The Giant Planets in the Solar System Stunted the Growth of Mars

For centuries, astronomers and scientists have sought to understand how our Solar System came to be. Since that time, two theories have become commonly-accepted that explain how it formed and evolved over time. These are the Nebular Hypothesis and the Nice Model, respectively. Whereas the former contends that the Sun and planets formed from a large cloud of dust and gas, the latter maintains the giant planets have migrated since their formation.

This is what has led to the Solar System as we know it today. However, an enduring mystery about these theories is how Mars came to be the way it is. Why, for example, is it significantly smaller than Earth and inhospitable to life as we know it when all indications show that it should be comparable in size? According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the migration of the giant planets could have been what made the difference.

For over a decade, astronomers have been operating under the assumption that shortly after the formation of the Solar System, the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) began to migrate outward. This is the substance of the Nice Model, which asserts that this migration had a profound effect on the evolution of the Solar System and the formation of the terrestrial planets.

This model – named for the location of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur (in Nice, France), where it was initially developed – began as an evolutionary model that helped explain the observed distributions of small objects like comets and asteroids. As Matt Clement, a graduate student in the HL Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Oklahoma and the lead author on the paper, explained to Universe Today via email:

“In the model, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) originally formed much closer to the Sun.  In order to reach their current orbital locations, the entire solar system undergoes a period of orbital instability.  During this unstable period, the size and the shape of the giant planet’s orbits change rapidly.”

For the sake of their study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Icarus under the title “Mars Growth Stunted by an Early Giant Planet Instability“, the team expanded on the Nice Model. Through a series of dynamical simulations, they attempted to show how, during the early Solar System, the growth of Mars was halted thanks to the orbital instabilities of the giant planets.

The purpose of their study was also to address a flaw in the Nice Model, which is how the terrestrial planets could have survived a serious shake up of the Solar System. In the original version of the Nice Model, the instability of the giant planets occurred a few hundred million years after the planets formed, which coincided with the Late Heavy Bombardment – when the inner Solar System was bombarded by a disproportionately large number of asteroids.

This period is evidenced by spike in the Moon’s cratering record, which was inferred from an abundance of samples from the Apollo missions with similar geological dates. As Clement explained:

“A problem with this is that it is difficult for the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) to survive the violent instability without being ejected out of the solar system or colliding with one another. Now that we have better, high resolution images of lunar craters and more accurate methods for dating the Apollo samples, the evidence for a spike in lunar cratering rates is diminishing. Our study investigated whether moving the instability earlier, while the inner terrestrial planets were still forming, could help them survive the instability, and also explain why Mars is so small relative to the Earth.”

Clement was joined by Nathan A. Kaib, a OU astrophysics professor, as well as Sean N. Raymond of the University of Bordeaux and Kevin J. Walsh from the Southwest Research Institute. Together, they used the computing resources of the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research (OSCER) and the Blue Waters supercomputing project to perform 800 dynamical simulations of the Nice model to determine how it would impact Mars.

These simulations incorporated recent geological evidence from Mars and Earth that indicate that Mars’ formation period was about 1/10th that of Earth’s. This has led to the theory that Mars was left behind as a “stranded planetary embryo” during the formation of the Sun’s inner planets. As Prof. Kaib explained to Universe Today via email, this study was therefore intended to test how Mars emerged from planetary formation as a planetary embryo:

“We simulated the “giant impact phase” of terrestrial planet formation (the final stage of the formation process). At the beginning of this phase, the inner Solar System (0.5-4 AU) consists of a disk of about 100 moon-to-mars-sized planetary embryos embedded in a sea of much smaller, more numerous rocky planetesimals. Over the course of 100-200 million years the bodies making up this system collide and merge into a handful (typically 2-5) rocky planetary mass bodies. Normally, these types of simple initial conditions build planets on Mars-like orbits that are about 10x more massive than Mars. However, when the terrestrial planet formation process is interrupted by the Nice model instability, many of the planet building blocks near the Mars region are lost or tossed into the Sun. This limits the growth of Mars-like planets and produces a closer match to our actual inner solar system.”

Size comparison between Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA

What they found was that this revised timeline explained the disparity between Mars and Earth. In short, Mars and Earth vary considerably in size, mass and density because the giant planets became unstable very early in the Solar System’s history. In the end, this is what allowed Earth to become the only life-bearing terrestrial planet in the Solar System, and for Mars to become the cold, desiccated and thinly-atmosphered place that it is today.

As Prof. Kaib explained, this is not the only model for explaining the disparity between Earth and Mars, but the evidence all fits:

“Without this instability, Mars likely would have had a mass closer to Earth’s and would be a very different, perhaps more Earth-like, planet compared to what it is today,” he said. “I should also say that this is not the only mechanism capable of explaining the low mass of Mars. However, we already know that the Nice model does an excellent job of reproducing many features of the outer Solar System, and if it occurs at the right time in the Solar System’s history it also ends up explaining our inner Solar System.”

This study could also have drastic implications when it comes to the study of extra-solar systems. At present, our models for how planets form and evolve are based on what we have been able to learn from our own Solar System. Hence, by learning more about how gas giants and terrestrial planets grew and assumed their current orbits, scientists will be able to create more comprehensive models of how life-bearing planets could merge around other stars.

It certainly would help narrow the search for “Earth-like” planets and (dare we dream?) planets that support life.

Further Reading: University of Oklahoma, Icarus

How Many of Earth’s Moons Crashed Back Into the Planet?

For decades, scientists have pondered how Earth acquired its only satellite, the Moon. Whereas some have argued that it formed from material lost by Earth due to centrifugal force, or was captured by Earth’s gravity, the most widely accepted theory is that the Moon formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object (named Theia) collided with a proto-Earth (aka. the Giant Impact Hypothesis).

However, since the proto-Earth experienced many giant-impacts, several moons are expected to have formed in orbit around it over time. The question thus arises, what happened to these moons? Raising this very question, a team an international team of scientist conducted a study in which they suggest that these “moonlets” could have eventually crashed back into Earth, leaving only the one we see today.

The study, titled “Moonfalls: Collisions between the Earth and its past moons“, recently appeared online and has been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Uri Malamud, a postdoctoral fellow from the Technion Israeli Institute of Technology, and included members from the University of Tübingen, Germany, and the University of Vienna.

