede that is being transformed into an agricultural settlement. This was a very significant work, in that it was the first where the concept of terraforming is presented as a serious and scientific matter, rather than the subject of mere fantasy.
In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first novel in which the terraforming of Mars was presented in fiction. Titled The Sands of Mars, the story involves Martian settlers heating up the planet by converting Mars’ moon Phobos into a second sun and growing plants that break down the Martian sands in order to release oxygen. In his seminal book 2001: A Space Odyssey – and its sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two – Clarke presents a race of ancient beings (“Firstborn”) turning Jupiter into a second sun so that Europa will become a life-bearing planet.
Poul Anderson also wrote extensively about terraforming in the 1950s. In his 1954 novel, The Big Rain, Venus is altered through planetary engineering techniques over a very long period of time. The book was so influential that the term term “Big Rain” has since come to be synonymous with the terraforming of Venus. This was followed in 1958 by the Snows of Ganymede, where the Jovian moon’s ecology is made habitable through a similar process.
In Issac Asimov’s Robot series, colonization and terraforming are performed by a powerful race of humans known as “Spacers,” who conduct this process on fifty planets in the known universe. In his Foundation series, humanity has effectively colonized every habitable planet in the galaxy and terraformed them to become part of the Galactic Empire.
In 1984, James Lovelock and Michael Allaby wrote what is considered by many to be one of the most influential books on terraforming. Titled The Greening of Mars, the novel explores the formation and evolution of planets, the origin of life, and Earth’s biosphere. The terraforming models presented in the book actually foreshadowed future debates regarding the goals of terraforming.
In the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson released his famous trilogy that deals with the terraforming of Mars. Known as the Mars Trilogy – Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – this series centers on the transformation of Mars over the course of many generations into a thriving human civilization. This was followed up in 2012 with the release of 2312, which deals with the colonization of the Solar System – including the terraforming of Venus and other planets.
Countless other examples can be found in popular culture, ranging from television and print to films and video games.
Study of Terraforming:
In an article published by the journal Science in 1961, famed astronomer Carl Sagan proposed using planetary engineering techniques to transform Venus. This involved seeding the atmosphere of Venus with algae, which would convert the atmosphere’s ample supplies of water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide into organic compounds and reduce Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect.
In 1973, he published an article in the journal Icarus titled “Planetary Engineering on Mars,” where he proposed two scenarios for transforming Mars. These included transporting low albedo material and/or planting dark plants on the polar ice caps to ensure it absorbed more heat, melted, and converted the planet to more “Earth-like conditions.”
In 1976, NASA addressed the issue of planetary engineering officially in a study titled “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis.” The study concluded that photosynthetic organisms, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the introduction of greenhouse gases could all be used to create a warmer, oxygen, and ozone-rich atmosphere. The first conference session on terraforming – referred to as “Planetary Modeling” at the time- was organized that same year.
And then in March of 1979, NASA engineer and author James Oberg organized the First Terraforming Colloquium – a special session at the Tenth Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which is held annually in Houston, Texas. In 1981, Oberg popularized the concepts that were discussed at the colloquium in his book New Earths: Restructuring Earth and Other Planets.
In 1982, Planetologist Christopher McKay wrote “Terraforming Mars”, a paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In it, McKay discussed the prospects of a self-regulating Martian biosphere, which included both the required methods for doing so and the ethics of it. This was the first time that the word terraforming was used in the title of a published article, and would henceforth become the preferred term.
This was followed by James Lovelock and Michael Allaby’s The Greening of Mars in 1984. This book was one of the first to describe a novel method of warming Mars, where chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are added to the atmosphere in order to trigger global warming. This book motivated biophysicist Robert Haynes to begin promoting terraforming as part of a larger concept known as Ecopoiesis.
Derived from the Greek words oikos (“house”) and poiesis (“production”), this word refers to the origin of an ecosystem. In the context of space exploration, it involves a form of planetary engineering where a sustainable ecosystem is fabricated from an otherwise sterile planet. As described by Haynes, this begins with the seeding of a planet with microbial life, which leads to conditions approaching that of a primordial Earth. This is then followed by the importation of plant life, which accelerates the production of oxygen, and culminates in the introduction of animal life.
