Billions of years ago, Mars had liquid water on its surface in the form of lakes, streams, and even an ocean that covered much of its northern hemisphere. The evidence of this warmer, wetter past is written in many places across the landscape in the form of alluvial fans, deltas, and mineral-rich clay deposits. However, for over half a century, scientists have been debating whether or not liquid water exists on Mars today.
According to new research by Norbert Schorghofer – the Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute – briny water may form intermittently on the surface of Mars. While very short-lived (just a few days a year), the potential presence of seasonal brines on the Martian surface would tell us much about the seasonal cycles of the Red Planet, as well as help to resolve one of its most enduring mysteries.
Every planet in the Solar System takes a certain amount of time to complete a single orbit around the Sun. Here on Earth, this period lasts 365.25 days – a period that we refer to as a year. When it comes to the other planets, we use this measurement to characterize their orbital periods. And what we have found is that on many of these planets, depending on their distance from the Sun, a year can last a very long time!
Consider Saturn, which orbits the Sun at a distance of about 9.5 AU – i.e. nine and a half times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Because of this, the speed with which it orbits the Sun is also considerably slower. As a result, a single year on Saturn lasts an average of about twenty-nine and a half years. And during that time, some interesting changes happen for the planet’s weather systems.
Saturn orbits the Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1.429 billion km (887.9 million mi; 9.5549 AU). Because its orbit is elliptical – with an eccentricity of 0.05555 – its distance from the Sun ranges from 1.35 billion km (838.8 million mi; 9.024 AU) at its closest (perihelion) to 1.509 billion km (937.6 million mi; 10.086 AU) at its farthest (aphelion).
With an average orbital speed of 9.69 km/s, it takes Saturn 29.457 Earth years (or 10,759 Earth days) to complete a single revolution around the Sun. In other words, a year on Saturn lasts about as long as 29.5 years here on Earth. However, Saturn also takes just over 10 and a half hours (10 hours 33 minutes) to rotate once on its axis. This means that a single year on Saturn lasts about 24,491 Saturnian solar days.
It is because of this that what we can see of Saturn’s rings from Earth changes over time. For part of its orbit, Saturn’s rings are seen at their widest point. But as it continues on its orbit around the Sun, the angle of Saturn’s rings decreases until they disappear entirely from our point of view. This is because we are seeing them edge-on. After a few more years, our angle improves and we can see the beautiful ring system again.
Orbital Inclination and Axial Tilt:
Another interesting thing about Saturn is the fact that its axis is tilted off the plane of the ecliptic. Essentially, its orbit is inclined 2.48° relative to the orbital plane of the Earth. Its axis is also tilted by 26.73° relative to the ecliptic of the Sun, which is similar to Earth’s 23.5° tilt. The result of this is that, like Earth, Saturn goes through seasonal changes during the course of its orbital period.
For half of its orbit, Saturn’s northern hemisphere receives more of the Sun’s radiation than the southern hemisphere. For other half of its orbit, the situation is reversed, with the southern hemisphere receiving more sunlight than the northern hemisphere. This creates storm systems that dramatically change depending on which part of its orbit Saturn is in.
For staters, winds in the upper atmosphere can reach speeds of up to 5oo meters per second (1,600 feet per second) around the equatorial region. On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval).
This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice. These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed on many occasions throughout the past – in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990.
Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. Given the periodic nature of these storms, another one is expected to happen in 2020, coinciding with Saturn’s next summer in the northern hemisphere.
Similarly, seasonal changes affect the very large weather patterns that exist around Saturn’s northern and southern polar regions. At the north pole, Saturn experiences a hexagonal wave pattern which measures some 30,000 km (20,000 mi) in diameter, while each of it six sides measure about 13,800 km (8,600 mi). This persistent storm can reach speeds of about 322 km per hour (200 mph).
Thanks to images taken by the Cassini probe between 2012 and 2016, the storm appears to undergo changes in color (from a bluish haze to a golden-brown hue) that coincide with the approach of the summer solstice. This was attributed to an increase in the production of photochemical hazes in the atmosphere, which is due to increased exposure to sunlight.
Similarly, in the southern hemisphere, images acquired by the Hubble Space Telescope have indicated the existence of large jet stream. This storm resembles a hurricane from orbit, has a clearly defined eyewall, and can reach speeds of up to 550 km/h (~342 mph). And much like the northern hexagonal storm, the southern jet stream undergoes changes as a result of increased exposure to sunlight.