For the sake of their study, Dr. Malamud and his colleagues – Prof. Hagai B. Perets,  Dr. Christoph Schafer and Mr. Christoph Burger (a PhD student) – considered what would happen if Earth, in its earliest form, had experienced multiple giant impacts that predated the collision with Theia. Each of these impacts would have had the potential to form a sub-Lunar mass “moonlet” that would have interacted gravitationally with the proto-Earth, as well as any possible previously-formed moonlets.

Ultimately, this would have resulted in moonlet-moonlet mergers, the moonlets being ejected from Earth’s orbit, or the moonlets falling to Earth. In the end, Dr. Malamud and his colleagues chose to investigate this latter possibility, as it has not been previously explored by scientists. What’s more, this possibility could have a drastic impact on Earth’s geological history and evolution. As Malamud indicated to Universe Today via email:

“In the current understanding of planet formation the late stages of terrestrial planet growth were through many giant collisions between planetary embryos. Such collisions form significant debris disks, which in turn can become moons. As we suggested and emphasized in this and our previous papers, given the rates of such collisions and the evolution of the moons – the existence of multiple moons and their mutual interactions will lead to moonfalls. It is an inherent, inescapable part of the current planet formation theory.”

However, because Earth is a geologically active planet, and because its thick atmosphere leads to natural weathering and erosion, the surface changes drastically with time. As such, it is always difficult to determine the effects of events that happened during the earliest periods of Earth – i.e. the Hadean Eon, which began 4.6 billion years ago with the formation of the Earth and ended 4 billion years ago.

Artist’s conception of asteroids or comets bearing water to a proto-Earth. Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

To test whether or not multiple impacts could have taken place during this Eon, resulting in moonlets that eventually fell to Earth, the team conducted a series of smooth particle hydrodynamical (SPH) simulations. They also considered a range of moonlet masses, collision impact-angles and initial proto-Earth rotation rates. Basically, if moonlets did fall to Earth in the past, it would have altered the rotation rate of the proto-Earth, resulting in its current sidereal rotation period of 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds.

In the end, they found evidence that while direct impacts from large objects were not likely that a number of grazing tidal-collisions could have taken place. These would have caused material and debris to be thrown up into the atmosphere that would have formed small moonlets that would have then interacted with each other. As Malamud explained:

“Our results however do show that in the case of a moonfall, the distribution of the material from the moonfall is not even on the Earth, and therefore such collisions can give rise to asymmetries and composition inhomogeneities. As we discuss in the paper, there are actually possible evidence for the latter – moonfalls can potentially explain the isotopic heterogeneities in highly siderophile elements in terrestrial rocks. In principle a moon collisions may also produce a large scale structure on the Earth, and we speculated that such an effect could have contributed to the formation of Earth’s earliest super-continent. This aspect, however, is more speculative, and it is difficult to directly confirm, given the geological evolution of the Earth since those early times.”

This study effectively extends the current and widely-popular Giant Impact Hypothesis. In accordance with this theory, the Moon formed during the first 10 to 100 million years of the Solar System, when the terrestrial planets were still forming. During the final stages of this period, these planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) are believed to have grown mainly through impacts with large planetary embryos.

Image credit: Lynette Cook for Gemini Observatory/AURA
An artist’s depiction of two colliding rocky bodies. Such a collision is the most likely source for the warm dust in the HD 131488 system. Credit: Lynette Cook for Gemini Observatory/AURA

Since that time, the Moon is believed to have evolved due to mutual Earth and Moon tides, migrating outwards to its current location, where it has been ever since. However, this paradigm does not consider impacts that took place before the arrival of Theia and the formation of Earth’s only satellite. As a result, Dr. Malamud and his colleagues assert that it is disconnected from the wider picture of terrestrial planet formation.

By taking into account potential collisions that predate the formation of the Moon, they claim, scientist could have a more complete picture of how both the Earth and the Moon evolved over time. These findings could also have implications when it comes to the study of other Solar planets and moons. As Dr. Malamud indicated, there is already compelling evidence that large-scale collisions affected the evolution of planets and moons.

“On other planets we do see evidence for very large impacts that produced a planet scale topographic features, such as the so-called Mars dichotomy and possibly the dichotomy of Charon’s surface,” he said. “These had to arise from large scale impacts, but small enough as to make sub-global planet features. Moonfalls are natural progenitors of such impacts, but one cannot exclude some other large impacts by asteroids which could produce similar effects.”

There’s also the possibility of such collisions happening in the distant future. According to current estimates of its migration, Mars’ moon Phobos will eventually crash into the surface of the planet. While small compared to the impacts that would have created moonlets and the Moon around Earth, this eventual collision is direct evidence that moonfalls took place in the past and will again in the future.

In short, the history of the early Solar System was violent and cataclysmic, with a great deal of creation resulting from powerful collisions. By having a more complete picture of how these impact events affected the evolution of the terrestrial planets, we may gain new insight into how life-bearing planets formed. This, in turn, could help us track down such planets in extra-solar systems.

Further Reading: arXiv

How Long Can a Rocky World Withstand the Blasts From a Red Dwarf Star?

Red dwarf stars have become a major focal point for exoplanet studies lately, and for good reason. For starters, M-type (red dwarf) stars are the most common type in our Universe, accounting for 75% of stars in the Milky Way alone. In addition, in the past decade, numerous terrestrial (i.e rocky) exoplanets have been discovered orbiting red dwarf stars, and within their circumstellar habitable zones (“Goldilocks Zones”) to boot.

This has naturally prompted several studies to determine whether or not rocky planets can retain their atmospheres. The latest study comes from NASA, using data obtained by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter. Having studied Mars’ atmosphere for years to determine how and when it was stripped away, the MAVEN mission is well-suited when it comes to measuring the potential habitability of other planets.

The study was shared on Dec. 13th, 2017, at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Louisiana. In a presentation titled “Spanning Disciplines to Search for Life Beyond Earth“, a team of NASA scientists and researchers from the University of California-Riverside and the University of Colorado-Boulder explained how insights from the MAVEN mission could be applied to the habitability of rocky planets orbiting other stars.

Artist’s rendering of a solar storm hitting Mars and stripping ions from the planet’s upper atmosphere. Credits: NASA/GSFC

Launched in November 18th, 2013, the MAVEN mission established orbit around Mars on September 22nd, 2014. The purpose of this mission has been to explore the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and its interactions with the Sun and solar wind for the sake of determining how and when Mars’ atmosphere went from being thicker and warmer in the past (and thus able to support liquid water on the surface) to thin and tenuous today.