In 2009, Kenneth Roy – an engineer with the US Department of Energy – presented his concept for a “Shell World” in a paper published with the Journal of British Interplanetary Sciences. Titled “Shell Worlds – An Approach To Terraforming Moons, Small Planets and Plutoids“, his paper explored the possibility of using a large “shell” to encase an alien world, keeping its atmosphere contained long enough for long-term changes to take root.
There is also the concept where a usable part of a planet is enclosed in a dome in order to transform its environment, which is known as “paraterraforming”. This concept, originally coined by British mathematician Richard L.S. Talyor in his 1992 publication Paraterraforming – The worldhouse concept, could be used to terraform sections of several planets that are otherwise inhospitable, or cannot be altered in whole.
Within the Solar System, several possible locations exist that could be well-suited to terraforming. Consider the fact that besides Earth, Venus and Mars also lie within the Sun’s Habitable Zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). However, owing to Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect, and Mars’ lack of a magnetosphere, their atmospheres are either too thick and hot or too thin and cold, to sustain life as we know it. However, this could theoretically be altered through the right kind of ecological engineering.
Other potential sites in the Solar System include some of the moons that orbit the gas giants. Several Jovian (i.e. in orbit of Jupiter) and Cronian (in orbit of Saturn) moons have an abundance of water ice, and scientists have speculated that if the surface temperatures were increased, viable atmospheres could be created through electrolysis and the introduction of buffer gases.
There is even speculation that Mercury and the Moon (or at least parts thereof) could be terraformed in order to be suitable for human settlement. In these cases, terraforming would require not only altering the surface but perhaps also adjusting their rotation. In the end, each case presents its own share of advantages, challenges, and likelihoods for success. Let’s consider them in order of distance from the Sun.
Inner Solar System:
The terrestrial planets of our Solar System present the best possibilities for terraforming. Not only are they located closer to our Sun, and thus in a better position to absorb its energy, but they are also rich in silicates and minerals – which any future colonies will need to grow food and build settlements. And as already mentioned, two of these planets (Venus and Mars) skirt the inner and outer edge of the Sun’s habitable zone.
The vast majority of Mercury’s surface is hostile to life, where temperatures gravitate between extremely hot and cold – i.e. 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F) 100 K (-173 °C; -280 °F). This is due to its proximity to the Sun, the almost total lack of an atmosphere, and its very slow rotation. However, at the poles, temperatures are consistently low -93 °C (-135 °F) due to it being permanently shadowed.
The presence of water ice and organic molecules in the northern polar region has also been confirmed thanks to data obtained by the MESSENGER mission. Colonies could therefore be constructed in the regions, and limited terraforming (aka. paraterraforming) could take place. For example, if domes (or a single dome) of sufficient size could be built over the Kandinsky, Prokofiev, Tolkien, and Tryggvadottir craters, the northern region could be altered for human habitation.
Theoretically, this could be done by using mirrors to redirect sunlight into the domes which would gradually raise the temperature. The water ice would then melt, and when combined with organic molecules and finely ground sand, soil could be made. Plants could then be grown to produce oxygen, which combined with nitrogen gas, would produce a breathable atmosphere.
As “Earth’s Twin“, there are many possibilities and advantages to terraforming Venus. The first to propose this was Sagan with his 1961 article in Science. However, subsequent discoveries – such as the high concentrations of sulfuric acid in Venus’ clouds – made this idea unfeasible. Even if algae could survive in such an atmosphere, converting the extremely dense clouds of CO² into oxygen would result in an over-dense oxygen environment.
In addition, graphite would become a by-product of the chemical reactions, which would likely form into a thick powder on the surface. This would become CO² again through combustion, thus restarting the entire greenhouse effect. However, more recent proposals have been made that advocate using carbon sequestration techniques, which are arguably much more practical.