Cassini was able to captured images of the south polar region in 2007, which coincided with late fall in the southern hemisphere. At the time, the polar region was becoming increasingly “smoggy”, while the northern polar region was becoming increasingly clear. The reason for this, it was argued, was that decreases in sunlight led to the formation of methane aerosols and the creation of cloud cover.
From this, it has been surmised that the polar regions become increasingly obscured by methane clouds as their respective hemisphere approaches their winter solstice, and clearer as they approach their summer solstice. And the mid-latitudes certainly show their share of changes thanks to increases/decreases in exposure to solar radiation.
Much like the length of a single year, what we know about Saturn has a lot to do with its considerable distance from the Sun. In short, few missions have been able to study it in depth, and the length of a single year means it is difficult for a probe to witness all the seasonal changes the planet goes through. Still, what we have learned has been considerable, and also quite impressive!
Ever since the Voyager 2 made its historic flyby of Saturn, astronomers have been aware of the persistent hexagonal storm around the gas giant’s north pole. This a six-sided jetstream has been a constant source of fascination, due to its sheer size and immense power. Measuring some 13,800 km (8,600 mi) across, this weather system is greater in size than planet Earth.
And thanks to the latest data to be provided by the Cassini space probe, which entered orbit around Saturn in 2009, it seems that this storm is even stranger than previously thought. Based on images snapped between 2012 and 2016, the storm appears to have undergone a change in color, from a bluish haze to a golden-brown hue.
The reasons for this change remain something of a mystery, but scientists theorize that it may be the result of seasonal changes due to the approaching summer solstice (which will take place in May of 2017). Specifically, they believe that the change is being driven by an increase in the production of photochemical hazes in the atmosphere, which is due to increased exposure to sunlight.
This reasoning is based in part on past observations of seasonal change on Saturn. Like Earth, Saturn experiences seasons because its axis is tilted relative to its orbital plane (26.73°). But since its orbital period is almost 30 years, these seasons last for seven years.
Between November 1995 and August 2009, the hexagonal storm also underwent some serious changes, which coincided with Saturn going from its Autumnal to its Spring Equinox. During this period, the north polar atmosphere became clear of aerosols produced by photochemical reactions, which was also attributed to the fact that the northern polar region was receiving less in the way of sunlight.
However, since that time, the polar atmosphere has been exposed to continuous sunlight, and this has coincided with aerosols being produced inside the hexagon, making the polar atmosphere appear hazy. As Linda J. Spilker, the Cassini mission’s project scientist, told Universe Today via email:
“We have seen dramatic changes in the color inside Saturn’s north polar hexagon in the last 4 years. That color change is probably the result of changing seasons at Saturn, as Saturn moves toward northern summer solstice in May 2017. As more sunlight shines on the hexagon, more haze particles are produced and this haze gives the hexagon a more golden color.”
All of this has helped scientists to test theoretical models of Saturn’s atmosphere. In the past, it has been speculated that this six-sided storm acts as a barrier that prevents outside haze particles from entering. The previous differences in color – the planet’s atmosphere being golden while the polar storm was darker and bluish – certainly seemed to bear this out.
The fact that it is now changing color and starting to look more like the rest of the atmosphere could mean that the chemical composition of the polar region is now changing and becoming more like the rest of the planet. Other effects, which include changes in atmospheric circulation (which are in turn the result of seasonally shifting solar heating patterns) might also be influencing the winds in the polar regions.
Needless to say, the giant planets of the Solar System have always been a source of fascination for scientists and astronomers. And if these latest images are any indication, it is that we still have much to learn about the dynamics of their atmospheres.
“It is very exciting to see this transformation in Saturn’s hexagon color with changing seasons,” said Spilker. “With Saturn seasons over 7 years long, these new results show us that it is certainly worth the wait.”
It also shows that Cassini, which has been in operation since 1997, is still able to provide new insights into Saturn and its system of moons. In recent weeks, this included information about seasonal variations on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. By April 22nd, 2017, the probe will commence its final 22 orbits of Saturn. Barring any mission extensions, it is scheduled enter into Saturn’s atmosphere (thus ending its mission) on Sept. 15th, 2017.
In ancient times, the scholars, seers and magi of various cultures believed that the world took a number of forms – ranging from a ziggurat or a cube to the more popular flat disc surrounded by a sea. But thanks to the ongoing efforts of astronomers, we have come to understand that it is in fact a sphere, and one of many planets in a system that orbits the Sun.
Within the past few centuries, improvements in both scientific instruments and more comprehensive observations of the heavens have also helped astronomers to determine (with extreme accuracy) what the nature of Earth’s orbit is. In addition to knowing the precise distance from the Sun, we also know that our planet orbits the Sun with one pole constantly tilted towards it.