Since November of 2014, MAVEN has been measuring Mars’ atmospheric loss using its suite of scientific instruments. From the data it has obtained, scientists have surmised that the majority of the planet’s atmosphere was lost to space over time due to a combination of chemical and physical processes. And in the past three years, the Sun’s activity has increased and decreased, giving MAVEN the opportunity to observe how Mars’ atmospheric loss has risen and fallen accordingly.

Because of this, David Brain – a professor at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the CU Boulder is also a MAVEN co-investigator – and his colleagues began to think about how these insights could be applied to a hypothetical Mars-like planet orbiting around an red dwarf star. These planets include Proxima b (the closest exoplanet to our Solar System) and the seven planet system of TRAPPIST-1.

As Brain he explained in a recent NASA press release:

“The MAVEN mission tells us that Mars lost substantial amounts of its atmosphere over time, changing the planet’s habitability. We can use Mars, a planet that we know a lot about, as a laboratory for studying rocky planets outside our solar system, which we don’t know much about yet.”

At one time, Mars had a magnetic field similar to Earth, which prevented its atmosphere from being stripped away. Credit: NASA

To determine if this hypothetical planet could retain its atmosphere over time, the researchers performed some preliminary calculations that assumed that this planet would be positioned near the outer edge of the star’s habitable zone (as Mars is). Since red dwarf’s are dimmer than our Sun, the planet would have to orbit much closer to the star – even closer than Mercury does to our Sun – to be within this zone.

They also considered how a higher proportion of the light emanating from red dwarf stars is in the ultraviolet wavelength. Combined with a close orbit, this means that the hypothetical planet would be bombarded with about 5 times more UV radiation the real Mars gets. This would also mean that the processes responsible for atmospheric loss would be increased for this planet.

Based on data obtained by MAVEN, Brain and colleagues were able to estimate how this increase in radiation would affect Mars’ own atmospheric loss. Based on their calculations, they found that the planet’s atmosphere would lose 3 to 5 times as many charged particles through ion escape, while about 5 to 10 times more neutral particles would be lost through photochemical escape (where UV radiaion breaks apart molecules in the upper atmosphere).

Another form of atmospheric loss would also result, due to the fact that more UV radiation means that more charged particles would be created. This would result in a process called “sputtering”, where energetic particles are accelerated into the atmosphere and collide with other molecules, kicking some out into space and sending others crashing into neighboring particles.

To receive the same amount of starlight as Mars receives from our Sun, a planet orbiting an M-type red dwarf would have to be positioned much closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Lastly, they considered how the hypothetical planet might experience about the same amount of thermal escape (aka. Jeans escape) as the real Mars. This process occurs only for lighter molecules such as hydrogen, which Mars loses at the top of its atmosphere through thermal escape. On the “exo-Mars”, however, thermal escape would increase only if the increase in UV radiation were to push more hydrogen into the upper atmosphere.

In conclusion, the researchers determined that orbiting at the edge of the habitable zone of a quiet M-type star (instead of our Sun) could shorten the habitable period for a Mars-like planet by a factor of about 5 to 20. For a more active M-type star, the habitable period could be cut by as much as 1,000 times. In addition, solar storm activity around a red dwarf, which is thousands of times more intense than with our Sun, would also be very limiting.

However, the study is based on how an exo-Mars would fair around and M-type star, which kind of stacks the odds against habitability in advance. When different planets are considered, which possess mitigating factors Mars does not, things become a bit more promising. For instance, a planet that is more geologically active than Mars would be able to replenish its atmosphere at a greater rate.

Other factors include increase mass, which would allow for the planet to hold onto more of its atmosphere, and the presence of a magnetic field to shield it from stellar wind. As Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado (who was not associated with this study), remarked:

“Habitability is one of the biggest topics in astronomy, and these estimates demonstrate one way to leverage what we know about Mars and the Sun to help determine the factors that control whether planets in other systems might be suitable for life.”

Multiple survey have revealed evidence of rocky planets orbiting a red dwarf stars, raising questions about their habitability. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

In the coming years, astronomers and exoplanet researchers hope to learn more about the planets orbiting nearby red dwarf stars. These efforts are expected to be helped immensely thanks to the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be able to conduct more detailed surveys of these star systems using its advanced infrared imaging capabilities.

These studies will allow scientists to place more accurate constraints on exoplanets that orbit red dwarf stars, which will allow for better estimates about their size, mass, and compositions – all of which are crucial to determining potential habitability.

Other panelists that took part in the presentations included Giada Arney and Katherine Garcia-Sage of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Stephen Kane of the University of California-Riverside. You can access the press conference materials by going to NASA Goddard Media Studios.

Further Reading: NASA, AGU

Looking for Signs of Life on Distant Planets Just Got Easier

When it comes to searching for worlds that could support extra-terrestrial life, scientists currently rely on the “low-hanging fruit” approach. Since we only know of one set of conditions under which life can thrive – i.e. what we have here on Earth – it makes sense to look for worlds that have these same conditions. These include being located within a star’s habitable zone, having a stable atmosphere, and being able to maintain liquid water on the surface.

Until now, scientists have relied on methods that make it very difficult to detect water vapor in the atmosphere’s of terrestrial planets. But thanks to a new study led by Yuka Fujii of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), that may be about to change. Using a new three-dimensional model that takes into account global circulation patterns, this study also indicates that habitable exoplanets may be more common than we thought.

The study, titled “NIR-driven Moist Upper Atmospheres of Synchronously Rotating Temperate Terrestrial Exoplanets“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. In addition to Dr. Fujii, who is also a member of the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the research team included Anthony D. Del Genio (GISS) and David S. Amundsen (GISS and Columbia University).

Artist’s concept of the hot Jupiter WASP-121b, which presents the best evidence yet of a stratosphere on an exoplanet – generated using Engine House VFX. Credit: Bristol Science Centre/University of Exeter

To put it simply, liquid water is essential to life as we know it. If a planet does not have a warm enough atmosphere to maintain liquid water on its surface for a sufficient amount of time (on the order of billions of years), then it is unlikely that life will be able to emerge and evolve. If a planet is too distant from its star, its surface water will freeze; if it is too close, its surface water will evaporate and be lost to space.