In these scenarios, chemical reactions would be relied on to convert Venus’ atmosphere to something breathable while also reducing its density. In one scenario, hydrogen and iron aerosol would be introduced to convert the CO² in the atmosphere into graphite and water. This water would then fall to the surface, where it will cover roughly 80% of the planet – due to Venus having little variation in elevation.
Another scenario calls for the introduction of vast amounts of calcium and magnesium into the atmosphere. This would sequester carbon in the form of calcium and magnesium carbonates. An advantage to this plan is that Venus already has deposits of both minerals in its mantle, which could then be exposed to the atmosphere through drilling. However, most of the minerals would have to come from off-world in order to reduce the temperature and pressure to sustainable levels.
Yet another proposal is to freeze the atmospheric carbon dioxide down to the point of liquefaction – where it forms dry ice – and letting it accumulate on the surface. Once there, it could be buried and would remain in a solid state due to pressure, and even mined for local and off-world use. And then there is the possibility of bombarding the surface with icy comets (which could be mined from one of Jupiter’s or Saturn’s moons) to create a liquid ocean on the surface, which would sequester carbon and aid in any other of the above processes.
Last, there is the scenario in which Venus’ dense atmosphere could be removed. This could be characterized as the most direct approach to thinning an atmosphere that is far too dense for human occupation. By colliding large comets or asteroids into the surface, some of the dense CO² clouds could be blasted into space, thus leaving less atmosphere to be converted.
A slower method could be achieved using mass drivers (aka. electromagnetic catapults) or space elevators, which would gradually scoop up the atmosphere and either lift it into space or fire it away from the surface. And beyond altering or removing the atmosphere, there are also concepts that call for reducing the heat and pressure by either limiting sunlight (i.e. with solar shades) or altering the planet’s rotational velocity.
The concept of solar shades involves using either a series of small spacecraft or a single large lens to divert sunlight from a planet’s surface, thus reducing global temperatures. For Venus, which absorbs twice as much sunlight as Earth, solar radiation is believed to have played a major role in the runaway greenhouse effect that has made it what it is today.
Such a shade could be space-based, located in the Sun-Venus L1 Lagrangian Point, where it would not only prevent some sunlight from reaching Venus but also serve to reduce the amount of radiation Venus is exposed to. Alternately, solar shades or reflectors could be placed in the atmosphere or on the surface. This could consist of large reflective balloons, sheets of carbon nanotubes or graphene, or low-albedo material.
Placing shades or reflectors in the atmosphere offers two advantages: for one, atmospheric reflectors could be built in-situ, using locally-sourced carbon. Second, Venus’ atmosphere is dense enough that such structures could easily float atop the clouds. However, the amount of material would have to be large and would have to remain in place long after the atmosphere had been modified. Also, since Venus already has highly reflective clouds, any approach would have to significantly surpass its current albedo (0.65) to make a difference.
Also, the idea of speeding up Venus’ rotation has been floating around as a possible means of terraforming. If Venus could be spun-up to the point where its diurnal (day-night) cycle is similar to Earth’s, the planet might just begin to generate a stronger magnetic field. This would have the effect of reducing the amount of solar wind (and hence radiation) from reaching the surface, thus making it safer for terrestrial organisms.
As Earth’s closest celestial body, colonizing the Moon would be comparatively easy compared to other bodies. But when it comes to terraforming the Moon, the possibilities and challenges closely resemble those of Mercury. For starters, the Moon has an atmosphere that is so thin that it can only be referred to as an exosphere. What’s more, the volatile elements that are necessary for life are in short supply (i.e. hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon).
These problems could be addressed by capturing comets that contain water ices and volatiles and crashing them into the surface. The comets would sublimate, dispersing these gases and water vapor to create an atmosphere. These impacts would also liberate water that is contained in the lunar regolith, which could eventually accumulate on the surface to form natural bodies of water.
