Get That Geologist A Flight Suit!

In the coming decades, the world’s largest space agencies all have some rather big plans. Between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), or the China National Space Administration (CNSA), there are plans to return to the Moon, crewed missions to Mars, and crewed missions to Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).

In all cases, geological studies are going to be a major aspect of the mission. For this reason, the ESA recently unveiled a new training program known as the Pangaea course, a study program which focuses on identifying planetary geological features. This program showcases just how important planetary geologists will be to future missions.

Pangaea takes its name from the super-continent that that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras (300 to 175 million years ago). Due to convection in Earth’s mantle, this continent eventually broke up, giving rise to the seven continents that we are familiar with today.

The super-continent Pangea during the Permian period (300 - 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey
The super-continent Pangea during the Permian period (300 – 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey

Francesco Sauro – a field geologist, explorer and the designer of the course – explained the purpose of Pangaea in an ESA press release:

“This Pangaea course – named after the ancient supercontinent – will help astronauts to find interesting rock samples as well as to assess the most likely places to find traces of life on other planets. We created a course that enables astronauts on future missions to other planetary bodies to spot the best areas for exploration and the most scientifically interesting rocks to take samples for further analysis by the scientists back on Earth.”

This first part of the course will take place this week, where astronaut trainer Matthias Maurer and astronauts Luca Parmitano and Pedro Duque will be learning from a panel of planetary geology experts. These lessons will include how to recognize certain types of rock, how to draw landscapes, and the exploration of a canyon that has sedimentary features similar to the ones observed in the Murray Buttes region, which was recently imaged by the Curiosity rover.

The geology panel will include such luminaries as Matteo Messironi (a geologist working on the Rosetta and ExoMars missions), Harald Hiesinger (an expert in lunar geology), Anna Maria Fioretti (a meteorite expert), and Nicolas Mangold (a Mars expert currently working with NASA’s Curiosity team).

Rock samples on display at ESA's Pangaea training for astronauts in identifying planetary geological features for future missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids. Credit: ESA/L. Bessone
Rock samples on display at ESA’s Pangaea training course, which is intended to help astronauts in identify planetary geological features for future missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids. Credit: ESA/L. Bessone

Once this phase of the course is complete, a series of field trips will follow to locations that were chosen because their geological features resemble those of other planets. This will include the town of Bressanone in northeastern Italy, which lies a few kilometers outside of the Brenner Pass (the part of the Alps that lies between Italy and Austria).

In many ways, the Pangaea course picks up where the Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising Human Behaviour and Performance Skills (CAVES) program left off. For several years now, the ESA has been conducting training missions in underground caverns in order to teach astronauts about working in challenging environments.

This past summer, the latest program involved a team of six international astronauts spending two weeks in a cave network in Sardinia, Italy. In this environment,  800-meters (2625 ft) beneath the surface, the team carried out a series of research and exploration activities designed to recreate aspects of a space expedition.

As the teams explore the caves of Sardinia, they encountered caverns, underground lakes and examples of strange microscopic life – all things they could encounter in extra-terrestrial environments. While doing this, they also get the change to test out new technologies and methods for research and experiments.

Sedimentary outcroppings in the Bressanoe region (left), compared to sedimentary deposits in the Murray Buttes region on Mars (right). Credit: ESA/I. Drozdovsky (left); NASA (right)
Sedimentary outcroppings in the Bressanoe region (left), compared to sedimentary deposits in the Murray Buttes region on Mars (right). Credit: ESA/I. Drozdovsky (left); NASA (right)

In a way that is similar to expeditions aboard the ISS, the program was designed to teach an international team of astronauts how to address the challenges of living and working in confined spaces. These include limited privacy, less equipment for hygiene and comfort, difficult conditions, variable temperatures and humidity, and extremely difficult emergency evacuation procedures.

Above all, the program attempts to foster teamwork, communication skills, decision-making, problem-solving, and leadership. This program is now an integral part of the ESA’s astronaut training and is conducted once a year. And as project leader Loredana Bessone explained, the Pangaea course fits with the aims of the CAVES program quite well.

“Pangaea complements our CAVES underground training,” she said. “CAVES focuses on team behaviour and operational aspects of a space mission, whereas Pangaea focuses on developing knowledge and skills for planetary geology and astrobiology.”

From all of these efforts, it is clear that the ESA, NASA and other space agencies want to make sure that future generations of astronauts are trained to conduct field geology and will be able to identify targets for scientific research. But of course, understanding the importance planetary geology in space exploration is not exactly a new phenomenon.

The six-member CAVES team in Sardinia, Italy, observing an underground pool. Credit: ESA/V.Crobu
The six-member CAVES team in Sardinia, Italy, observing an underground pool. Credit: ESA/V. Crobu

In fact, the study of planetary geology is rooted in the Apollo era, when it became a field separate from other fields of geological research. And geology experts played a very pivotal role when it came to selecting the landing sites of the Apollo missions. As Emily Lakdawalla, the Senior Editor of The Planetary Society (and a geologist herself), told Universe Today in a phone interview:

“The Apollo astronauts received training in field geology before they went to the Moon. Jim Head at Brown University, who was my advisor, was one person who provided that training. Before there were missions, the Lunar Orbiter program returned photos that geologists used to map the surface of the Moon and find good landing sites.”

This tradition is being carried on today with instruments like the Mars Global Surveyor. Before the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were deployed to the Martian surface, NASA scientists studied images taken by this orbiter to determine which potential landing sites would prove to be the valuable for conducting research.

And thanks to the experience gained by the Apollo missions and improvements made in both technology and instrumentation, the process has become much more sophisticated. Compared to the Apollo-era, today’s NASA mission planners have much more detailed information to go on.

Moon rocks from the Apollo 11 mission. Credit: NASA
Moon rocks from the Apollo 11 mission. Credit: NASA

“These days, the orbiter photos have such high resolutions that its just like having aerial photographs, which is something Earth geologists have always used as a tool to scope out an area before going to study it,” Lakdawalla said. “With these  photos, we can map out an area in detail before we send a rover, and determine where the most high-value samples will be.”

Looking ahead, everything that’s learned from sending astronauts to the Moon – and from the study of the lunar rocks they brought back – is going to play a vital role when it comes time to explore Mars, go back to the Moon, and investigate NEOs. As Lakdawalla explained, in each case, the purpose of the geological studies will be a bit different.

“The goal in obtaining samples from the Moon was about understanding the chronology of the Moon. The timescale we have developed for the Moon are anchored in the Apollo samples. But we think that the samples have been sampling one major impact – the Imbrium impact. The next Moon samples will attempt to sample other time periods so we can determine if our time scales are correct.”

“On Mars, the questions is, ‘what are the history of water on Mars’. You try to find rocks from orbit that will answer that questions – rocks that have either been altered by water or formed in water. And that is how you select your landing zone.”

And with future missions to NEOs, astronauts will be tasked with examining geological samples which date back to the formation of the Solar System. From this, we are likely to get a better understanding of how our Solar System formed and evolved over the many billion years it has existed.

Clearly, it is a good time to be a geologist, as their expertise will be called upon for future missions to space. Hope they like tang!

Further Reading: ESA, CSA

How Close Can Moons Orbit?

The Moon is great and all, but I wish it was closer. Close enough that I could see all kinds of detail on its surface without a telescope or a pair of binoculars. Close enough that I could just reach up and grab enough cheese for a lifetime of grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sure, there would be all kinds of horrible problems with having the Moon that much closer. Intense tides, a total lack of good dark nights for stargazing, and something else… Oh right, the total destruction of life on Earth. On second thought the Moon can stay right where it is, thank you very much.

The Earth’s Moon is located an average distance of 384,400 kilometers away. I say average because the Moon actually follows an elliptical orbit. At its closest point, it’s only 362,600 km, and at its furthest point, it’s 405,400 kilometers.

Still, that’s so far that it takes light a little over a second to reach the Moon, traveling almost 300,000 km/s. The Moon is far.

But what if the Moon was much closer? How close could it get and still be the Moon?

Many of the features on the moon are named as oceans. Credit: NASA
The Moon isn’t actually getting closer. It just looks that way because it’s on your computer screen. Credit: NASA

Once again, I need to remind you that this is purely theoretical. The Moon isn’t getting closer to us, in fact, it’s getting further. The Moon is slowly drifting away from us at a distance of almost 4 centimeters per year.

Let’s go back to the beginning, when the young Earth collided with a Mars-sized planet billions of years ago. This catastrophic encounter completely resurfaced planet Earth, and kicked up a massive amount of debris into orbit. Well, a Moon’s worth of debris, which collected together by mutual gravity into the roughly spherical Moon we recognize today.

Shortly after its formation, the Moon was much closer, and the Earth was spinning more rapidly. A day on Earth was only 6 hours long, and the Moon took just 17 days to orbit the Earth.

The Earth’s gravity stopped the Moon’s relative rotation, and the Moon’s gravity has been slowing the Earth’s rotation. To maintain the overall angular momentum of the system, the Moon has been drifting away to compensate.

This conservation of momentum is very important because it works both ways. As long as a moon takes longer than a day to orbit its planet, you’re going to see this same effect. The planet’s rotation slows, and the moon drifts further to compensate.

But if you have a scenario where the moon orbits faster than the planet rotates, you have the exact opposite situation. The moon makes the planet rotate more quickly, and it drifts closer to compensate. This can’t end well.

Once you get close enough, gravity becomes a harsh mistress.

Reaching the Roche limit can ruin your day. Credit: Hazmat2. Original Image Credit: Theresa Knott. CC-SA 3.0
Reaching the Roche limit can ruin your day. Credit: Hazmat2. Original Image Credit: Theresa Knott. CC-SA 3.0

There’s a point in all gravitational interactions called the Roche Limit. This is the point at which an object held together by gravity (like the Moon), gets close enough to another celestial body that it gets torn apart.

The exact point depends on the mass, size and density of the two objects. For example, the Roche Limit between the Earth and the Moon is about 9,500 kilometers, assuming the Moon is a solid ball. In other words, if the Moon gets within 9,500 kilometers or so, of the Earth, the gravity of the Earth overwhelms the gravity holding the Moon together.

The Moon would be torn apart, and turned into a ring. And then the pieces of the ring would continue to orbit the Earth until they all came crashing down. When that happened, it would be a series of very bad days for anyone living on Earth.