While water has been detected in the atmospheres of exoplanets before, in all cases, the planets were massive gas giants that orbited very closely to their stars. (aka. “Hot Jupiters”). As Fujii and her colleagues state in their study:

“Although H2O signatures have been detected in the atmospheres of hot Jupiters, detecting molecular signatures, including H2O, on temperate terrestrial planets is exceedingly challenging, because of the small planetary radius and the small scale height (due to the lower temperature and presumably larger mean molecular weight).”

When it comes to terrestrial (i.e. rocky) exoplanets, previous studies were forced to rely on one-dimensional models to calculate the presence of water. This consisted of measuring hydrogen loss, where water vapor in the stratosphere is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. By measuring the rate at which hydrogen is lost to space, scientists would estimate the amount of liquid water still present on the surface.

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet GJ 1132b. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

However, as Dr. Fujii and her colleagues explain, such models rely on several assumptions that cannot be addressed, which include the global transport of heat and water vapor vapor, as well as the effects of clouds. Basically, previous models predicted that for water vapor to reach the stratosphere, long-term surface temperatures on these exoplanets would have to be more than 66 °C (150 °F) higher than what we experience here on Earth.

These temperatures could create powerful convective storms on the surface. However, these storms could not be the reason water reaches the stratosphere when it comes to slowly rotating planets entering a moist greenhouse state – where water vapor intensifies heat. Planets that orbit closely to their parent stars are known to either have a slow rotation or to be tidally-locked with their planets, thus making convective storms unlikely.

This occurs quite often for terrestrial planets that are located around low-mass, ultra cool, M-type (red dwarf) stars. For these planets, their proximity to their host star means that it’s gravitational influence will be strong enough to slow down or completely arrest their rotation. When this occurs, thick clouds form on the dayside of the planet, protecting it from much of the star’s light.

The team found that, while this could keep the dayside cool and prevent water vapor from rising, the amount of near-Infrared radiation (NIR) could provide enough heat to cause a planet to enter a moist greenhouse state. This is especially true of M-type and other cool dwarf stars, which are known to produce more in the way of NIR. As this radiation warms the clouds, water vapor will rise into the stratosphere.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to the Solar System. In the background, the binary system of Alpha Centauri can be seen. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

To address this, Fujii and her team relied on three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs) which incorporate atmospheric circulation and climate heterogeneity. For the sake of their model, the team started with a planet that had an Earth-like atmosphere and was entirely covered by oceans. This allowed the team to clearly see how variations in distance from different types of stars would effect conditions on the planets surfaces.

These assumptions allowed the team to clearly see how changing the orbital distance and type of stellar radiation affected the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere. As Dr. Fujii explained in a NASA press release:

“Using a model that more realistically simulates atmospheric conditions, we discovered a new process that controls the habitability of exoplanets and will guide us in identifying candidates for further study… We found an important role for the type of radiation a star emits and the effect it has on the atmospheric circulation of an exoplanet in making the moist greenhouse state.”

In the end, the team’s new model demonstrated that since low-mass star emit the bulk of their light at NIR wavelengths, a moist greenhouse state will result for planets orbiting closely to them. This would result in conditions on their surfaces that comparable to what Earth experiences in the tropics, where conditions are hot and moist, instead of hot and dry.

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

What’s more, their model indicated that NIR-driven processes increased moisture in the stratosphere gradually, to the point that exoplanets orbiting closer to their stars could remain habitable. This new approach to assessing potential habitability will allow astronomers to simulate circulation of planetary atmospheres and the special features of that circulation, which is something one-dimensional models cannot do.

In the future, the team plans to assess how variations in planetary characteristics -such as gravity, size, atmospheric composition, and surface pressure – could affect water vapor circulation and habitability. This will, along with their 3-dimensional model that takes planetary circulation patterns into account, allow astronomers to determine the potential habitability of distant planets with greater accuracy. As Anthony Del Genio indicated:

“As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state. Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state.”

Beyond offering astronomers a more comprehensive method for determining exoplanet habitability, this study is also good news for exoplanet-hunters hoping to find habitable planets around M-type stars. Low-mass, ultra-cool, M-type stars are the most common star in the Universe, accounting for roughly 75% of all stars in the Milky Way. Knowing that they could support habitable exoplanets greatly increases the odds of find one.

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition, this study is VERY good news given the recent spate of research that has cast serious doubt on the ability of M-type stars to host habitable planets. This research was conducted in response to the many terrestrial planets that have been discovered around nearby red dwarfs in recent years. What they revealed was that, in general, red dwarf stars experience too much flare and could strip their respective planets of their atmospheres.

These include the 7-planet TRAPPIST-1 system (three of which are located in the star’s habitable zone) and the closest exoplanet to the Solar System, Proxima b. The sheer number of Earth-like planets discovered around M-type stars, coupled with this class of star’s natural longevity, has led many in the astrophysical community to venture that red dwarf stars might be the most likely place to find habitable exoplanets.

With this latest study, which indicates that these planets could be habitable after all, it would seem that the ball is effectively back in their court!

Further Reading: NASA, The Astrophysical Journal

 

New Study Says Earth Avoided a “Carbon Overdose” During Formation

According to the Nebular Hypothesis, the Sun and planets formed 4.6 billion years ago from a giant cloud of dust and gas. This began with the Sun forming in the center, and the remaining material forming a protoplanetary disc, from which the planets formed. Whereas the planets in the outer Solar System were largely made up of gases (i.e. the Gas Giants), those closer to the Sun formed from silicate minerals and metals (i.e. the terrestrial planets).

Despite having a pretty good idea of how this all came about, the question of exactly how the planets of the Solar System formed and evolved over the course of billions of year is still subject to debate. In a new study, two researchers from the University of Heidelberg considered the role played by carbon in both the formation of Earth and the emergence and evolution of life.

Their study, “Spatial Distribution of Carbon Dust in the Early Solar Nebula and the Carbon Content of Planetesimals“, recently appeared in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. The study was conducted by Hans-Peter Gail, from the Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Heidelberg, and Mario Trieloff – from Heidelberg’s Institute of Earth Sciences and the Klaus-Tschira-Laboratory for Cosmochemistry.

A slice of the Allende meteorite with silicate globules of the size of a millimetre. Credit: Institute of Earth Science

For the sake of their study, the pair considered what role the element carbon – which is essential to life here on Earth – played in planetary formation. Essentially, scientists are of the opinion that during the earliest days of the Solar System – when it was still a giant cloud of dust and gas – carbon-rich materials were distributed to the inner Solar System from the outer Solar System.