The transfer of momentum from these comets would also get the Moon rotating more rapidly, speeding up its rotation so that it would no longer be tidally locked. A Moon that was sped up to rotate once on its axis every 24 hours would have a steady diurnal cycle, which would make colonization and adapting to life on the Moon easier.
There is also the possibility of paraterraforming parts of the Moon in a way that would be similar to terraforming Mercury’s polar region. In the Moon’s case, this would take place in the Shackleton Crater, where scientists have already found evidence of water ice. Using solar mirrors and a dome, this crater could be turned into a micro-climate where plants could be grown and a breathable atmosphere created.
When it comes to terraforming, Mars is the most popular destination. There are several reasons for this, ranging from its proximity to Earth, its similarities to Earth, and the fact that it once had an environment that was very similar to Earth’s – which included a thicker atmosphere and the presence of warm, flowing water on the surface. Lastly, it is currently believed that Mars may have additional sources of water beneath its surface.
In brief, Mars has a diurnal and seasonal cycle that are very close to what we experience here on Earth. In the former case, a single day on Mars lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes. In the latter case, and owing to Mars’ similarly-tilted axis (25.19° compared to Earth’s 23°), Mars experiences seasonal changes that are very similar to Earth’s. Though a single season on Mars lasts roughly twice as long, the temperature variation that results is very similar – ±178 °C (320°F) compared to Earth’s ±160 °C (278°F).
Beyond these, Mars would need to undergo vast transformations in order for human beings to live on its surface. The atmosphere would need to be thickened drastically, and its composition would need to be changed. Currently, Mars’ atmosphere is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon, and 1.89% nitrogen, and the air pressure is equivalent to only 1% of Earth’s at sea level.
Above all, Mars lacks a magnetosphere, which means that its surface receives significantly more radiation than we are used to here on Earth. In addition, it is believed that Mars once had a magnetosphere and that the disappearance of this magnetic field led to the stripping of Mars’ atmosphere by solar wind. This in turn is what led Mars to become the cold, desiccated place it is today.
Ultimately, this means that in order for the planet to become habitable by human standards, its atmosphere would need to be significantly thickened and the planet significantly warmed. The composition of the atmosphere would need to change as well, from the current CO²-heavy mix to a nitrogen-oxygen balance of about 70/30. And above all, the atmosphere would need to be replenished every so often to compensate for the loss.
Luckily, the first three requirements are largely complementary, and present a wide range of possible solutions. For starters, Mars’ atmosphere could be thickened and the planet warmed by bombarding its polar regions with meteors. These would cause the poles to melt, releasing their deposits of frozen carbon dioxide and water into the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect.
The introduction of volatile elements, such as ammonia and methane, would also help to thicken the atmosphere and trigger warming. Both could be mined from the icy moons of the outer Solar System, particularly from the moons of Ganymede, Callisto, and Titan. These could also be delivered to the surface via meteoric impacts.
After impacting on the surface, the ammonia ice would sublimate and break down into hydrogen and nitrogen – the hydrogen interacting with the CO² to form water and graphite, while the nitrogen acts as a buffer gas. The methane, meanwhile, would act as a greenhouse gas that would further enhance global warming. In addition, the impacts would throw tons of dust into the air, further fueling the warming trend.
In time, Mars’ ample supplies of water ice – which can be found not only in the poles but in vast subsurface deposits of permafrost – would all sublimate to form warm, flowing water. And with significantly increased air pressure and a warmer atmosphere, humans might be able to venture out onto the surface without the need for pressure suits.
However, the atmosphere will still need to be converted into something breathable. This will be far more time-consuming, as the process of converting the atmospheric CO² into oxygen gas will likely take centuries. In any case, several possibilities have been suggested, which include converting the atmosphere through photosynthesis – either with cyanobacteria or Earth plants and lichens.
Other suggestions include building orbital mirrors, which would be placed near the poles and direct sunlight onto the surface to trigger a cycle of warming by causing the polar ice caps to melt and release their CO² gas. Using dark dust from Phobos and Deimos to reduce the surface’s albedo, thus allowing it to absorb more sunlight, has also been suggested.