Get too close to the sun and a comet could be torn apart. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If an average comet got within about 18,000 km of Earth, it would get torn to pieces. While the Sun can, and does, tear apart comets from about 1.3 million km away.

This sounds purely theoretical, but this is actually going to happen over at Mars. Its largest moon Phobos orbits more quickly than a Martian day, which means that it’s drifting closer and closer to the planet. In a few million years, it’ll cross the Roche Limit, tear into a ring, and then all the pieces of the former Phobos will crash down onto Mars. We did a whole article on this.

Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons, with the Stickney crater seen on the right side. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA
Phobos will eventually break apart from reaching the Roche limit, which will leave Deimos as Mars’ only moon. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA

Now you might be wondering, wait a second. I’m a separate object from the Earth, why don’t I get torn apart since I’m definitely within the Earth’s Roche Limit.

You do have gravity holding you together, but it’s insignificant compared to the chemical bonds holding you together. This is why physicists consider gravity to actually be a pretty weak force compared to all the other forces of the Universe.

You’d need to go somewhere with really intense gravity, like a black hole, for the Roche Limit to overcome the forces holding you together.

So that’s it. Bring the Moon within 9,500 kilometers or so and it would no longer be a Moon. It would be torn apart into a ring, a Halo ring, if you will, capable of wiping out all life on a planet infected by the flood. All the moons we see in the Solar System are are least at the Roche Limit or beyond, otherwise they would have broken up long ago… and probably did.

How Many Moons are in the Solar System?

For millennia, human beings stared up at the night sky and were held in awe by the Moon. To many ancient cultures, it represented a deity, and its cycles were accorded divine significance. By the time of Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Moon was considered to be a heavenly body that orbited Earth, much like the other known planets of the day (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).

However, our understanding of moons was revolutionized when in 1610, astronomer Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope to Jupiter and noticed ” four wandering stars” around Jupiter. From this point onward, astronomers have come to understand that planets other than Earth can have their own moons – in some cases, several dozen or more. So just how many moons are there in the Solar System?

In truth, answering that question requires a bit of a clarification first. If we are talking about confirmed moons that orbit any of the planets of the Solar System (i.e. those that are consistent with the definition adopted by the IAU in 2006), then we can say that there are currently 173 known moons. If, however, we open the floor to dwarf planets that have objects orbiting them, the number climbs to 182.

The moons, several minor planets and comets of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit: Antonio Ciccolella
The moons, several minor planets and comets of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit: Antonio Ciccolella

However, over 200 minor-planet moons have also been observed in the Solar System (as of Jan. 2012). This includes the 76 known objects in the asteroid belt with satellites, four Jupiter Trojans, 39 near-Earth objects (two with two satellites each), 14 Mars-crossers, and 84 natural satellites of Trans-Neptunian Objects. And some 150 additional small bodies have been observed within the rings of Saturn. If we include all these, then we can say that the Solar System has 545 known satellites.

Inner Solar System:

The planets of the Inner Solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – are all terrestrial planets, which means that they are composed of silicate rock and minerals that are differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust. For a number of reasons, few satellites exist within this region of the Solar System.

All told, only three natural satellites exist orbiting planetary bodies in the Inner Solar System – Earth and Mars. While scientist theorize that there were moons around Mercury and Venus in the past, it is believed that these moons impacted on the surface a long time ago. The reason for this sparseness of satellites has a lot to do with the gravitational influence of the Sun.

Both Mercury and Venus are too close to the Sun (and in Mercury’s case, too weak in terms of its own gravitational pull) to have grabbed onto a passing object, or held onto rings of debris in orbit that could have coalesced to form a satellite over time. Earth and Mars were able to retain satellites, but mainly because they are the outermost of the Inner planets.

Earth has only the one natural satellite, which we are familiar with – the Moon. With a mean radius of 1737 km and a mass of 7.3477 x 10²² kg, the Moon is 0.273 times the size of Earth and 0.0123 as massive, which is quite large for a satellite. It is also the second densest moon in our Solar System (after Io), with a mean density of 3.3464 g/cm³.

Several theories have been proposed for the formation of the Moon. The prevailing hypothesis today is that the Earth-Moon system formed as a result of an impact between the newly-formed proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object (named Theia) roughly 4.5 billion years ago. This impact would have blasted material from both objects into orbit, where it eventually accreted to form the Moon.

Mars, meanwhile, has two moons – Phobos and Deimos. Like our own Moon, both of the Martian moons are tidally locked to Mars, so they always present the same face to the planet. Compared to our Moon, they are rough and asteroid-like in appearance, and also much smaller. Hence the prevailing theory that they were once asteroids that were kicked out of the Main Belt by Jupiter’s gravity, and were then acquired by Mars.

The larger moon is Phobos, whose name comes from the Greek word which means “fear” (i.e. phobia). Phobos measures just 22.7 km across and has an orbit that places it closer to Mars than Deimos. Compared to Earth’s own Moon — which orbits at a distance of 384,403 km away from our planet — Phobos orbits at an average distance of only 9,377 km above Mars.

Phobos and Deimos, photographed here by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are tiny, irregularly-shaped moons that are probably strays from the main asteroid belt. Credit: NASA - See more at: http://astrobob.areavoices.com/2013/07/05/rovers-capture-loony-moons-and-blue-sunsets-on-mars/#sthash.eMDpTVPT.dpuf
Phobos and Deimos, photographed here by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Mars’ second moon is Deimos, which takes its name from the Greek word for panic. It is even smaller, measuring just 12.6 km across, and is also less irregular in shape. Its orbit places it much farther away from Mars, at a distance of 23,460 km, which means that Deimos takes 30.35 hours to complete an orbit around Mars.

These three moons are the sum total of moons to be found within the Inner Solar System (at least, by the conventional definition). But looking further abroad, we see that this is really just the tip of the iceberg. To think we once believed that the Moon was the only one of its kind!

Outer Solar System:

Beyond the Asteroid Belt (and Frost Line), things become quite different. In this region of the Solar System, every planet has a substantial system of Moons; in the case of Jupiter and Saturn, reaching perhaps even into the hundreds. So far, a total of 170 moons have been confirmed orbiting the Outer Planets, while several hundred more orbit minor bodies and asteroids.

Due to its immense size, mass, and gravitational pull, Jupiter has the most satellites of any planet in the Solar System. At present, the Jovian system includes 67 known moons, though it is estimated that it may have up to 200 moons and moonlets (the majority of which are yet to been confirmed and classified).

The four largest Jovian moons are known as the Galilean Moons (named after their discoverer, Galileo Galilei). They include: Io, the most volcanically active body in our Solar System; Europa, which is suspected of having a massive subsurface ocean; Ganymede, the largest moon in our Solar System; and Callisto, which is also thought to have a subsurface ocean and features some of the oldest surface material in the Solar System.

Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA
Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA

Then there’s the Inner Group (or Amalthea group), which is made up of four small moons that have diameters of less than 200 km, orbit at radii less than 200,000 km, and have orbital inclinations of less than half a degree. This groups includes the moons of Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe. Along with a number of as-yet-unseen inner moonlets, these moons replenish and maintain Jupiter’s faint ring system.

Jupiter also has an array of Irregular Satellites, which are substantially smaller and have more distant and eccentric orbits than the others. These moons are broken down into families that have similarities in orbit and composition, and are believed to be largely the result of collisions from large objects that were captured by Jupiter’s gravity.

Similar to Jupiter, it is estimated that Saturn has at least 150 moons and moonlets, but only 53 of these moons have been given official names. Of these, 34 are less than 10 km in diameter and another 14 are between 10 and 50 km in diameter. However, some of its inner and outer moons are rather large, ranging from 250 to over 5000 km.

Traditionally, most of Saturn’s moons have been named after the Titans of Greek mythology, and are grouped based on their size, orbits, and proximity to Saturn. The innermost moons and regular moons all have small orbital inclinations and eccentricities and prograde orbits. Meanwhile, the irregular moons in the outermost regions have orbital radii of millions of kilometers, orbital periods lasting several years, and move in retrograde orbits.

A collage of Saturn (bottom left) and some of its moons: Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Rhea and Helene. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
A collage of Saturn (bottom left) and some of its moons: Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Rhea and Helene. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Inner Large Moons, which orbit within the E Ring, includes the larger satellites Mimas Enceladus, Tethys, and Dione. These moons are all composed primarily of water ice, and are believed to be differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle and crust. The Large Outer Moons, which orbit outside of the Saturn’s E Ring, are similar in composition to the Inner Moons – i.e. composed primarily of water ice and rock.

At 5150 km in diameter, and 1,350×1020 kg in mass, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and comprises more than 96% of the mass in orbit around the planet. Titan is also the only large moon to have its own atmosphere, which is cold, dense, and composed primarily of nitrogen with a small fraction of methane. Scientists have also noted the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, as well as methane ice crystals.

The surface of Titan, which is difficult to observe due to persistent atmospheric haze, shows only a few impact craters, evidence of cryo-volcanoes, and longitudinal dune fields that were apparently shaped by tidal winds. Titan is also the only body in the Solar System beside Earth with bodies of liquid on its surface, in the form of methane–ethane lakes in Titan’s north and south polar regions.

Uranus has 27 known satellites, which are divided into the categories of larger moons, inner moons, and irregular moons (similar to other gas giants). The largest moons of Uranus are, in order of size, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Oberon and Titania. These moons range in diameter and mass from 472 km and 6.7 × 1019 kg for Miranda to 1578 km and 3.5 × 1021 kg for Titania. Each of these moons is particularly dark, with low bond and geometric albedos. Ariel is the brightest while Umbriel is the darkest.

A montage of Uranus's moons. Image credit: NASA
A montage of Uranus’s moons (from left to right) – Ariel,  Credit: NASA

All of the large moons of Uranus are believed to have formed in the accretion disc, which existed around Uranus for some time after its formation, or resulted from the large impact suffered by Uranus early in its history. Each one is comprised of roughly equal amounts of rock and ice, except for Miranda which is made primarily of ice.

The ice component may include ammonia and carbon dioxide, while the rocky material is believed to be composed of carbonaceous material, including organic compounds (similar to asteroids and comets). Their compositions are believed to be differentiated, with an icy mantle surrounding a rocky core.