Out beyond the “Frost Line” – where volatiles like water, ammonia and methane and are able to condense into ice – bodies containing frozen carbon compounds formed. Much like how water was distributed throughout the Solar System, that these bodies were supposedly kicked out of their orbits and sent towards the Sun, distributing volatile materials to the planetesimals that would eventually grow to become the terrestrial planets.

However, when one compares the kinds of meteors that distributed primordial material to Earth – aka. chondrite meteorites –  one notices a certain discrepancy. Basically, carbon is comparatively rare on Earth compared to these ancient rocks, the reason for which has remained a mystery. As Prof. Trieloff, who was the co-author on the study, explained in a University of Heidelberg press release:

“On Earth, carbon is a relatively rare element. It is enriched close to the Earth´s surface, but as a fraction of the total matter on Earth it is a mere one-half of 1/1000th. In primitive comets, however, the proportion of carbon can be ten percent or more.”

Artist’s conception of a solar system in formation. Credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook

“A substantial portion of the carbon in asteroids and comets is in long-chain and branched molecules that evaporate only at very high temperatures,” added Dr. Grail, the study’s lead author. “Based on the standard models that simulate carbon reactions in the solar nebula where the sun and planets originated, the Earth and the other terrestrial planets should have up to 100 times more carbon.”

To address this, the two researches constructed a model that assumed that short-duration flash-heating events – where the Sun heated the protoplanetary disc – were responsible for this discrepancy. They also assumed that all matter in the inner Solar System was heated to temperatures of between 1,300 and 1,800 °C (2372 to 3272 °F) before small planetesimals and terrestrial planets eventually formed.

Dr. Grail and Trieloff believe the evidence for this lies in the round grains in meteorites that form from molten droplets – known as chondrules. Unlike chondrite meteorites, which can be composed of up to a few percent carbon, chondrules are largely depleted of this element. This, they claim, was the a result of the same flash-heating events that took place before the chondrules could accrete to form meteorites. As Dr. Gail indicated:

“Only the spikes in temperature derived from the chondrule formation models can explain today’s low amount of carbon on the inner planets. Previous models did not take this process into account, but we apparently have it to thank for the correct amount of carbon that allowed the evolution of the Earth’s biosphere as we know it.”

Artist impression of the Late Heavy Bombardment period. Credit: NASA

In short, the discrepancy between the amount of carbon found in chondritic-rock material and that found on Earth can be explained by intense heating in the primordial Solar System. As Earth formed from chrondritic material, the extreme heat caused it to be depleted of its natural carbon. In addition to shedding light on what has been an ongoing mystery in astronomy, this study also offers new insight into how life in the Solar System began.

Basically, the researchers speculate that the flash-heating events in the inner Solar System may have been necessary for life here on Earth. Had there been too much carbon in the primordial material that coalesced into our planet, the result could have been a “carbon overdose”. This is because when carbon becomes oxidized, it forms carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas that can lead to a runaway heating effect.

This is what planetary scientists believe happened to Venus, where the presence of abundant CO2 – combined with its increased exposure to Solar radiation – led to the hellish environment that is there today. But on Earth, CO2 was removed from the atmosphere by the silicate-carbonate cycle, which allowed for Earth to achieve a balanced and life-sustaining environment.

“Whether 100 times more carbon would permit effective removal of the greenhouse gas is questionable at the very least,” said Dr. Trieloff. “The carbon could no longer be stored in carbonates, where most of the Earth’s CO2 is stored today. This much CO2 in the atmosphere would cause such a severe and irreversible greenhouse effect that the oceans would evaporate and disappear.”

Artist’s impression of the “Venus-like” exoplanet in a nearby star system. Credit: cfa.harvard.edu

It is a well-known fact that life here on Earth is carbon-based. However, knowing that conditions during the early Solar System prevented an overdose of carbon that could have turned Earth into a second Venus is certainly interesting. While carbon may be essential to life as we know it, too much can mean the death of it. This study could also come in handy when it comes to the search for life in extra-solar systems.

When examining distant stars, astronomers could ask, “were primordial conditions hot enough in the inner system to prevent a carbon overdose?” The answer to that question could be the difference between finding an Earth 2.0, or another Venus-like world!

Further Reading: University of Heidelberg, Astronomy and Astrophysics

New Study Claims that TRAPPIST-1 Could Also Have Gas Giants

In February of 2017, NASA scientists announced the existence of seven terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planets within the TRAPPIST-1 star system. Since that time, the system has been the focal point of intense research to determine whether or not any of these planets could be habitable. At the same time, astronomers have been wondering if all of the system’s planets are actually accounted for.

For instance, could this system have gas giants lurking in its outer reaches, as many other systems with rocky planets (for instance, ours) do? That was the question that a team of scientists, led by researchers from the Carnegie Institute of Science, sought to address in a recent study. According to their findings, TRAPPIST-1 may be orbited by gas giants at a much-greater distance than its seven rocky planets.

The study, titled “Astrometric Constraints on the Masses of Long-Period Gas Giant Planets in the TRAPPIST-1 Planetary System“, recently appeared in The Astronomical Journal. As they indicate in their study, the team relied on follow-up observations made of TRAPPIST-1 over a period of five years (from 2011 to 2016) using the du Pont telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Using these observations, they sought to determine if TRAPPIST-1 could have previously-undetected gas giants orbiting within the outer reaches of the system. As Dr. Alan Boss – an astrophysicist and planetary scientist with the Carnegie Institute’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and the lead author on the paper – explained in a Carnegie press statement:

“A number of other star systems that include Earth-sized planets and super-Earths are also home to at least one gas giant. So, asking whether these seven planets have gas giant siblings with longer-period orbits is an important question.”

For years, Boss has conducted an exoplanet-hunting survey with the co-authors of the study – Alycia J. Weinberger, Ian B. Thompson, et al. – known as the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search. This survey relies on the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search Camera (CAPSCam), an instrument on the du Pont telecope that searches for extrasolar planets using the astrometric method.

This indirect method of exoplanet-hunting determines the presence of planets around a star by measuring the wobble of this host star around the system’s center of mass (aka. its barycenter). Using CAPSCam, Boss and his colleagues relied on several years of observations of TRAPPIST-1 to determine the upper mass limits for any potential gas giants orbiting in the system.