In short, there are plenty of options for terraforming Mars. And many of them, if not being readily available, are at least on the table…
Outer Solar System:
Beyond the Inner Solar System, there are several sites that would make for good terraforming targets as well. Particularly around Jupiter and Saturn, there are several sizable moons – some of which are larger than Mercury – that have an abundance of water in the form of ice (and in some cases, maybe even interior oceans).
At the same time, many of these same moons contain other necessary ingredients for functioning ecosystems, such as frozen volatiles – like ammonia and methane. Because of this, and as part of our ongoing desire to explore farther out into our Solar System, many proposals have been made to seed these moons with bases and research stations. Some plans even include possible terraforming to make them suitable for long-term habitation.
The Jovian Moons:
Jupiter’s largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – known as the Galileans, after their founder (Galileo Galilei) – have long been the subject of scientific interest. For decades, scientists have speculated about the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Europa, based on theories about the planet’s tidal heating (a consequence of its eccentric orbit and orbital resonance with the other moons).
Analysis of images provided by the Voyager 1 and Galileo probes added weight to this theory, showing regions where it appeared that the subsurface ocean had melted through. What’s more, the presence of this warm water ocean has also led to speculation about the existence of life beneath Europa’s icy crust – possibly around hydrothermal vents at the core-mantle boundary.
Because of this potential for habitability, Europa has also been suggested as a possible site for terraforming. As the argument goes, if the surface temperature could be increased, and the surface ice melted, the entire planet could become an ocean world. Sublimation of the ice, which would release water vapor and gaseous volatiles, would then be subject to electrolysis (which already produces a thin oxygen atmosphere).
However, Europa has no magnetosphere of its own and lies within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. As a result, its surface is exposed to significant amounts of radiation – 540 rem of radiation per day compared to about 0.0030 rem per year here on Earth – and any atmosphere we create would begin to be stripped away by Jupiter. Ergo, radiation shielding would need to be put in place that could deflect the majority of this radiation.
And then there is Ganymede, the third most-distant of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. Much like Europa, it is a potential site of terraforming and presents numerous advantages. For one, it is the largest moon in our Solar System, larger than our own moon and even larger than the planet Mercury. In addition, it also has ample supplies of water ice, is believed to have an interior ocean, and even has its own magnetosphere.
Hence, if the surface temperature were increased and the ice sublimated, Ganymede’s atmosphere could be thickened. Like Europa, it would also become an ocean planet, and its own magnetosphere would allow for it to hold on to more of its atmosphere. However, Jupiter’s magnetic field still exerts a powerful influence over the planet, which means radiation shields would still be needed.
Lastly, there is Callisto, the fourth-most distant of the Galileans. Here too, abundant supplies of water ice, volatiles, and the possibility of an interior ocean all point towards the potential for habitability. But in Callisto’s case, there is the added bonus of it being beyond Jupiter’s magnetic field, which reduces the threat of radiation and atmospheric loss.
The process would begin with surface heating, which would sublimate the water ice and Callisto’s supplies of frozen ammonia. From these oceans, electrolysis would lead to the formation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and the ammonia could be converted into nitrogen to act as a buffer gas. However, since the majority of Callisto is ice, it would mean that the planet would lose considerable mass and have no continents. Again, an ocean planet would result, necessitating floating cities or massive colony ships.
The Cronians Moons:
Much like the Jovian Moons, Saturn’s Moons (also known as the Cronian) present opportunities for terraforming. Again, this is due to the presence of water ice, interior oceans, and volatile elements. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, also has an abundance of methane that comes in liquid form (the methane lakes around its northern polar region) and in gaseous form in its atmosphere. Large caches of ammonia are also believed to exist beneath the surface ice.
Titan is also the only natural satellite to have a dense atmosphere (one and half times the pressure of Earth’s) and the only planet outside of Earth where the atmosphere is nitrogen-rich. Such a thick atmosphere would mean that it would be far easier to equalize pressure for habitats on the planet. What’s more, scientists believe this atmosphere is a prebiotic environment rich in organic chemistry – i.e. similar to Earth’s early atmosphere (only much colder).