Neptune has 14 known satellites, all but one of which are named after Greek and Roman deities of the sea (except for S/2004 N 1, which is currently unnamed). These moons are divided into two groups – the regular and irregular moons – based on their orbit and proximity to Neptune. Neptune’s Regular Moons – Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, S/2004 N 1, and Proteus – are those that are closest to the planet and which follow circular, prograde orbits that lie in the planet’s equatorial plane.

Neptune’s irregular moons consist of the planet’s remaining satellites (including Triton). They generally follow inclined eccentric and often retrograde orbits far from Neptune. The only exception is Triton, which orbits close to the planet, following a circular orbit, though retrograde and inclined.

Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

In order of their distance from the planet, the irregular moons are Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Neso and Psamathe – a group that includes both prograde and retrograde objects. With the exception of Triton and Nereid, Neptune’s irregular moons are similar to those of other giant planets and are believed to have been gravitationally captured by Neptune.

With a mean diameter of around 2700 km ( mi) and a mass of 214080 ± 520 x 1017 kg, Triton is the largest of Neptune’s moons, and the only one large enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. is spherical in shape). At a distance of 354,759 km from Neptune, it also sits between the planet’s inner and outer moons.

These moons make up the lion’s share of natural satellites found in the Solar System. However, thanks to ongoing exploration and improvements made in our instrumentation, satellites are being discovered in orbit around minor bodies as well.

Dwarf Planets and Other Bodies:

As already noted, there are several dwarf planets, TNOs, and other bodies in the Solar System that also have their own moons. These consist mainly of the natural satellites that have been confirmed orbiting Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake. With five orbiting satellites, Pluto has the most confirmed moons (though that may change with further observation).

The largest, and closest in orbit to Pluto, is Charon. This moon was first identified in 1978 by astronomer James Christy using photographic plates from the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) in Washington, D.C. Beyond Charon lies the four other circumbinary moons – Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, respectively.

A portrait from the final approach of the New Horizons spacecraft to the Pluto system on July 11, 2015. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI.
A portrait from the final approach of the New Horizons spacecraft to the Pluto system on July 11th, 2015. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI.

Nix and Hydra were discovered simultaneously in 2005 by the Pluto Companion Search Team using the Hubble Space Telescope. The same team discovered Kerberos in 2011. The fifth and final satellite, Styx, was discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2012 while capturing images of Pluto and Charon.

Charon, Styx and Kerberos are all massive enough to have collapsed into a spheroid shape under their own gravity. Nix and Hydra, meanwhile, are oblong in shape. The Pluto-Charon system is unusual, since it is one of the few systems in the Solar System whose barycenter lies above the primary’s surface. In short, Pluto and Charon orbit each other, causing some scientists to claim that it is a “double-dwarf system” instead of a dwarf planet and an orbiting moon.

In addition, it is unusual in that each body is tidally locked to the other. Charon and Pluto always present the same face to each other; and from any position on either body, the other is always at the same position in the sky, or always obscured. This also means that the rotation period of each is equal to the time it takes the entire system to rotate around its common center of gravity.

In 2007, observations by the Gemini Observatory of patches of ammonia hydrates and water crystals on the surface of Charon suggested the presence of active cryo-geysers. This would seem indicate that Pluto does have a subsurface ocean that is warm in temperature, and that the core is geologically active. Pluto’s moons are believed to have been formed by a collision between Pluto and a similar-sized body early in the history of the Solar System. The collision released material that consolidated into the moons around Pluto.

Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon
Comparison of Pluto with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

Coming in second is Haumea, which has two known moons – Hi’iaka and Namaka – which are named after the daughters of the Hawaiian goddess. Both were discovered in 2005 by Brown’s team while conducting observations of Haumea at the W.M. Keck Observatory. Hi’iaka, which was initially nicknamed “Rudolph” by the Caltech team, was discovered January 26th, 2005.

It is the outer and – at roughly 310 km in diameter – the larger and brighter of the two, and orbits Haumea in a nearly circular path every 49 days. Infrared observations indicate that its surface is almost entirely covered by pure crystalline water ice. Because of this, Brown and his team have speculated that the moon is a fragment of Haumea that broke off during a collision.

Namaka, the smaller and innermost of the two, was discovered on June 30th, 2005, and nicknamed “Blitzen”. It is a tenth the mass of Hiiaka and orbits Haumea in 18 days in a highly elliptical orbit. Both moons circle Haumea is highly eccentric orbits. No estimates have been made yet as to their mass.

Eris has one moon called Dysnomia, which is named after the daughter of Eris in Greek mythology, which was first observed on September 10th, 2005 – a few months after the discovery of Eris. The moon was spotted by a team using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, who were busy carrying out observations of the four brightest TNOs (Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, and Eris) at the time.

This is an artist's concept of Kuiper Belt object Eris and its tiny satellite Dysnomia. Eris is the large object at the bottom of the illustration. A portion of its surface is lit by the Sun, located in the upper left corner of the image. Eris's moon, Dysnomia, is located just above and to the left of Eris. The Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Observatory took images of Dysnomia's movement from which astronomer Mike Brown (Caltech) precisely calculated Eris to be 27 percent more massive than Pluto. Artwork Credit: NASA, ESA, Adolph Schaller (for STScI)
Artist’s concept of the dwarf planet Eris and its only natural satellite, Dysnomia. Credit: NASA, ESA, Adolph Schaller (for STScI)

In April of 2016, observations using the Hubble Space Telescope‘s Wide Field Camera 3 revealed that Makemake had a natural satellite – which was designated S/2015 (136472) 1 (nicknamed MK 2 by the discovery team). It is estimated to be 175 km (110 mi) km in diameter and has a semi-major axis at least 21,000 km (13,000 mi) from Makemake.

Largest and Smallest Moons:

The title for largest moon in the Solar System goes to Ganymede, which measures 5262.4 kilometers (3270 mi) in diameter. This not only makes it larger than Earth’s Moon, but larger even than the planet Mercury – though it has only half of Mercury’s mass. As for the smallest satellite, that is a tie between S/2003 J 9 and S/2003 J 12. These two satellites, both of which orbit Jupiter, measure about 1 km (0.6 mi) in diameter.

An important thing to note when discussing the number of known moons in the Solar System is that the key word here is “known”. With every passing year, more satellites are being confirmed, and the vast majority of those we now know about were only discovered in the past few decades. As our exploration efforts continue, and our instruments improve, we may find that there are hundreds more lurking around out there!

We have written many interesting articles about the moons of the Solar System here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Biggest moon in the Solar System? What are the Planets of the Solar System?, How Many Moons Does Earth Have?, How Many Moons Does Mars Have?, How Many Moons Does Jupiter Have?, How Many Moons Does Saturn Have?, How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?, How Many Moons Does Neptune Have?

For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page.

We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Check them out here.

Sources:

What is Galileo’s Telescope?

In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei looked up at the heavens using a telescope of his making. And what he saw would forever revolutionize the field of astronomy, our understanding of the Universe, and our place in it. Centuries later, Galileo’s is still held in such high esteem; not only for the groundbreaking research he conducted, but because of his immense ingenuity in developing his own research tools.

And at the center of it all is Galileo’s famous telescope, which still inspires curiosity centuries later. How exactly did he invent it. How exactly was it an improvement on then-current designs? What exactly did he see with it when he looked up at the night sky? And what has become of it today? Luckily, all of these are questions we are able to answer.

Description:

Galileo’s telescope was the prototype of the modern day refractor telescope. As you can see from this diagram below, which is taken from Galileo’s own work – Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”) – it was a simple arrangement of lenses that first began with optician’s glass fixed to either end of a hollow cylinder.

Diagram of Galileo's telescope, taken from Sidereus Nuncius. Credit: hps.cam.ac.uk
Diagram of Galileo’s refractor telescope, taken from Sidereus Nuncius (1610). Credit: hps.cam.ac.uk

Galileo had no diagrams to work from, and instead relied on his own system of trial and error to achieve the proper placement of the lenses. In Galileo’s telescope the objective lens was convex and the eye lens was concave (today’s telescopes make use of two convex lenses). Galileo knew that light from an object placed at a distance from a convex lens created an identical image on the opposite side of the lens.

He also knew that if he used a concave lens, the object would appear on the same side of the lens where the object was located. If moved at a distance, it appeared larger than the object. It took a lot of work and different arrangements to get the lens the proper sizes and distances apart, but Galileo’s telescope remained the most powerful and accurately built for a great many years.

History of Galileo’s Telescope:

Naturally, Galileo’s telescope had some historical antecedents. In the late summer of 1608, a new invention was all the rage in Europe – the spyglass. These low power telescopes were likely made by almost all advanced opticians, but the very first was credited to Hans Lippershey of Holland. These primitive telescopes only magnified the view a few times over.

Much like our modern times, the manufacturers were quickly trying to corner the market with their invention. But Galileo Galilei’s friends convinced his own government to wait – sure that he could improve the design. When Galileo heard of this new optical instrument he set about engineering and making improved versions, with higher magnification.

Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope by Giuseppe Bertini (1858). Credit: gabrielevanin.it
Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope by Giuseppe Bertini (1858). Credit: gabrielevanin.it

Galileo’s telescope was similar to how a pair of opera glasses work – a simple arrangement of glass lenses to magnify objects. His first versions only improved the view to the eighth power, but Galileo’s telescope steadily improved. Within a few years, he began grinding his own lenses and changing his arrays. Galileo’s telescope was now capable of magnifying normal vision by a factor of 10, but it had a very narrow field of view.

However, this limited ability didn’t stop Galileo from using his telescope to make some amazing observations of the heavens. And what he saw, and recorded for posterity, was nothing short of game-changing.

What Galileo Observed:

One fine Fall evening, Galileo pointed his telescope towards the one thing that people thought was perfectly smooth and as polished as a gemstone – the Moon. Imagine his surprise when found that it, in his own words, was “uneven, rough, full of cavities and prominences.” Galileo’s telescope had its flaws, such as a narrow field of view that could only show about one quarter of the lunar disk without repositioning.