From this, they concluded that planets that were up to 4.6 Jupiter Masses could orbit the star with a period of a year. In addition, they found that planets up to 1.6 Jupiter Masses could orbit the star with 5-year periods. In other words, it is possible that TRAPPIST-1 has some long-period gas giants orbiting its outer reaches, much in the same way that long-period gas giants exists beyond the orbit of Mars in the Solar System.

Three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets – TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone. CreditL NASA/JPL

If true, the existence of these giant planets could resolve an ongoing debate about the formation of the Solar System’s gas giants. According to the most-widely accepted theory about the Solar System’s formation (i.e. Nebular Hypothesis), the Sun and planets were born of a nebula of gas and dust. After this cloud experienced gravitational collapse at the center, forming the Sun, the remaining dust and gas flattened out into a disk surrounding it.

Earth and the other terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) all formed closer to the Sun from the accretion of silicate minerals and metals. As for the gas giants, there are some competing theories as to how they formed. In one scenario, known as the Core Accretion theory, the gas giants also began accreting from solid materials (forming a solid core) which became large enough to attract an envelop of surrounding gas.

A competing explanation – known as the Disk Instability theory – claims that they formed when the disk of gas and dust took on a spiral arm formation (similar to a galaxy). These arms then began to increase in mass and density, forming clumps that rapidly coalesced to form baby gas giants. Using computational models, Boss and his colleagues considered both theories to see if gas giants could form around a low-mass star like TRAPPIST-1.

Whereas Core Accretion was not likely, the Disk Instability theory indicated that gas giants could form around TRAPPIST-1 and other low-mass red dwarf stars. As such, this study provides a theoretical framework for the existence of gas giants in red dwarf star systems that are already known to have rocky planets. This is certainly encouraging news for exoplanet-hunters given the spate of rocky planets have been found orbiting red dwarfs of late.

Aside from TRAPPIST-1, these include the closest exoplanet to the Solar System (Proxima b), as well as LHS 1140b, Gliese 581g, Gliese 625b, and Gliese 682c. But as Boss also noted, this research is still in its infancy, and much more research and discussion needs to take place before anything can be said conclusively. Luckily, studies such as this one are helping to open to the door to such studies and discussions.

“Gas giant planets found on long-period orbits around TRAPPIST-1 could challenge the core accretion theory, but not necessarily the disk instability theory,” said Boss. “There is a lot of space for further investigation between the longer-period orbits we studied here and the very short orbits of the seven known TRAPPIST-1 planets.”

Boss and his team also assert that continued observations with the CAPSCam and further refinements in its data analysis pipeline will either detect any long-period planets, or put an even tighter constraint on their upper mass limits. And of course, the deployment of next-generation infrared telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will assist in the hunt for gas giants around red dwarf stars.

Further Reading: Carnegie Institute of ScienceThe Astronomical Journal

How Does Mercury Compare to Earth?

Mercury was appropriately named after the Roman messenger of the Gods. This is owed to the fact that its apparent motion in the night sky was faster than that of any of the other planets. As astronomers learned more about this “messenger planet”, they came to understand that its motion was due to its close orbit to the Sun, which causes it to complete a single orbit every 88 days.

Mercury’s proximity to the Sun is merely one of its defining characteristics. Compared to the other planets of the Solar System, it experiences severe temperature variations, going from very hot to very cold. It’s also very rocky, and has no atmosphere to speak of. But to truly get a sense of how Mercury stacks up compared to the other planets of the Solar System, we need to a look at how Mercury compares to Earth.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

The diameter of Mercury is 4,879 km, which is approximately 38% the diameter of Earth. In other words, if you put three Mercurys side by side, they would be a little larger than the Earth from end to end. While this makes Mercury smaller than the largest natural satellites in our system – such as Ganymede and Titan – it is more massive and far more dense than they are.

Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

In fact, Mercury’s mass is approximately 3.3 x 1023 kg (5.5% the mass of Earth) which means that its density – at 5.427 g/cm3 – is the second highest of any planet in the Solar System, only slightly less than Earth’s (5.515 g/cm3). This also means that Mercury’s surface gravity is 3.7 m/s2, which is the equivalent of 38% of Earth’s gravity (0.38 g). This means that if you weighed 100 kg (220 lbs) on Earth, you would weigh 38 kg (84 lbs) on Mercury.

Meanwhile, the surface area of Mercury is 75 million square kilometers, which is approximately 10% the surface area of Earth. If you could unwrap Mercury, it would be almost twice the area of Asia (44 million square km). And the volume of Mercury is 6.1 x 1010 km3, which works out to 5.4% the volume of Earth. In other words, you could fit Mercury inside Earth 18 times over and still have a bit of room to spare.

In terms of orbit, Mercury and Earth probably could not be more different. For one, Mercury has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System (0.205), compared to Earth’s 0.0167. Because of this, its distance from the Sun varies between 46 million km (29 million mi) at its closest (perihelion) to 70 million km (43 million mi) at its farthest (aphelion).

This puts Mercury much closer to the Sun than Earth, which orbits at an average distance of 149,598,023 km (92,955,902 mi), or 1 AU. This distance ranges from 147,095,000 km (91,401,000 mi) to 152,100,000 km (94,500,000 mi) – 0.98 to 1.017 AU. And with an average orbital velocity of 47.362 km/s (29.429 mi/s), it takes Mercury a total 87.969 Earth days to complete a single orbit – compared to Earth’s 365.25 days.

The Orbit of Mercury during the year 2006. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Eurocommuter

However, since Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation, it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (aka. a solar day). So on Mercury, a single day is twice as long as a single year. Meanwhile on Earth, a single solar day is 24 hours long, owing to its rapid rotation of 1674.4 km/h. Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027°, compared to Earth’s 23.439°.

Structure and Composition:

Much like Earth, Mercury is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed of silicate minerals and metals that are differentiated between a solid metal core and a silicate crust and mantle. For Mercury, the breakdown of these elements is higher than Earth. Whereas Earth is primarily composed of silicate minerals, Mercury is composed of 70% metallic and 30% of silicate materials.

Also like Earth, Mercury’s interior is believed to be composed of a molten iron that is surrounded by a mantle of silicate material. Mercury’s core, mantle and crust measure 1,800 km, 600 km, and 100-300 km thick, respectively; while Earth’s core, mantle and crust measure 3478 km, 2800 km, and up to 100 km thick, respectively.