As such, converting it to something Earth-like would be feasible. First, the surface temperature would need to be increased. Since Titan is very distant from the Sun and already has an abundance of greenhouse gases, this could only be accomplished through orbital mirrors. This would sublimate the surface ice, releasing ammonia beneath, which would lead to more heating.
The next step would involve converting the atmosphere to something breathable. As already noted, Titan’s atmosphere is nitrogen-rich, which would remove the need for introducing a buffer gas. And with the availability of water, oxygen could be introduced by generating it through electrolysis. At the same time, the methane and other hydrocarbons would have to be sequestered, in order to prevent an explosive mixture with the oxygen.
But given the thickness and multi-layered nature of Titan’s ice, which is estimated to account for half of its mass, the moon would be very much an ocean planet- i.e. with no continents or landmasses to build on. So once again, any habitats would have to take the form of either floating platforms or large ships.
Enceladus is another possibility, thanks to the recent discovery of a subsurface ocean. Analysis by the Cassini space probe of the water plumes erupting from its southern polar region also indicated the presence of organic molecules. As such, terraforming it would be similar to terraforming Jupiter’s moon of Europa, and would yield a similar ocean moon.
Again, this would likely have to involve orbital mirrors, given Enceladus’ distance from our Sun. Once the ice began to sublimate, electrolysis would generate oxygen gas. The presence of ammonia in the subsurface ocean would also be released, helping to raise the temperature and serving as a source of nitrogen gas, with which to buffer the atmosphere.
In addition to the Solar System, extra-solar planets (aka. exoplanets) are also potential sites for terraforming. Of the 1,941 confirmed exoplanets discovered so far, these planets are those that have been designated “Earth-like. In other words, they are terrestrial planets that have atmospheres and, like Earth, occupy the region around a star where the average surface temperature allows for liquid water (aka. habitable zone).
The first planet confirmed by Kepler to have an average orbital distance that placed it within its star’s habitable zone was Kepler-22b. This planet is located about 600 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, was first observed on May 12th, 2009, and then confirmed on Dec 5th, 2011. Based on all the data obtained, scientists believe that this world is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and is likely covered in oceans or has a liquid or gaseous outer shell.
In addition, there are star systems with multiple “Earth-like” planets occupying their habitable zones. Gliese 581 is a good example, a red dwarf star that is located 20.22 light-years away from Earth in the Libra constellation. Here, three confirmed and two possible planets exist, two of which are believed to orbit within the star’s habitable zone. These include the confirmed planet Gliese 581 d and the hypothetical Gliese 581 g.
Tau Ceti is another example. This G-class star, which is located roughly 12 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, has five possible planets orbiting it. Two of these are Super-Earths that are believed to orbit the star’s habitable zone – Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f. However, Tau Ceti e is believed to be too close for anything other than Venus-like conditions to exist on its surface.
In all cases, terraforming the atmospheres of these planets would most likely involve the same techniques used to terraform Venus and Mars, though to varying degrees. For those located on the outer edge of their habitable zones, terraforming could be accomplished by introducing greenhouse gases or covering the surface with low albedo material to trigger global warming. On the other end, solar shades and carbon sequestering techniques could reduce temperatures to the point where the planet is considered hospitable.
When addressing the issue of terraforming, there is the inevitable question – “why should we?” Given the expenditure in resources, the time involved, and other challenges that naturally arise (see below), what reasons are there to engage in terraforming? As already mentioned, there are the reasons cited by Musk, about the need to have a “backup location” to prevent any particular cataclysm from claiming all of humanity.
Putting aside for the moment the prospect of a nuclear holocaust, there is also the likelihood that life will become untenable on certain parts of our planet in the coming century. As the NOAA reported in March of 2015, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have now surpassed 400 ppm, a level not seen since the Pliocene Era – when global temperatures and sea levels were significantly higher.