Nevertheless, a revolution in astronomy had begun! Months passed, and Galileo’s telescope improved. On January 7th, 1610, he turned his new 30 power telescope towards Jupiter, and found three small, bright “stars” near the planet. One was off to the west, the other two were to the east, and all three were in a straight line. The following evening, Galileo once again took a look at Jupiter, and found that all three of the “stars” were now west of the planet – still in a straight line!

Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that the Copernican system could not be defended without "a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun". Galileo considered his theory of the tides to provide the required physical proof of the motion of the earth. This theory was so important to him that he originally intended to entitle his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems the Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea. For Galileo, the tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth's surface sped up and slowed down because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He circulated his first account of the tides in 1616, addressed to Cardinal Orsini. His theory gave the first insight into the importance of the shapes of ocean basins in the size and timing of tides; he correctly accounted, for instance, for the negligible tides halfway along the Adriatic Sea compared to those at the ends. As a general account of the cause of tides, however, his theory was a failure. If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors. Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his "fascinating arguments" and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth. Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides. He also refused to accept Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets, considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits.Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that the Copernican system could not be defended without "a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun". Galileo considered his theory of the tides to provide the required physical proof of the motion of the earth. This theory was so important to him that he originally intended to entitle his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems the Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea. For Galileo, the tides were caused by the sloshing back and forth of water in the seas as a point on the Earth's surface sped up and slowed down because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and revolution around the Sun. He circulated his first account of the tides in 1616, addressed to Cardinal Orsini. His theory gave the first insight into the importance of the shapes of ocean basins in the size and timing of tides; he correctly accounted, for instance, for the negligible tides halfway along the Adriatic Sea compared to those at the ends. As a general account of the cause of tides, however, his theory was a failure. If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors. Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his "fascinating arguments" and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth. Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides. He also refused to accept Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets, considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits.
Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”) shared the discoveries he made of Jupiter with his telescope. Credit and Copyright: brunelleschi.imss.fi.it

And there were more discoveries awaiting Galileo’s telescope: the appearance of bumps next to the planet Saturn (the edges of Saturn’s rings), spots on the Sun’s surface (aka. Sunspots), and seeing Venus change from a full disk to a slender crescent. Galileo Galilei published all of these findings in a small book titled Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”) in 1610.

While Galileo was not the first astronomer to point a telescope towards the heavens, he was the first to do so scientifically and methodically. Not only that, but the comprehensive notes he took on his observations, and the publication of his discoveries, would have a revolutionary impact on astronomy and many other fields of science.

Galileo’s Telescope Today:

Today, over 400 years later, Galileo’s Telescope still survives under the constant care of the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (renamed the Museo Galileo in 2010) in Italy. The Museum holds exhibitions on Galileo’s telescope and the observations he made with it. The displays consist of these rare and precious instruments – including the objective lens created by the master and the only two existing telescopes built by Galileo himself.

Thanks to Galileo’s careful record keeping, craftsmen around the world have recreated Galileo’s telescope for museums and replicas are now sold for amateurs and collectors as well. Despite the fact that astronomers now have telescopes of immense power at their disposal, many still prefer to go the DIY route, just like Galileo!

A replica of the earliest surviving telescope attributed to Galileo Galilei, on display at the Griffith Observatory. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Mike Dunn
A replica of the earliest surviving telescope attributed to Galileo Galilei, on display at the Griffith Observatory. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Mike Dunn

Few scientists and astronomers have had the same impact Galileo had. Even fewer are regarded as pioneers in the sciences, or revolutionary thinkers who forever changed humanity’s perception of the heavens and their place within it. Little wonder then why his most prized instrument is kept so well preserved, and is still the subject of study over four centuries later.

We have written many interesting articles on Galileo here at Universe Today. Here’s

Astronomy Cast also has an interesting episode on telescope making – Episode 327: Telescope Making, Part I

For more information, be sure to check out the Museo Galileo‘s website.

10 Interesting Facts About Earth

Planet Earth. That shiny blue marble that has fascinated humanity since they first began to walk across its surface. And why shouldn’t it fascinate us? In addition to being our home and the place where life as we know it originated, it remains the only planet we know of where life thrives. And over the course of the past few centuries, we have learned much about Earth, which has only deepened our fascination with it.

But how much does the average person really know about the planet Earth? You’ve lived on Planet Earth all of your life, but how much do you really know about the ground underneath your feet? You probably have lots of interesting facts rattling around in your brain, but here are 10 more interesting facts about Earth that you may, or may not know.

1. Plate Tectonics Keep the Planet Comfortable:

Earth is the only planet in the Solar System with plate tectonics. Basically, the outer crust of the Earth is broken up into regions known as tectonic plates. These are floating on top of the magma interior of the Earth and can move against one another. When two plates collide, one plate will subduct (go underneath another), and where they pull apart, they will allow fresh crust to form.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

This process is very important, and for a number of reasons. Not only does it lead to tectonic resurfacing and geological activity (i.e. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation), it is also intrinsic to the carbon cycle. When microscopic plants in the ocean die, they fall to the bottom of the ocean.

Over long periods of time, the remnants of this life, rich in carbon, are carried back into the interior of the Earth and recycled. This pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, which makes sure we don’t suffer a runaway greenhouse effect, which is what happened on Venus. Without the action of plate tectonics, there would be no way to recycle this carbon, and the Earth would become an overheated, hellish place.

2. Earth is Almost a Sphere:

Many people tend to think that the Earth is a sphere. In fact, between the 6th cenury BCE and the modern era, this remained the scientific consensus. But thanks to modern astronomy and space travel, scientists have since come to understand that the Earth is actually shaped like a flattened sphere (aka. an oblate spheroid).

This shape is similar to a sphere, but where the poles are flattened and the equator bulges. In the case of the Earth, this bulge is due to our planet’s rotation. This means that the measurement from pole to pole is about 43 km less than the diameter of Earth across the equator. Even though the tallest mountain on Earth is Mount Everest, the feature that’s furthest from the center of the Earth is actually Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

3. Earth is Mostly Iron, Oxygen and Silicon:

If you could separate the Earth out into piles of material, you’d get 32.1 % iron, 30.1% oxygen, 15.1% silicon, and 13.9% magnesium. Of course, most of this iron is actually located at the core of the Earth. If you could actually get down and sample the core, it would be 88% iron. And if you sampled the Earth’s crust, you’d find that 47% of it is oxygen.

4. 70% of the Earth’s Surface is Covered in Water:

When astronauts first went into the space, they looked back at the Earth with human eyes for the first time. Based on their observations, the Earth acquired the nickname the “Blue Planet:. And it’s no surprise, seeing as how 70% of our planet is covered with oceans. The remaining 30% is the solid crust that is located above sea level, hence why it is called the “continental crust”.

5. The Earth’s Atmosphere Extends to a Distance of 10,000 km:

Earth’s atmosphere is thickest within the first 50 km from the surface or so, but it actually reaches out to about 10,000 km into space. It is made up of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. As a rule, air pressure and density decrease the higher one goes into the atmosphere and the farther one is from the surface.

Winter Solstice
Earth, as viewed from the cabin of the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere is down near the Earth itself. In fact, 75% of the Earth’s atmosphere is contained within the first 11 km above the planet’s surface. However, the outermost layer (the Exosphere) is the largest, extending from the exobase – located at the top of the thermosphere at an altitude of about 700 km above sea level – to about 10,000 km (6,200 mi). The exosphere merges with the emptiness of outer space, where there is no atmosphere.

The exosphere is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules – including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. The atoms and molecules are so far apart that the exosphere no longer behaves like a gas, and the particles constantly escape into space. These free-moving particles follow ballistic trajectories and may migrate in and out of the magnetosphere or with the solar wind.

Want more planet Earth facts? We’re halfway through. Here come 5 more!

6. The Earth’s Molten Iron Core Creates a Magnetic Field:

The Earth is like a great big magnet, with poles at the top and bottom near to the actual geographic poles. The magnetic field it creates extends thousands of kilometers out from the surface of the Earth – forming a region called the “magnetosphere“. Scientists think that this magnetic field is generated by the molten outer core of the Earth, where heat creates convection motions of conducting materials to generate electric currents.

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It's shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it's flattened on the "sun-side" and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression of the Earth’s protective magnetic field and the dynamo effect in its core that gives rise to it. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Be grateful for the magnetosphere. Without it, particles from the Sun’s solar wind would hit the Earth directly, exposing the surface of the planet to significant amounts of radiation. Instead, the magnetosphere channels the solar wind around the Earth, protecting us from harm. Scientists have also theorized that Mars’ thin atmosphere is due to it having a weak magnetosphere compared to Earth’s, which allowed solar wind to slowly strip it away.

7. Earth Doesn’t Take 24 Hours to Rotate on its Axis:

It actually takes 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds for the Earth to rotate once completely on its axis, which astronomers refer to as a Sidereal Day. Now wait a second, doesn’t that mean that a day is 4 minutes shorter than we think it is? You’d think that this time would add up, day by day, and within a few months, day would be night, and night would be day.

But remember that the Earth orbits around the Sun. Every day, the Sun moves compared to the background stars by about 1° – about the size of the Moon in the sky. And so, if you add up that little motion from the Sun that we see because the Earth is orbiting around it, as well as the rotation on its axis, you get a total of 24 hours.

This is what is known as a Solar Day, which – contrary to a Sidereal Day – is the amount of time it takes the Sun to return to the same place in the sky. Knowing the difference between the two is to know the difference between how long it takes the stars to show up in the same spot in the sky, and the it takes for the sun to rise and set once.

8. A year on Earth isn’t 365 days:

It’s actually 365.2564 days. It’s this extra .2564 days that creates the need for a Leap Year once ever four years. That’s why we tack on an extra day in February every four years – 2004, 2008, 2012, etc. The exceptions to this rule is if the year in question is divisible by 100 (1900, 2100, etc), unless it divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc).

9. Earth has 1 Moon and 2 Co-Orbital Satellites:

As you’re probably aware, Earth has 1 moon (aka. The Moon). Plenty is known about this body and we have written many articles about it, so we won’t go into much detail there. But did you know there are 2 additional asteroids locked into a co-orbital orbits with Earth? They’re called 3753 Cruithne and 2002 AA29, which are part of a larger population of asteroids known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).