What’s more, geologists estimate that Mercury’s core occupies about 42% of its volume (compared to Earth’s 17%) and the core has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System. Several theories have been proposed to explain this, the most widely accepted being that Mercury was once a larger planet that was struck by a planetesimal that stripped away much of the original crust and mantle.

Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL

Surface Features:

In terms of its surface, Mercury is much more like the Moon than Earth. It has a dry landscape pockmarked by asteroid impact craters and ancient lava flows. Combined with extensive plains, these indicate that the planet has been geologically inactive for billions of years.

Names for these features come from a variety of sources. Craters are named for artists, musicians, painters, and authors; ridges are named for scientists; depressions are named after works of architecture; mountains are named for the word “hot” in different languages; planes are named for Mercury in various languages; escarpments are named for ships of scientific expeditions, and valleys are named after radio telescope facilities.

During and following its formation 4.6 billion years ago, Mercury was heavily bombarded by comets and asteroids, and perhaps again during the Late Heavy Bombardment period. Due to its lack of an atmosphere and precipitation, these craters remain intact billions of years later. Craters on Mercury range in diameter from small bowl-shaped cavities to multi-ringed impact basins hundreds of kilometers across.

The largest known crater is Caloris Basin, which measures 1,550 km (963 mi) in diameter. The impact that created it was so powerful that it caused lava eruptions on the other side of the planet and left a concentric ring over 2 km (1.24 mi) tall surrounding the impact crater. Overall, about 15 impact basins have been identified on those parts of Mercury that have been surveyed.

Enhanced-color image of Munch, Sander and Poe craters amid volcanic plains (orange) near Caloris Basin. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Earth’s surface, meanwhile, is significantly different. For starters, 70% of the surface is covered in oceans while the areas where the Earth’s crust rises above sea level forms the continents. Both above and below sea level, there are mountainous features, volcanoes, scarps (trenches), canyons, plateaus, and abyssal plains. The remaining portions of the surface are covered by mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other landforms.

Mercury’s surface shows many signs of being geologically active in the past, mainly in the form of narrow ridges that extend up to hundreds of kilometers in length. It is believed that these were formed as Mercury’s core and mantle cooled and contracted at a time when the crust had already solidified. However, geological activity ceased billions of years ago and its crust has been solid ever since.

Meanwhile, Earth is still geologically active, owning to convection of the mantle. The lithosphere (the crust and upper layer of the mantle) is broken into pieces called tectonic plates. These plates move in relation to one another and interactions between them is what causes earthquakes, volcanic activity (such as the “Pacific Ring of Fire“), mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation.

Atmosphere and Temperature:

When it comes to their atmospheres, Earth and Mercury could not be more different. Earth has a dense atmosphere composed of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. Earth’s atmosphere is also primarily composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with trace concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gaseous molecules.

The Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer on board MESSENGER has found that the solar wind is able to bear down on Mercury enough to blast particles from its surface into its wispy atmosphere. Credit: Shannon Kohlitz, Media Academica, LLC

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

Mercury, meanwhile, has a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure). It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun, volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts.

Because it lacks a viable atmosphere, Mercury has no way to retain the heat from the Sun. As a result of this and its high eccentricity, the planet experiences far more extreme variations in temperature than Earth does. Whereas the side that faces the Sun can reach temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), the side that is in darkness can reach temperatures as low as 100 K (-173° C).

Despite these highs in temperature, the existence of water ice and even organic molecules has been confirmed on Mercury’s surface. The floors of deep craters at the poles are never exposed to direct sunlight, and temperatures there remain below the planetary average. In this respect, Mercury and Earth have something else in common, which is the presence of water ice in its polar regions.

Mercury’s Magnetic Field. Credit: NASA

Magnetic Fields:

Much like Earth, Mercury has a significant, and apparently global, magnetic field, one which is about 1.1% the strength of Earth’s. It is likely that this magnetic field is generated by a dynamo effect, in a manner similar to the magnetic field of Earth. This dynamo effect would result from the circulation of the planet’s iron-rich liquid core.

Mercury’s magnetic field is strong enough to deflect the solar wind around the planet, thus creating a magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetosphere, though small enough to fit within Earth, is strong enough to trap solar wind plasma, which contributes to the space weathering of the planet’s surface.

All told, Mercury and Earth are in stark contrast. While both are terrestrial in nature, Mercury is significantly smaller and less massive than Earth, though it has a similar density. Mercury’s composition is also much more metallic than that of Earth, and its 3:2 orbital resonance results in a single day being twice as long as a year.

But perhaps most stark of all are the extremes in temperature variations that Mercury goes through compared to Earth. Naturally, this is due to the fact that Mercury orbits much closer to the Sun than the Earth does and has no atmosphere to speak of. And its long days and long nights also mean that one side is constantly being baked by the Sun, or in freezing darkness.

We have written many stories about Mercury on Universe Today. Here’s Interesting Facts About Mercury, What Type of Planet is Mercury?, How Long is a Day on Mercury?, The Orbit of Mercury. How Long is a Year on Mercury?, What is the Surface Temperature of Mercury?, Water Ice and Organics Found at Mercury’s North Pole, Characteristics of Mercury,, Surface of Mercury, and Missions to Mercury

If you’d like more information on Mercury, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide, and here’s a link to NASA’s MESSENGER Misson Page.

We have also recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s just about planet Mercury. Listen to it here, Episode 49: Mercury.

Sources:

Venus-like Exoplanet 39 Light Years Distant Is Probably Baked & Sterile

Last year, astronomers discovered a terrestrial exoplanet orbiting GJ 1132, a red dwarf star located just 12 parsecs (39 light years) away from Earth. Though too close to its parent star to be anything other than extremely hot, astronomers were intrigued to note that it appeared to still be cool enough to have an atmosphere. This was quite exciting, as it represented numerous opportunities for research.

In essence, the planet appeared to be “Venus-like” – i.e. very hot, but still in possession of an atmosphere. What’s more, it was close enough to our Solar System that its atmosphere could be studied in detail. However, a debate began over whether its atmosphere would be hot and wet, or thin and tenuous. And after a year of study, a team of astronomers from the CfA believe they have unlocked that mystery.