This is what is known axial tilt, where a planet’s vertical axis is tilted a certain degree towards the ecliptic of the object it orbits (in this case, the Sun). Such a tilt results in there being a difference in how much sunlight reaches a given point on the surface during the course of a year. In the case of Earth, the axis is tilted towards the ecliptic of the Sun at approximately 23.44° (or 23.439281° to be exact).
This tilt in Earth’s axis is what is responsible for seasonal changes during the course of the year. When the North Pole is pointed towards the Sun, the northern hemisphere experiences summer and the southern hemisphere experiences winter. When the South Pole is pointed towards the Sun, six months later, the situation is reversed.
In addition to variations in temperature, seasonal changes also result in changes to the diurnal cycle. Basically, in the summer, the day last longer and the Sun climbs higher in the sky. In winter, the days become shorter and the Sun is lower in the sky. In northern temperate latitudes, the Sun rises north of true east during the summer solstice, and sets north of true west, reversing in the winter. The Sun rises south of true east in the summer for the southern temperate zone, and sets south of true west.
The situation becomes extreme above the Arctic Circle, where there is no daylight at all for part of the year, and for up to six months at the North Pole itself (known as a “polar night”). In the southern hemisphere, the situation is reversed, with the South Pole oriented opposite the direction of the North Pole and experiencing what is known as a “midnight sun” (a day that lasts 24 hours).
The four seasons can be determined by the solstices (the point of maximum axial tilt toward or away from the Sun) and the equinoxes (when the direction of tilt and the Sun are perpendicular). In the northern hemisphere, winter solstice occurs around December 21st, summer solstice around June 21st, spring equinox around March 20th, and autumnal equinox on or about September 22nd or 23rd. In the southern hemisphere, the situation is reversed, with the summer and winter solstices exchanged and the spring and autumnal equinox dates swapped.
Changes Over Time:
The angle of the Earth’s tilt is relatively stable over long periods of time. However, Earth’s axis does undergo a slight irregular motion known as nutation – a rocking, swaying, or nodding motion (like a gyroscope) – that has a period of 18.6 years. Earth’s axis is also subject to a slight wobble (like a spinning top), which is causing its orientation to change over time.
Known as precession, this process is causing the date of the seasons to slowly change over a 25,800 year cycle. Precession is not only the reason for the difference between a sidereal year and a tropical year, it is also the reason why the seasons will eventually flip. When this happens, summer will occur in the northern hemisphere during December and winter during June.
Precession, along with other orbital factors, is also the reason for what is known as “length-of-day variation”. Essentially, this is a phenomna where the dates of Earth’s perihelion and aphelion (which currently take place on Jan. 3rd and July 4th, respectively) change over time. Both of these motions are caused by the varying attraction of the Sun and the Moon on the Earth’s equatorial region.
Needless to say, Earth’s rotation and orbit around the Sun are not as simple we once though. During the Scientific Revolution, it was a huge revelation to learn that the Earth was not a fixed point in the Universe, and that the “celestial spheres” were planets like Earth. But even then, astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo still believed that the Earth’s orbit was a perfect circle, and could not imagine that its rotation was subject to imperfections.
It’s only been with time that the true nature of our planet’s inclination and movements have come to be understood. And what we know is that they lead to some serious variations over time – both in the short run (i.e. seasonal change), and in the long-run.
Mars may be geologically inactive but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening there — seasonal changes on the Red Planet can have some very dramatic effects on the landscape, as this recent image from the HiRISE camera shows!
When increasing light from the springtime Sun warms up the sides of sheer cliffs made from countless layers of water and carbon dioxide ice near Mars’ north pole, some of that CO2 ice sublimes, sending cascades of loose soil and dust down to the terraced base below. This uncovered material stains the frost-covered polar surface dark, outlining the paths of avalanches for HiRISE to easily spot from orbit. (See the original HiRISE image here.)
The rust-colored avalanche shown above has fallen hundreds of meters from the middle of a layered ice deposit, spreading nearly a kilometer across the frozen ridges at the base of the cliff. The view was acquired on Sept. 13, 2013.
Check out a video explaining this view and the processes that created it below, narrated by Phil Plait (aka the Bad Astronomer).
Mars’ seasonal polar caps are composed primarily of carbon dioxide frost. This frost sublimates (changes from solid directly to gas) in the spring, boosting the pressure of Mars’ thin atmosphere. In the fall the carbon dioxide condenses, causing the polar caps to reach as far as ~55 degrees latitude by late winter. By learning about current processes on a local level we can learn more about how to interpret the geological record of climate changes on Mars. (Source)