The asteroid known as 3753 Cruithne measures 5 km across, and is sometimes called “Earth’s second moon”. It doesn’t actually orbit the Earth, but has a synchronized orbit with our home planet. It also has an orbit that makes it look like it’s following the Earth in orbit, but it’s actually following its own, distinct path around the Sun.

Meanwhile, 2002 AA29 is only 60 meters across and makes a horseshoe orbit around the Earth that brings it close to the planet every 95 years. In about 600 years, it will appear to circle Earth in a quasi-satellite orbit. Scientists have suggested that it might make a good target for a space exploration mission.

10. Earth is the Only Planet Known to Have Life:

We’ve discovered past evidence of water and organic molecules on Mars, and the building blocks of life on Saturn’s moon Titan. We can see amino acids in nebulae in deep space. And scientists have speculated about the possible existence of life beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. But Earth is the only place life has actually been discovered.

But if there is life on other planets, scientists are building the experiments that will help find it. For instance, NASA just announced the creation of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), which will spend the coming years going through the data sent back by the Kepler space telescope (and other missions that have yet to be launched) for signs of life on extra-solar planets.

Europa's cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
Europa’s cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

Giant radio dishes are currently scan distant stars, listening for the characteristic signals of intelligent life reaching out across interstellar space. And newer space telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the European Space Agency’s Darwin mission might just be powerful enough to sense the presence of life on other worlds.

But for now, Earth remains the only place we know of where there’s life. Now that is an interesting fact!

We have written many interesting articles about planet Earth here on Universe Today. Here’s What is the Highest Place on Earth?, What is the Diameter of the Earth?, What is the Closest Planet to Earth?, What is the Surface Temperature of Earth? and The Rotation of the Earth?

Other articles include how fast the Earth rotates, and here’s an article about the closest star to Earth. If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

And there’s even an Astronomy Cast episode on the subject of planet Earth.

How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.

As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?”

The Definitive Guide To Terraforming

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

Terraforming. Chances are you’ve heard that word thrown around before, most likely in the context of some science fiction story. However, in recent years, thanks to renewed interest in space exploration, this word is being used in an increasingly serious manner. And rather than being talked about like a far-off prospect, the issue of terraforming other worlds is being addressed as a near-future possibility.

Whether it’s Elon Musk claiming that humanity needs a “backup location” in order to survive, private ventures like MarsOne looking to send humans on a one-way mission to colonize the Red Planet, or space agencies like NASA and the ESA discussing the prospect of long-term habitability on Mars or the Moon, terraforming is yet another science fiction concept that appears to be moving towards science fact.

But just what does terraforming entail? Where exactly could we go about using this process? What kind of technology would we need? Does such technology already exist, or do we have to wait? How much in the way of resources would it take? And above all, what are the odds of it actually succeeding? Answering any or all of these questions requires that we do a bit of digging. Not only is terraforming a time-honored concept, but as it turns out, humanity already has quite a bit of experience in this area!

Origin Of The Term:

To break it down, terraforming is the process whereby a hostile environment (i.e. a planet that is too cold, too hot, and/or has an unbreathable atmosphere) is altered in order to be suitable for human life. This could involve modifying the temperature, atmosphere, surface topography, ecology – or all of the above – in order to make a planet or moon more “Earth-like”.

Venus is also considered a prime candidate for terraforming. Credit: NASA/JPL/io9.com
Venus is considered by many to be a prime candidate for terraforming. Credit: NASA/JPL/io9.com

The term was coined by Jack Williamson, an American science fiction writer who has also been called “the Dean of science fiction” (after the death of Robert Heinlein in 1988). The term appeared as part of a science-fiction story titled “Collision Orbit”, which was published in the 1942 editions of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. This is the first known mention of the concept, though there are examples of it appearing in fiction beforehand.

Terraforming in Fiction:

Science fiction is filled with examples of altering planetary environments to be more suitable to human life, many of which predate the scientific studies by many decades. For example, in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, he mentions at one point how the Martian invaders begin transforming Earth’s ecology for the sake of long-term habitation.

In Olaf Stapleton’s Last And First Men (1930), two chapter are dedicated to describing how humanity’s descendants terraform Venus after Earth becomes uninhabitable; and in the process, commit genocide against the native aquatic life. By the 1950s and 60s, owing to the beginning of the Space Age, terraforming began to appear in works of science fiction with increasing frequency.

One such example is Farmer in the Sky (1950) by Robert A. Heinlein. In this novel, Heinlein offers a vision of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is being transformed into an agricultural settlement. This was a very significant work, in that it was the first where the concept of terraforming is presented as a serious and scientific matter, rather than the subject of mere fantasy.

. Credit: Metro-.Goldwyn-Mayer
Scene from 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the movie adaptation of Clarke’s novel. Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first novel in which the terraforming of Mars was presented in fiction. Titled The Sands of Mars, the story involves Martian settlers heating up the planet by converting Mars’ moon Phobos into a second sun, and growing plants that break down the Martians sands in order to release oxygen. In his seminal book 2001: A Space Odyssey – and it’s sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two – Clarke presents a race of ancient beings (“Firstborn”) turning Jupiter into a second sun so that Europa will become a life-bearing planet.

Poul Anderson also wrote extensively about terraforming in the 1950s. In his 1954 novel, The Big Rain, Venus is altered through planetary engineering techniques over a very long period of time. The book was so influential that the term term “Big Rain” has since come to be synonimous with the terraforming of Venus.  This was followed in 1958 by the Snows of Ganymede, where the Jovian moon’s ecology is made habitable through a similar process.

In Issac Asimov’s Robot series, colonization and terraforming is performed by a powerful race of humans known as “Spacers”, who conduct this process on fifty planets in the known universe.  In his Foundation series, humanity has effectively colonized every habitable planet in the galaxy and terraformed them to become part of the Galactic Empire.

In 1984, James Lovelock and Michael Allaby wrote what is considered by many to be one of the most influential books on terraforming. Titled The Greening of Mars, the novel explores the formation and evolution of planets, the origin of life, and Earth’s biosphere. The terraforming models presented in the book actually foreshadowed future debates regarding the goals of terraforming.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy. Credit: variety.com
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars Trilogy. Credit: variety.com

In the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson released his famous trilogy that deals with the terraforming of Mars. Known as the Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – this series centers on the transformation of Mars over the course of many generations into a thriving human civilization. This was followed up in 2012 with the release of 2312, which deals with the colonization of the Solar System – including the terraforming of Venus and other planets.

Countless other examples can be found in popular culture, ranging from television and print to films and video games.

Study of Terraforming:

In an article published by the journal Science in 1961, famed astronomer Carl Sagan proposed using planetary engineering techniques to transform Venus. This involved seeding the atmosphere of Venus with algae, which would convert the atmosphere’s ample supplies of water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide into organic compounds and reduce Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect.

In 1973, he published an article in the journal Icarus titled “Planetary Engineering on Mars“, where he proposed two scenarios for transforming Mars. These included transporting low albedo material and/or planting dark plants on the polar ice caps to ensure it absorbed more heat, melted, and converted the planet to more “Earth-like conditions”.

In 1976, NASA addressed the issue of planetary engineering officially in a study titled “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis“. The study concluded that photosynthetic organisms, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the introduction of greenhouse gases could all be used to create a warmer, oxygen and ozone-rich atmosphere. The first conference session on terraforming, then referred to as “Planetary Modeling”, was organized that same year.

Living Mars. Credit: Kevin Gill
Artist concept of a ‘Living’ Mars. Credit: Kevin Gill

And then in March of 1979, NASA engineer and author James Oberg organized the First Terraforming Colloquium – a special session at the Tenth Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which is held annually in Houston, Texas. In 1981, Oberg popularized the concepts that were discussed at the colloquium in his book New Earths: Restructuring Earth and Other Planets.

In 1982, Planetologist Christopher McKay wrote “Terraforming Mars”, a paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In it, McKay discussed the prospects of a self-regulating Martian biosphere, which included both the required methods for doing so and ethics of it. This was the first time that the word terraforming was used in the title of a published article, and would henceforth become the preferred term.

This was followed by James Lovelock and Michael Allaby’s The Greening of Mars in 1984. This book was one of the first to describe a novel method of warming Mars, where chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are added to the atmosphere in order to trigger global warming. This book motivated biophysicist Robert Haynes to begin promoting terraforming as part of a larger concept known as Ecopoiesis.

Derived from the Greek words oikos (“house”) and poiesis (“production”), this word refers to the origin of an ecosystem. In the context of space exploration, it involves a form of planetary engineering where a sustainable ecosystem is fabricated from an otherwise sterile planet. As described by Haynes, this begins with the seeding of a planet with microbial life, which leads to conditions approaching that of a primordial Earth. This is then followed by the importation of plant life, which accelerates the production of oxygen, and culminates in the introduction of animal life.

An engineer suggests building a roof over a small planet so that Earthlike conditions could be maintained. Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist - See more at: http://www.space.com/23082-shell-worlds-planet-terraforming-technology-infographic.html#sthash.LB9CyN2g.dpuf
An engineer suggests building a roof over a small planet so that Earthlike conditions could be maintained. Credit: Karl Tate/space.com

In 2009, Kenneth Roy – an engineer with the US Department of Energy – presented his concept for a “Shell World” in a paper published with the Journal of British Interplanetary Sciences. Titled “Shell Worlds – An Approach To Terraforming Moons, Small Planets and Plutoids“, his paper explored the possibility of using a large “shell” to encase an alien world, keeping its atmosphere contained long enough for long-term changes to take root.

There is also the concepts where a usable part of a planet is enclosed in an dome in order to transform its environment, which is known as “paraterraforming”. This concept, originally coined by British mathematician Richard L.S. Talyor in his 1992 publication Paraterraforming – The worldhouse concept, could be used to terraform sections of several planets that are otherwise inhospitable, or cannot be altered in whole.

Potential Sites:

Within the Solar System, several possible locations exist that could be well-suited to terraforming. Consider the fact that besides Earth, Venus and Mars also lie within the Sun’s Habitable Zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). However, owing to Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect, and Mars’ lack of a magnetosphere, their atmospheres are either too thick and hot, or too thin and cold, to sustain life as we know it. However, this could theoretically be altered through the right kind of ecological engineering.