And as a series of scenarios computed by NASA show, this trend is likely to continue until 2100, and with serious consequences. In one scenario, carbon dioxide emissions will level off at about 550 ppm toward the end of the century, resulting in an average temperature increase of 2.5 °C (4.5 °F). In the second scenario, carbon dioxide emissions rise to about 800 ppm, resulting in an average increase of about 4.5 °C (8 °F). Whereas the increases predicted in the first scenario are sustainable, in the latter scenario, life will become untenable on many parts of the planet.
As a result of this, creating a long-term home for humanity on Mars, the Moon, Venus, or elsewhere in the Solar System may be necessary. In addition to offering us other locations from which to extract resources, cultivate food, and as a possible outlet for population pressures, having colonies on other worlds could mean the difference between long-term survival and extinction.
There is also the argument that humanity is already well-versed in altering planetary environments. For centuries, humanity’s reliance on industrial machinery, coal, and fossil fuels has had a measurable effect on Earth’s environment. And whereas the Greenhouse Effect that we have triggered here was not deliberate, our experience and knowledge in creating it here on Earth could be put to good use on planets where surface temperatures need to be raised artificially.
In addition, it has also been argued that working with environments where there is a runaway Greenhouse Effect – i.e. Venus – could yield valuable knowledge that could in turn be used here on Earth. Whether it is the use of extreme bacteria, introducing new gases, or mineral elements to sequester carbon, testing these methods out on Venus could help us to combat Climate Change here at home.
It has also been argued that Mars’ similarities to Earth are a good reason to terraform it. Essentially, Mars once resembled Earth, until its atmosphere was stripped away, causing it to lose virtually all the liquid water on its surface. Ergo, terraforming it would be tantamount to returning it to its once-warm and watery glory. The same argument could be made of Venus, where efforts to alter it would restore it to what it was before a runaway Greenhouse Effect turned it into the harsh, extremely hot world it is today.
Last, but not least, there is the argument that colonizing the Solar System could usher in an age of “post-scarcity”. If humanity were to build outposts and based on other worlds, mine the asteroid belt, and harvest the resources of the Outer Solar System, we would effectively have enough minerals, gases, energy, and water resources to last us indefinitely. It could also help trigger a massive acceleration in human development, defined by leaps and bounds in technological and social progress.
When it comes right down to it, all of the scenarios listed above suffer from one or more of the following problems:
- They are not possible with existing technology
- They require a massive commitment of resources
- They solve one problem, only to create another
- They do not offer a significant return on the investment
- They would take a really, REALLY long time
Case in point, all of the potential ideas for terraforming Venus and Mars involve infrastructure that does not yet exist and would be very expensive to create. For instance, the orbital shade concept that would cool Venus calls for a structure that would need to be four times the diameter of Venus itself (if it were positioned at L1). It would therefore require megatons of material, all of which would have to be assembled on site.
In contrast, increasing the speed of Venus’s rotation would require energy many orders of magnitude greater than the construction of orbiting solar mirrors. As with removing Venus’ atmosphere, the process would also require a significant number of impactors that would have to be harnessed from the outer solar System – mainly from the Kuiper Belt.
In order to do this, a large fleet of spaceships would be needed to haul them, and they would need to be equipped with advanced drive systems that could make the trip in a reasonable amount of time. Currently, no such drive systems exist, and conventional methods – ranging from ion engines to chemical propellants – are neither fast or economical enough.
To illustrate, NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than 11 years to get make its historic rendezvous with Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, using conventional rockets and the gravity-assist method. Meanwhile, the Dawn mission, which relied on ionic propulsion, took almost four years to reach Vesta in the Asteroid Belt. Neither method is practical for making repeated trips to the Kuiper Belt and hauling back icy comets and asteroids, and humanity has nowhere near the number of ships we would need to do this.
The Moon’s proximity makes it an attractive option for terraforming. But again, the resources needed – which would likely include several hundred comets – would again need to be imported from the outer Solar System. And while Mercury’s resources could be harvested in-situ or brought from Earth to paraterraform its northern polar region, the concept still calls for a large fleet of ships and robot builders which do not yet exist.