In addition to being relatively close to our own Solar System in astronomical terms, the Venus-like exoplanet GJ 1132b also has a relatively small orbital period around its star. This means that opportunities to spot it as it passes in front of its star (i.e. the Transit Method), occur quite often.

Artist's concept of exoplanets orbiting a young, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltec
Artist’s concept of exoplanets orbiting a young, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This makes it an excellent target for detailed observation and study, which in turn will help astronomers to learn more about terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to red dwarf stars. But as noted already, astronomers were divided on the issue of GJ 1132b’s atmosphere.

Thanks to the research efforts of Laura Schaefer and her colleagues from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), it now appears that the case for a thin atmosphere is the far more likely. Interestingly enough, this was confirmed by determining just how much oxygen the planet has in its atmosphere.

For the sake of their study, which was outlined in a paper that approved for publication in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “Predictions of the atmospheric composition of GJ 1132b” – they explain how they used a “magma ocean-atmosphere” model to determine what would happen to GJ 1132b over time if it began with a water-rich atmosphere.

They began with the knowledge that a planet like GJ 1132b – which orbits its star at a distance of 2.25 million km (1.4 million mi) – would be subjected to intense amounts of ultraviolet light. This would result in any water vapor in the atmosphere being broken down into hydrogen and oxygen (a process known as photolysis), with the hydrogen escaping into space and the oxygen being retained.

Comparison of best-fit size of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b with the Solar System planet Earth, as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue[1] as of 2015-11-14. Open Exoplanet Catalogue (2015-11-14). Retrieved on 2015-11-14. Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaro
Size comparison of the exoplanet GJ 1132 b with Earth, as reported in the Open Exoplanet Catalogue as of 2015-11-14. Credit: Open Exoplanet Catalogue/Aldaron
At the same time, they determined that the planet’s atmosphere and proximity to its star would lead to a severe greenhouse effect that would leave the surface molten for a long time. This “magma ocean” would likely interact with the atmosphere by absorbing some of the oxygen. How much would be absorbed and how much would be retained was the big question.

They concluded that the planet’s magma ocean would absorb about one-tenth of the oxygen in the atmosphere. The majority of the remaining 90 percent, according to their model, would be lost to space while a small margin would linger around the planet. This proved to be very much consistent with measurements made of the planet thus far.

As Dr. Laura Schaefer explained to Universe Today via email:

“We determined that the planet would likely have a thin atmosphere by doing a suite of models looking at atmospheric loss and interaction with a surface magma ocean. For the allowable composition range (esp. the abundance of water) based on the current mass measurement, nearly all of the allowed compositions resulted in thin atmospheres, except at the very extreme upper end of the range.”

This magma ocean-atmosphere model could not only help scientists to study terrestrial exoplanets that orbit close to their parent stars, but also to understand how our own planet Venus came to be. For some time, scientists have theorized that Venus began with significant amounts of water on its surface, but that it then underwent a significant change.

Artist's impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).
Artist’s impression of three newly-discovered exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

This ocean is believed to have evaporated due to Venus’ closer proximity to the Sun, with the ensuing water vapor triggering a runaway greenhouse effect. Over time, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun broke apart the water molecules, resulting in the hot, virtually waterless atmosphere we see today. However, what happened to all the oxygen has remained a mystery.

“We also have plans to use this model in the future to study Venus, which may have once had about the same amount of water as the Earth but is now very dry,” said Schaefer. “There is very little O2 left in Venus’ atmosphere, so this model would help us understand what happened to that oxygen (whether it was lost to space or absorbed by the planet’s mantle).”

Schaefer predicts that their model will also assist researchers with the study of other, similar exoplanets. One example is the TRAPPIST-1 system, which contains three planets that may lie with the star’s the habitable zone. But as Schaefer put it, the real value lies in the fact that we are more likely to find “Venus-like” worlds down the road:

“Most of the rocky planets that we know of and will discover in the near future will likely be hotter than the Earth or even Venus, just because it is easier to detect hotter planets. So there are a lot of planets out there similar to GJ 1132b just waiting to be studied!”

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. It’s scientists are dedicated to studying the origin, evolution and future of the universe.

And be sure to check out this video, courtesy of MIT news:

Further Reading: CfA, arXiv

Solar System Guide

The Solar System. Image Credit: NASA

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

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

Discovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and Composition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formation and Evolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inner Solar System:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outer Solar System:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans-Neptunian Region:

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

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

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

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

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

Oort Cloud and Farthest Regions:

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Solar System:

Theories about the Solar System:

Moons:

Anything EXTREME!:

Solar System Stuffs:

How Big Do Planets Get?

Question: How Big Can Planets Get?

Answer: Here in the Solar System, we have three kinds of planets: the inner terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the ice planets. Sadly, Pluto is no longer a planet, so we won’t deal with that here. We know how big our planets are, but how big can planets actually get in other Solar Systems. What are the biggest possible planets?

Let’s start with terrestrial planets, like our Earth. We’ll set the size of the Earth and 1 Earth radius, and the mass as 1 Earth mass. We’ve seen that terrestrial planets can get smaller, with Mars and Mercury, and astronomers have detected larger terrestrial planets orbiting other stars.

The largest known rocky planet is thought to be Gliese 436 c. This is probably a rocky world with about 5 Earth masses and 1.5 times our planet’s radius. Amazingly, this planet is thought to be within its star’s habitable zone.

What’s the largest possible rocky planet? For this I put in an email to Dr. Sean Raymond, a post doctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) at the University of Colorado. Here’s what he had to say:

“The largest “terrestrial” planet is generally considered the one before you get too thick of an atmosphere, which happens at about 5-10 Earth masses (something like 2 Earth radii). Those planets are more Earth-like than Neptune-like.”

Gas giants, of course, can come much larger. Jupiter is 317 times more massive than Earth, and 11 times larger. You could fit 1,400 Earths inside Jupiter.

Thebiggest planet in the Universe (at the time of this writing) is TrES-4, which is located 1,400 light years away in the constellation Hercules. The planet has been measured to be 1.4 times the size of Jupiter, but it only has 0.84 times Jupiter’s mass. With such a low density, the media was calling TrES-4 the puffy planet.

And once again, how large can they get? Again, here’s Dr. Raymond:

“In terms of gaseous planets, once they reach 15 Jupiter masses or so there is enough pressure in the core to ignite deuterium fusion, so those are considered “brown dwarfs” rather than planets.”

What is the biggest planet in the Solar System?