Other potential sites in the Solar System include some of the moons that orbit the gas giants. Several Jovian (i.e. in orbit of Jupiter) and Cronian (in orbit of Saturn) moons have an abundance of water ice, and scientists have speculated that if the surface temperatures were increased, viable atmospheres could be created through electrolysis and the introduction of buffer gases.

Artist's conception of a terraformed Mars. Credit: Ittiz/Wikimedia Commons
Artist’s conception of a terraformed Mars. Credit: Ittiz/Wikimedia Commons

There is even speculation that Mercury and the Moon (or at least parts thereof) could be terraformed in order to be suitable for human settlement. In these cases, terraforming would require not only altering the surface, but perhaps also adjusting their rotation. In the end, each case presents its own share of advantages, challenges, and likelihoods for success. Let’s consider them in order of distance from the Sun.

Inner Solar System:

The terrestrial planets of our Solar System present the best possibilities for terraforming. Not only are they located closer to our Sun, and thus in a better position to absorb its energy, but they are also rich in silicates and minerals – which any future colonies will need to grow food and build settlements. And as already mentioned, two of these planets (Venus and Mars) are located within Earth’s habitable zone.

Mercury:
The vast majority of Mercury’s surface is hostile to life, where temperatures gravitate between extremely hot and cold – i.e. 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F) 100 K (-173 °C; -280 °F). This is due to its proximity to the Sun, the almost total lack of an atmosphere, and its very slow rotation. However, at the poles, temperatures are consistently low -93 °C (-135 °F) due to it being permanently shadowed.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

The presence of water ice and organic molecules in the northern polar region has also been confirmed thanks to data obtained by the MESSENGER mission. Colonies could therefore be constructed in the regions, and limited terraforming (aka. paraterraforming) could take place. For example, if domes (or a single dome) of sufficient size could be built over the Kandinsky, Prokofiev, Tolkien and Tryggvadottir craters, the norther region could be altered for human habitation.

Theoretically, this could be done by using mirrors to redirect sunlight into the domes which would gradually raise the temperature. The water ice would then melt, and when combined with organic molecules and finely ground sand, soil could be made. Plants could then be grown to produce oxygen, which combined with nitrogen gas, would produce a breathable atmosphere.

Venus:
As “Earth’s Twin“, there are many possibilities and advantages to terraforming Venus. The first to propose this was Sagan with his 1961 article in Science. However, subsequent discoveries – such as the high concentrations of sulfuric acid in Venus’ clouds – made this idea unfeasible. Even if algae could survive in such an atmosphere, converting the extremely dense clouds of CO² into oxygen would result in an over-dense oxygen environment.

In addition, graphite would become a by-product of the chemical reactions, which would likely form into a thick powder on the surface. This would become CO² again through combustion, thus restarting the entire greenhouse effect. However, more recent proposals have been made that advocate using carbon sequestration techniques, which are arguably much more practical.

In these scenarios, chemical reactions would be relied on to convert Venus’ atmosphere to something breathable while also reducing its density. In one scenario, hydrogen and iron aerosol would be introduced to convert the CO² in the atmosphere into graphite and water. This water would then fall to the surface, where it cover roughly 80% of the planet – due to Venus having little variation in elevation.

Another scenario calls for the introduction of vast amounts of calcium and magnesium into the atmosphere. This would sequester carbon in the form of calcium and magnesium carbonites. And advantage to this plan is that Venus already has deposits of both minerals in its mantle, which could then be exposed to the atmosphere through drilling. However, most of the minerals would have to come from off-world in order to reduce the temperature and pressure to sustainable levels.

Yet another proposal is to freeze the atmospheric carbon dioxide down to the point of liquefaction – where it forms dry ice – and letting it accumulate on the surface. Once there, it could be buried and would remain in a solid state due to pressure, and even mined for local and off-world use. And then there is the possibility of bombarding the surface with icy comets (which could be mined from one of Jupiter’s or Saturn’s moons) to create a liquid ocean on the surface, which would sequester carbon and aid in any other of the above processes.

Last, there is the scenario in which Venus’ dense atmosphere could be removed. This could be characterized as the most direct approach to thinning an atmosphere which is far too dense for human occupation. By colliding large comets or asteroids into the surface, some of the dense CO² clouds could be blasted into space, thus leaving less atmosphere to be converted.

Artist's conception of a terraformed Venus, showing a surface largely covered in oceans. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ittiz
Artist’s conception of a terraformed Venus, showing a surface largely covered in oceans. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ittiz

A slower method could be achieved using mass drivers (aka. electromagnetic catapults) or space elevators, which would gradually scoop up the atmosphere and either lift it into space, or fire it away from the surface. And beyond altering or removing the atmosphere, there are also concepts that call for reducing the heat and pressure by either limiting sunlight (i.e. with solar shades) or altering the planet’s rotational velocity.

The concept of solar shades involves using either a series of small spacecraft or a single large lens to divert sunlight from a planet’s surface, thus reducing global temperatures. For Venus, which absorbs twice as much sunlight as Earth, solar radiation is believed to have played a major role in the runaway greenhouse effect that has made it what it is today.

Such a shade could be space-based, located in the Sun–Venus L1 Lagrangian Point, where it would not only prevent some sunlight from reaching Venus, but also serve to reduce the amount of radiation Venus is exposed to. Alternately, solar shades or reflectors could be placed in the atmosphere or on the surface. This could consist of large reflective balloons, sheets of carbon nanotubes or graphene, or low-albedo material.

Placing shades or reflectors in the atmosphere offers two advantages: for one, atmospheric reflectors could be built in-situ, using locally-sourced carbon. Second, Venus’ atmosphere is dense enough that such structures could easily float atop the clouds. However, the amount of material would have to be large and would have to remain in place long after the atmosphere had been modified. Also, since Venus already has highly reflective clouds, any approach would have to significantly surpass its current albedo (0.65) to make a difference.

Solar shades placed in orbit of Venus are a possible means of terraforming the planet. Credit: IEEE Spectrum/John MacNeill
Solar shades placed in orbit of Venus are a possible means of terraforming the planet. Credit: IEEE Spectrum/John MacNeill

Also, the idea of speeding up Venus’ rotation has been floating around as a possible means of terraforming. If Venus could be spun-up to the point where its diurnal (day-night) cycle were similar to Earth’s, the planet might just begin to generate a stronger magnetic field. This would have the effect of reducing the amount of solar wind (and hence radiation) from reaching the surface, thus making it safer for terrestrial organisms.

The Moon:
As Earth’s closest celestial body, colonizing the Moon would be comparatively easy compared to other bodies. But when it comes to terraforming the Moon, the possibilities and challenges closely resemble those of Mercury. For starters, the Moon has an atmosphere that is so thin that it can only be referred to as an exosphere. What’s more, the volatile elements that are necessary for life are in short supply (i.e. hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon).

These problems could be addressed by capturing comets that contain water ices and volatiles and crashing them into the surface. The comets would sublimate, dispersing these gases and water vapor to create an the atmosphere. These impacts would also liberate water that is contained in the lunar regolith, which could eventually accumulate on the surface to form natural bodies of water.

The transfer of momentum from these comet would also get the Moon rotating more rapidly, speeding up its rotation so that it would no longer be tidally-locked. A Moon that was sped up to rotate once on its axis every 24 hours would have a steady diurnal cycle, which would make colonization and adapting to life on the Moon easier.

There is also the possibility of paraterraforming parts of the Moon in a way that would be similar to terraforming Mercury’s polar region. In the Moon’s case, this would take place in the Shackleton Crater, where scientists have already found evidence of water ice. Using solar mirrors and a dome, this crater could be turned into a micro-climate where plants could be grown and a breathable atmosphere created.

Mars:
When it comes to terraforming, Mars is the most popular destination. There are several reasons for this, ranging from its proximity to Earth, its similarities to Earth, and the fact that it once had an environment that was very similar to Earth’s – which included a thicker atmosphere and the presence of warm, flowing water on the surface. Lastly, it is currently believed that Mars may have additional sources of water beneath its surface.

In brief, Mars has a diurnal and seasonal cycle that are very close what we experience here on Earth. In the former case, a single day on Mars lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes. In the latter case, and owing to Mars similarly tilted axis (25.19° compared to Earth’s 23°), Mars experiences seasonal changes that are very similar to Earth’s. Though a single season on Mars lasts roughly twice as long, the temperature variation that results is very similar – ±178 °C (320°F) compared to Earth’s ±160 °C (278°F).

Beyond these, Mars would need to undergo vast transformations in order for human beings to live on its surface. The atmosphere would need to be thickened drastically, and its composition would need to be changed. Currently, Mars’ atmosphere is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen, and the air pressure is equivalent to only 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

Above all, Mars lacks a magnetosphere, which means that its surface receives significantly more radiation than we are used to here on Earth. In addition, it is believed that Mars once had a magnetosphere, and that the disappearance of this magnetic field led to solar wind to stripping away Mars’ atmosphere. This in turn is what led Mars to become the cold, desiccated place it is today.

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill
Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

Ultimately, this means that in order for the planet to become habitable by human standards, it’s atmosphere would need to be significantly thickened and the planet significantly warmed. The composition of the atmosphere would need to change as well, from the current CO²-heavy mix to an nitrogen-oxygen balance of about 70/30. And above all, the atmosphere would need to be replenished every so often to compensate for loss.

Luckily, the first three requirements are largely complimentary, and present a wide range of possible solutions. For starters, Mars’ atmosphere could be thickened and the planet warmed by bombarding its polar regions with meteors. These would cause the poles to melt, releasing their deposits of frozen carbon dioxide and water into the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect.

The introduction of volatile elements, such as ammonia and methane, would also help to thicken the atmosphere and trigger warming. Both could be mined from the icy moons of the outer Solar System, particularly from the moons of Ganymede, Callisto, and Titan. These could also be delivered to the surface via meteoric impacts.

After impacting on the surface, the ammonia ice would sublimate and break down into hydrogen and nitrogen – the hydrogen interacting with he CO² to form water and graphite, while the nitrogen acts as a buffer gas. The methane, meanwhile, would act as a greenhouse gas that would further enhance global warming. In addition, the impacts would throw tons of dust into the air, further fueling the warming trend.

In time, Mars’ ample supplies of water ice – which can be found not only in the poles but in vast subsurface deposits of permafrost – would all sublimate to form warm, flowing water. And with significantly increased air pressure and a warmer atmosphere, humans might be able to venture out onto the surface without the need for pressure suits.