The outer Solar System presents a similar problem. In order to begin terraforming these moons, we would need infrastructure between here and there, which would mean bases on the Moon, Mars, and within the Asteroid Belt. Here, ships could refuel as they transport materials to the Jovian sand Cronian systems, and resources could be harvested from all three of these locations as well as within the systems themselves.
But of course, it would take many, many generations (or even centuries) to build all of that, and at considerable cost. Ergo, any attempts at terraforming the outer Solar System would have to wait until humanity had effectively colonized the inner Solar System. And terraforming the Inner Solar System will not be possible until humanity has plenty of space hauler on hand, not to mention fast ones!
The necessity for radiation shields also presents a problem. The size and cost of manufacturing shields that could deflect Jupiter’s magnetic field would be astronomical. And while the resources could be harvested from the nearby Asteroid Belt, transporting and assembling them in space around the Jovian Moons would again require many ships and robotic workers. And again, there would have to be extensive infrastructure between Earth and the Jovian system before any of this could proceed.
As for item three, there are plenty of problems that could result from terraforming. For instance, transforming Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons into ocean worlds could be pointless, as the volume of liquid water would constitute a major portion of the moon’s overall radius. Combined with their low surface gravities, high orbital velocities, and the tidal effects of their parent planets, this could lead to severely high waves on their surfaces. In fact, these moons could become totally unstable as a result of being altered.
There are also several questions about the ethics of terraforming. Basically, altering other planets in order to make them more suitable to human needs raises the natural question of what would happen to any lifeforms already living there. If in fact Mars and other Solar System bodies have indigenous microbial (or more complex) life, which many scientists suspect, then altering their ecology could impact or even wipe out these lifeforms. In short, future colonists and terrestrial engineers would effectively be committing genocide.
Another argument that is often made against terraforming is that any effort to alter the ecology of another planet does not present any immediate benefits. Given the cost involved, what possible incentive is there to commit so much time, resources, and energy to such a project? While the idea of utilizing the resources of the Solar System makes sense in the long run, the short-term gains are far less tangible.
Basically, harvested resources from other worlds is not economically viable when you can extract them here at home for much less. And real-estate is only the basis of an economic model if the real estate itself is desirable. While MarsOne has certainly shown us that there are plenty of human beings who are willing to make a one-way trip to Mars, turning the Red Planet, Venus, or elsewhere into a “new frontier” where people can buy up land will first require some serious advances in technology, some serious terraforming, or both.
As it stands, the environments of Mars, Venus, the Moon, and the outer Solar System are all hostile to life as we know it. Even with the requisite commitment of resources and people willing to be the “first wave”, life would be very difficult for those living out there. And this situation would not change for centuries or even millennia. Like it not, transforming a planet’s ecology is very slow, laborious work.
So… after considering all of the places where humanity could colonize and terraform, what it would take to make that happen, and the difficulties in doing so, we are once again left with one important question. Why should we? Assuming that our very survival is not at stake, what possible incentives are there for humanity to become an interplanetary (or interstellar) species?
Perhaps there is no good reason. Much like sending astronauts to the Moon, taking to the skies, and climbing the highest mountain on Earth, colonizing other planets may be nothing more than something we feel we need to do. Why? Because we can! Such a reason has been good enough in the past, and it will likely be sufficient again in the not-too-distant future.
This should is no way deter us from considering the ethical implications, the sheer cost involved, or the cost-to-benefit ratio. But in time, we might find that we have no choice but to get out there, simply because Earth is just becoming too stuffy and crowded for us!
We have written many interesting articles about terraforming here at Universe Today. Here’s Could We Terraform the Moon?, Should We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, and Student Team Wants to Terraform Mars Using Cyanobacteria.
Astronomy Cast also has good episodes on the subject, like Episode 96: Humans to Mar, Part 3 – Terraforming Mars