However, the atmosphere will still need to be converted into something breathable. This will be far more time-consuming, as the process of converting the atmospheric CO² into oxygen gas will likely take centuries. In any case, several possibilities have been suggested, which include converting the atmosphere through photosynthesis – either with cyanobacteria or Earth plants and lichens.

Other suggestions include building orbital mirrors, which would be placed near the poles and direct sunlight onto the surface to trigger a cycle of warming by causing the polar ice caps to melt and release their CO² gas. Using dark dust from Phobos and Deimos to reduce the surface’s albedo, thus allowing it to absorb more sunlight, has also been suggested.

In short, there are plenty of options for terraforming Mars. And many of them, if not being readily available, are at least on the table…

Outer Solar System:

Beyond the Inner Solar System, there are several sites that would make for good terraforming targets as well. Particularly around Jupiter and Saturn, there are several sizable moons – some of which are larger than Mercury – that have an abundance of water in the form of ice (and in some cases, maybe even interior oceans).

The moons of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit: planetary.org
The moons of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit: planetary.org

At the same time, many of these same moons contain other necessary ingredients for functioning ecosystems, such as frozen volatiles  – like ammonia and methane. Because of this, and as part of our ongoing desire to explore farther out into our Solar System, many proposals have been made to seed these moons with bases and research stations. Some plans even include possible terraforming to make them suitable for long-term habitation.

The Jovian Moons:
Jupiter’s largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – known as the Galileans, after their founder (Galileo Galilei) – have long been the subject of scientific interest. For decades, scientists have speculated about the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Europa, based on theories about the planet’s tidal heating (a consequence of its eccentric orbit and orbital resonance with the other moons).

Analysis of images provided by the Voyager 1 and Galileo probes added weight to this theory, showing regions where it appeared that the subsurface ocean had melted through. What’s more, the presence of this warm water ocean has also led to speculation about the existence of life beneath Europa’s icy crust – possibly around hydrothermal vents at the core-mantle boundary.

Because of this potential for habitability, Europa has also been suggested as a possible site for terraforming. As the argument goes, if the surface temperature could be increased, and the surface ice melted, the entire planet could become a ocean world. Sublimation of the ice, which would release water vapor and gaseous volatiles, would then be subject to electrolysis (which already produces a thin oxygen atmosphere).

However, Europa has no magnetosphere of its own, and lies within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. As a result, its surface is exposed to significant amounts of radiation – 540 rem of radiation per day compared to about 0.0030 rem per year here on Earth – and any atmosphere we create would begin to be stripped away by Jupiter. Ergo, radiation shielding would need to be put in place that could deflect the majority of this radiation.

And then there is Ganymede, the third most-distant of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. Much like Europa, it is a potential site of terraforming, and presents numerous advantages. For one, it is the largest moon in our Solar System, larger than our own moon and even larger that the planet Mercury. In addition, it also has ample supplies of water ice, is believed to have an interior ocean, and even has its own magnetosphere.

Hence, if the surface temperature were increased and the ice sublimated, Ganymede’s atmosphere could be thickened. Like Europa, it would also become an ocean planet, and its own magnetosphere would allow for it to hold on to more of its atmosphere. However, Jupiter’s magnetic field still exerts a powerful influence over the planet, which means radiation shields would still be needed.

Lastly, there is Callisto, the fourth-most distant of the Galileans. Here too, abundant supplies of water ice, volatiles, and the possibility of an interior ocean all point towards the potential for habitability. But in Callisto’s case, there is the added bonus of it being beyond Jupiter’s magnetic field, which reduces the threat of radiation and atmospheric loss.

Artist's cut-away representation of the internal structure of Ganymede. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
Artist’s cut-away representation of the internal structure of Ganymede. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

The process would begin with surface heating, which would sublimate the water ice and Callisto’s supplies of frozen ammonia. From these oceans, electrolysis would lead to the formation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and the ammonia could be converted into nitrogen to act as a buffer gas. However, since the majority of Callisto is ice, it would mean that the planet would lose considerable mass and have no continents. Again, an ocean planet would result, necessitated floating cities or massive colony ships.

The Cronians Moons:
Much like the Jovian Moons, Saturn’s Moons (also known as the Cronian) present opportunities for terraforming. Again, this is due to the presence of water ice, interior oceans, and volatile elements. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, also has an abundance of methane that comes in liquid form (the methane lakes around its northern polar region) and in gaseous form in its atmosphere. Large caches of ammonia are also believed to exist beneath he surface ice.

Titan is also the only natural satellite to have a dense atmosphere (one and half times the pressure of Earth’s) and the only planet outside of Earth where the atmosphere is nitrogen-rich. Such a thick atmosphere would mean that it would be far easier to equalize pressure for habitats on the planet. What’s more, scientists believe this atmosphere is a prebiotic environment rich in organic chemistry – i.e. similar to Earth’s early atmosphere (only much colder).

iagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

As such, converting it to something Earth-like would be feasible. First, the surface temperature would need to be increased. Since Titan is very distant from the Sun, and already has an abundance of greenhouse gases, this could only be accomplished through orbital mirrors. This would sublimate the surface ice, releasing ammonia beneath, which would lead to more heating.

The next step would involve converting the atmosphere to something breathable. As already noted, Titan’s atmosphere is nitrogen-rich, which would remove the need for introducing a buffer gas. And with the availability of water, oxygen could be introduced by generating it through electrolysis. At the same time, the methane and other hydrocarbons would have to be sequestered, in order to prevent an explosive mixture with the oxygen.

But given the thickness and multi-layered nature of Titan’s ice, which is estimated to account for half of its mass, the moon would be very much an ocean planet- i.e. with no continents or landmasses to build on. So once again, any habitats would have to take the form of either floating platforms or large ships.

Enceladus is another possibility, thanks to the recent discovery of a subsurface ocean. Analysis by the Cassini space probe of the water plumes erupting from its southern polar region also indicated the presence of organic molecules. As such, terraforming it would be similar to terraforming Jupiter’s moon of Europa, and would yield a similar ocean moon.

Artist's rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Again, this would likely have to involve orbital mirrors, given Enceladus’ distance from our Sun. Once the ice began to sublimate, electrolysis would generate oxygen gas. The presence of ammonia in the subsurface ocean would also be released, helping to raise the temperature and serving as a source of nitrogen gas, with which to buffer the atmosphere.

Exoplanets:
In addition to the Solar System, extra-solar planets (aka. exoplanets) are also potential sites for terraforming. Of the 1,941 confirmed exoplanets discovered so far, these planets are those that have been designated “Earth-like. In other words, they are terrestrial planets that have atmospheres and, like Earth, occupy the region around a star where the average surface temperature allows for liquid water (aka. habitable zone).

The first planet confirmed by Kepler to have an average orbital distance that placed it within its star’s habitable zone was Kepler-22b. This planet is located about 600 light years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, was first observed on May 12th, 2009 and then confirmed on Dec 5th, 2011. Based on all the data obtained, scientists believe that this world is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and is likely covered in oceans or has a liquid or gaseous outer shell.

In addition, there are star systems with multiple “Earth-like” planets occupying their habitable zones. Gliese 581 is a good example, a red dwarf star that is located 20.22 light years away from Earth in the Libra constellation. Here, three confirmed and two possible planets exist, two of which are believed to orbit within the star’s habitable zone. These include the confirmed planet Gliese 581 d and the hypothetical Gliese 581 g.

Tau Ceti is another example. This G-class star, which is located roughly 12 light years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, has five possible planets orbiting it. Two of these are Super-Earths that are believed to orbit the star’s habitable zone – Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f. However, Tau Ceti e is believed to be too close for anything other than Venus-like conditions to exist on its surface.

In all cases, terraforming the atmospheres of these planet’s would most likely involve the same techniques used to terraform Venus and Mars, though to varying degrees. For those located on the outer edge of their habitable zones, terraforming could be accomplished by introducing greenhouse gases or covering the surface with low albedo material to trigger global warming. On the other end, solar shades and carbon sequestering techniques could reduce temperatures to the point where the planet is considered hospitable.

The latest list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit: phl.upr.edu
The latest list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit: phl.upr.edu

Potential Benefits:

When addressing the issue of terraforming, there is the inevitable question – “why should we?” Given the expenditure in resources, the time involved, and other challenges that naturally arise (see below), what reasons are there to engage in terraforming? As already mentioned, there is the reasons cited by Musk, about the need to have a “backup location” to prevent any particular cataclysm from claiming all of humanity.

Putting aside for the moment the prospect of nuclear holocaust, there is also the likelihood that life will become untenable on certain parts of our planet in the coming century. As the NOAA reported in March of 2015, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have now surpassed 400 ppm, a level not seen since the the Pliocene Era – when global temperatures and sea level were significantly higher.

And as a series of scenarios computed by NASA show, this trend is likely to continue until 2100, and with serious consequences. In one scenario, carbon dioxide emissions will level off at about 550 ppm toward the end of the century, resulting in an average temperature increase of 2.5 °C (4.5 °F). In the second scenario, carbon dioxide emissions rise to about 800 ppm, resulting in an average increase of about 4.5 °C (8 °F). Whereas the increases predicted in the first scenario are sustainable, in the latter scenario, life will become untenable on many parts of the planet.

NASA predicts that temperatures could increase by up to 4.5 C by 2100. Credit: svs.gsfc.nasa.gov
NASA predicts that, based on current emissions rates, temperatures could increase by up to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Credit: svs.gsfc.nasa.gov

As a result of this, creating a long-term home for humanity on Mars, the Moon, Venus, or elsewhere in the Solar System may be necessary. In addition to offering us other locations from which to extract resources, cultivate food, and as a possible outlet for population pressures, having colonies on other worlds could mean the difference between long-term survival and extinction.

There is also the argument that humanity is already well-versed in altering planetary environments. For centuries, humanity’s reliance on industrial machinery, coal and fossil fuels has had a measurable effect Earth’s environment. And whereas the Greenhouse Effect that we have triggered here was not deliberate, our experience and knowledge in creating it here on Earth could be put to good use on planet’s where surface temperatures need to be raised artificially.

In addition, it has also been argued that working with environments where there is a runaway Greenhouse Effect – i.e. Venus – could yield valuable knowledge that could in turn be used here on Earth. Whether it is the use of extreme bacteria, introducing new gases, or mineral elements to sequester carbon, testing these methods out on Venus could help us to combat Climate Change here at home.

It has also been argued that Mars’ similarities to Earth are a good reason to terraform it. Essentially, Mars once resembled Earth, until its atmosphere was stripped away, causing it to lose virtually all the liquid water on its surface. Ergo, terraforming it would be tantamount to returning it to its once-warm and watery glory. The same argument could be made of Venus, where efforts to alter it would restore it to what it was before a runaway Greenhouse Effect turned it into the harsh, extremely hot world it is today.

One of a few "fan-based" Mars Colonization Transport (MCT) design concepts. The design may be dominated by massive spherical fuel tanks and inflatable modules to house 100 Mars colonists. (Credit: Reddit user P3rkoz)
Artist’s concept for a SpaceX Mars Colonization Transport (MCT). (Credit: Reddit user P3rkoz)

Last, but not least, there is argument that colonizing the Solar System could usher in an age of “post-scarcity”. If humanity were to build outposts and based on other worlds, mine the asteroid belt and harvest the resources of the Outer Solar System, we would effectively have enough minerals, gases, energy, and water resources to last us indefinitely. It could also help trigger a massive acceleration in human development, defined by leaps and bounds in technological and social progress.

Potential Challenges:

When it comes right down to it, all of the scenarios listed above suffer from one or more of the following problems:

  1. They are not possible with existing technology
  2. They require a massive commitment of resources
  3. They solve one problem, only to create another
  4. They do not offer a significant return on the investment
  5. They would take a really, REALLY long time

Case in point, all of the potential ideas for terraforming Venus and Mars involve infrastructure that does not yet exist and would be very expensive to create. For instance, the orbital shade concept that would cool Venus calls for a structure that would need to be four times the diameter of Venus itself (if it were positioned at L1). It would therefore require megatons of material, all of which would have to be assembled on site.

All asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft as of November 2010 Credits: Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. Ida, Dactyl, Braille, Annefrank, Gaspra, Borrelly: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk. Steins: ESA / OSIRIS team. Eros: NASA / JHUAPL. Itokawa: ISAS / JAXA / Emily Lakdawalla. Mathilde: NASA / JHUAPL / Ted Stryk. Lutetia: ESA / OSIRIS team / Emily Lakdawalla. Halley: Russian Academy of Sciences / Ted Stryk. Tempel 1, Hartley 2: NASA / JPL / UMD. Wild 2: NASA / JPL.
All asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft as of November 2010. Credits: Emily Lakdawalla/NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk/ESA/OSIRIS team/JHUAPL/ISAS/JAXA/RAS/UMD

In contrast, increasing the speed of Venus’s rotation would require energy many orders of magnitude greater than the construction of orbiting solar mirrors. As with removing Venus’ atmosphere, the process would also require a significant number of impactors that would have to be harnessed from the outer solar System – mainly from the Kuiper Belt.

In order to do this, a large fleet of spaceships would be needed to haul them, and they would need to be equipped with advanced drive systems that could make the trip in a reasonable amount of time. Currently, no such drive systems exist, and conventional methods – ranging from ion engines to chemical propellants – are neither fast or economical enough.

To illustrate, NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than 11 years to get make its historic rendezvous with Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, using conventional rockets and the gravity-assist method. Meanwhile, the Dawn mission, which relied relied on ionic propulsion, took almost four years to reach Vesta in the Asteroid Belt. Neither method is practical for making repeated trips to the Kuiper Belt and hauling back icy comets and asteroids, and humanity has nowhere near the number of ships we would need to do this.

The Moon’s proximity makes it an attractive option for terraforming. But again, the resources needed – which would likely include several hundred comets – would again need to be imported from the outer Solar System. And while Mercury’s resources could be harvested in-situ or brought from Earth to paraterraform its northern polar region, the concept still calls for a large fleet of ships and robot builders which do not yet exist.

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The outer Solar System presents a similar problem. In order to begin terraforming these moons, we would need infrastructure between here and there, which would mean bases on the Moon, Mars, and within the Asteroid Belt. Here, ships could refuel as they transport materials to the Jovian sand Cronian systems, and resources could be harvested from all three of these locations as well as within the systems themselves.

But of course, it would take many, many generations (or even centuries) to build all of that, and at considerable cost. Ergo, any attempts at  terraforming the outer Solar System would have to wait until humanity had effectively colonized the inner Solar System. And terraforming the Inner Solar System will not be possible until humanity has plenty of space hauler on hand, not to mention fast ones!

The necessity for radiation shields also presents a problem. The size and cost of manufacturing shields that could deflect Jupiter’s magnetic field would be astronomical. And while the resources could be harvest from the nearby Asteroid Belt, transporting and assembling them in space around the Jovian Moons would again require many ships and robotic workers. And again, there would have to be extensive infrastructure between Earth and the Jovian system before any of this could proceed.

As for item three, there are plenty of problems that could result from terraforming. For instance, transforming Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons into ocean worlds could be pointless, as the volume of liquid water would constitute a major portion of the moon’s overall radius. Combined with their low surface gravities, high orbital velocities and the tidal effects of their parent planets, this could lead to severely high waves on their surfaces. In fact, these moons could become totally unstable as a result of being altered.

Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA
Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA

There is also several questions about the ethics of terraforming. Basically, altering other planets in order to make them more suitable to human needs raises the natural question of what would happen to any lifeforms already living there. If in fact Mars and other Solar System bodies have indigenous microbial (or more complex) life, which many scientists suspect, then altering their ecology could impact or even wipe out these lifeforms. In short, future colonists and terrestrial engineers would effectively be committing genocide.

Another argument that is often made against terraforming is that any effort to alter the ecology of another planet does not present any immediate benefits. Given the cost involved, what possible incentive is there to commit so much time, resources and energy to such a project? While the idea of utilizing the resources of the Solar System makes sense in the long-run, the short-term gains are far less tangible.

Basically, harvested resources from other worlds is not economically viable when you can extract them here at home for much less. And real-estate is only the basis of an economic model if the real-estate itself is desirable. While MarsOne has certainly shown us that there are plenty of human beings who are willing to make a one-way trip to Mars, turning the Red Planet, Venus or elsewhere into a “new frontier” where people can buy up land will first require some serious advances in technology, some serious terraforming, or both.

As it stands, the environments of Mars, Venus, the Moon, and the outer Solar System are all hostile to life as we know it. Even with the requisite commitment of resources and people willing to be the “first wave”, life would be very difficult for those living out there. And this situation would not change for centuries or even millennia. Like it not, transforming a planet’s ecology is very slow, laborious work.

Artist's concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One
Artist’s concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One

Conclusion:

So… after considering all of the places where humanity could colonize and terraform, what it would take to make that happen, and the difficulties in doing so, we are once again left with one important question. Why should we? Assuming that our very survival is not at stake, what possible incentives are there for humanity to become an interplanetary (or interstellar) species?

Perhaps there is no good reason. Much like sending astronauts to the Moon, taking to the skies, and climbing the highest mountain on Earth, colonizing other planets may be nothing more than something we feel we need to do. Why? Because we can! Such a reason has been good enough in the past, and it will likely be sufficient again in the not-too-distant future.

This should is no way deter us from considering the ethical implications, the sheer cost involved, or the cost-to-benefit ratio. But in time, we might find that we have no choice but to get out there, simply because Earth is just becoming too stuffy and crowded for us!

We have written many interesting articles about terraforming here at Universe Today. Here’s Could We Terraform the Moon?, Should We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, and Student Team Wants to Terraform Mars Using Cyanobacteria.

We’ve also got articles that explore the more radical side of terraforming, like Could We Terraform Jupiter?, Could We Terraform The Sun?, and Could We Terraform A Black Hole?

Astronomy Cast also has good episodes on the subject, like Episode 96: Humans to Mar, Part 3 – Terraforming Mars

For more information, check out Terraforming Mars  at NASA Quest! and NASA’s Journey to Mars.

What Would Earth Look Like With Rings?

Saturn’s Rings are amazing to behold. Since they were first observed by Galileo in 1610, they have been the subject of endless scientific interest and popular fascination. Composed of billions of particles of dust and ice, these rings span a distance of about 282,000 km (175,000 miles) – which is three quarters of the distance between the Earth and its Moon – and hold roughly 30 quintillion kilograms (that’s 3.0. x 1018 kg) worth of matter.

All of the Solar System’s gas giants, from Jupiter to Neptune, have their own ring system – albeit less visible and picturesque ones. Sadly, none of the terrestrial planets (i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) have such a system. But just what would it look like if Earth did? Putting aside the physical requirements that it would take for a ring system to exist, what would it be like to look up from Earth and see beautiful rings reaching overhead?

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What Is The Geocentric Model Of The Universe?

The Geocentric View of the Solar System

During the many thousand years that human beings have been looking up at the stars, our concept of what the Universe looks like has changed dramatically. At one time, the magi and sages of the world believed that the Universe consisted of a flat Earth (or a square one, a zigarrut, etc.) surrounded by the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. Over time, ancient astronomers became aware that some stars did not move like the rest, and began to understand that these too were planets.

In time, we also began to understand that the Earth was indeed round, and came up with rationalized explanations for the behavior of other celestial bodies. And by classical antiquity, scientists had formulated ideas on how the motion of the planets occurred, and how all the heavenly orbs fit together. This gave rise to the Geocentric model of the universe, a now-defunct model that explained how the Sun, Moon, and firmament circled around our planet.

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How Many Moons Does Mercury Have?

Virtually every planet in the Solar System has moons. Earth has The Moon, Mars has Phobos and Deimos, and Jupiter and Saturn have 67 and 62 officially named moons, respectively. Heck, even the recently-demoted dwarf planet Pluto has five confirmed moons – Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. And even asteroids like 243 Ida may have satellites orbiting them (in this case, Dactyl). But what about Mercury?

If moons are such a common feature in the Solar System, why is it that Mercury has none? Yes, if one were to ask how many satellites the planet closest to our Sun has, that would be the short answer. But answering it more thoroughly requires that we examine the process through which other planets acquired their moons, and seeing how these apply (or fail to apply) to Mercury.

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