Curiosity: Update 3 – H2O Traces on Mars

Ancient Martian Stream, Bedrock

On September 27, 2012, the rover Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) snapped and sent back images of Martian bedrock possibly once home to a fast-moving stream. Curiosity founded rounded pebbles, probably due to erosion by water. The rocks ranging in size from sand grains to golf balls could not have been carried into the Gale Crater by wind, but carried water for a 20 to 25 miles and smoothed out. At one point in the past lasting thousands to millions of years, Mars may have been overflowing with liquid water, but present-day Mars is a barren desert with nothing but remnants of rock carved by water. Curiosity made this remarkable discovery when driving to Glenelg, the point where three types of terrain meet. Finding water is only the first step to discovering a once-habitable environment for microbial life. However, the dried-up stream didn’t preserve organic carbon. Carbon is necessary for life, so Curiosity will head to the foothills of Mount Sharp to find organic materials. Instead of “following the water,” scientists will now “follow the carbon.”

References

” Curiosity finds signs of ancient stream on Mars.” FOX News. Fox News, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.

Kaufman, Mark. “Curiosity rover’s Mars landing site was once covered with fast-moving water, NASA says.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Sep 2012. Web. 27 Sep 2012.

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The 8 Planets – Part 4: Mars

NEXT STOP: MARS!

Mars

A very belligerent planet. Mars. Named after the Roman god of war, Mars appears as a fiery battle-stained planet. Out of the seven planets (excluding Earth), Mars seems to be the most habitable planet. Although much smaller than Earth, Mars has an atmosphere (though thinner), ice caps (though mainly dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide), and evidence that water once flowed on its surface. Astronomers have yet to find life on Mars, but sci-fi authors have long contemplated the possibility of life on Mars in the present or future (e.g. The Martian Chronicles). Don’t let the name fool you. Mars, the god of war, leaves no one alive while Venus, the goddess of love, often has a soft heart. In the solar system, Venus is a deadly planet while Mars is relatively benign.

The fourth planet from the Sun and the last terrestrial planet, Mars, the “Red Planet,” is actually the second smallest planet and the most explored aside from Earth. Distinguishable by its red color from an abundance of iron oxide, Mars has a thin atmosphere blanketing a surface filled with impact craters, volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps. Mars is also home to Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system, and Valles Marineris, a large crack on Mars’ surface and one of the largest canyons. Dark patches on its surface suggest presence of large quantities of liquid water in the past. Though similar to Earth in surface features and climate, Mars is only about half the size of Earth, with 15% of Earth’s volume and 11% of mass. Because of its similar axial tilt, Mars has Earth-like seasons, though with a colder climate. Barren, Mars has the largest dust storms in the solar system. Mars is bigger than Mercury but less dense because of an iron sulfide core composed of lighter elements. The core is surrounded by a silicate mantle and the mantle by a thick crust. With no evidence of a global magnetic field, Mars, however, has some magnetized crust that has reversed polarity like Earth’s ocean floors. Mars’ geological history is split into three periods: Noachian period (4.5 – 3.5 billion years ago, oldest surfaces with impact craters and extensive flooding of water), Hesperian period (3.5 to 2.9 – 3.3 billion years ago, extensive lava plains), Amazonian period (2.9 – 3.3 billion years ago to present, few impact craters, Olympus Mons forms, lava flows). On Martian Soil, light silica-rich streaks appear on steep slopes, perhaps the dark underlying layers of soil exposed after dust avalanches. As Earth speeds Mars, Mars appears to move in a retrograde motion, or backwards with respect to the stars. Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos.

PHOBOS and DEIMOS

Phobos and Deimos

Mars’ two moons look more like asteroids than Earth’s moon. Named for Mars’ sons and attendants in battle, Phobos and Deimos mean “fear” and “panic,” respectively. Because of their low albedo, carbonaceous chondrite composition, and irregular shapes, scientists have proposed the capture theory. Stray asteroids from the Trojan belt may have been pulled into Mars orbit. Phobos is below synchronous position, so Mars’ tidal forces will eventually cause Phobos to crash into Mars’ surface, either forming an impact crater or a dust ring in 50 million years. On the contrary, Deimos is outside synchronous position, so the moon is slowly spiraling away from Mars. In about 50 million years, Mars may have no moons!

MISSIONS*: Mariner, Mars, Viking, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Spirit, Opportunity, Rosetta, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix, Dawn, Mars Science Laboratory

* Successful Missions

OVERVIEW

  • Order in Solar System: #4
  • Number of Moons: 2
  • Orbital Period: 687 days
  • Rotational Period: 24 hours, 39 minutes, 35 seconds
  • Mass: 6.4185 x 10^23 kg (0.107 Earths)
  • Volume: 1.6318 x 10^11 km³ (0.151 Earths)
  • Radius: 3,396 km (0.533 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 1.45 x 10^8 km² (0.284 Earths)
  • Density: 3.9335 g/cm
  • Surface Pressure: 0.636 kPa
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.093315
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 210 K
  • Escape Velocity: 5.027 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: +1.6 to -3.0

The 8 Planets – Part 3: Earth

NEXT STOP: EARTH!

Earth, our home planet

Imagine a blank sphere floating in the middle of space. Now picture the whole sphere flooded by blue oceans, rivers, and lakes. And seven continents, defined by low elevation green patches, high elevation brown areas, and deserts golden brown. Add white ice caps capping the North and South Poles. And white swirling clouds in the atmosphere. Then tilt the whole sphere 23.5 degrees. There. Our home planet, Earth!

Third planet from the Sun and the only planet to support life, Earth, or the Blue Planet, formed 4.54 billion years ago from accretion of the solar nebula and first hosted life approximately 1 billion years ago. Though technically not named after any Gods, the Greek god Gaea is mother of the earth. Home to millions of species, Earth has the “Goldilocks Phenomenon” since all conditions including climate and temperature support life. Earth is in the “life zone,” where water exists in all three phases: gas, liquid, and solid. Earth’s surface is 30% land and 70% water. Collectively, the biosphere and the abundance of minerals support life. Earth’s atmosphere, specifically the ozone layer, and magnetic field blocks high-energy electromagnetic radiation harmful for life. The axis of the Blue Marble, the largest terrestrial planet, tilts 23.5 degrees, causing the four annual seasons. The hemisphere tilting toward the Sun is in summer and the other is in winter. In fact, Earth’s orbit is nearly circular and Earth is actually closer to the Sun in winter than in summer. Earth’s tectonic activity, or the sliding of tectonic plates, causes volcanic activity and earthquakes that renew Earth’s surface. A viscous liquid mantle and a rigid crust surround a solid core. Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.25 days and rotates once every 24 hours. Earth has one moon, or natural satellite.

THE MOON

The Moon

Earth only has one moon, called the Moon. Reflecting sun light, this natural satellite orbits the Earth once every ~29 days, seen in different phases throughout every month: New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous, Third Quarter, Waning Crescent. Formed about 4.53 billion years ago, the Moon is an imperfect sphere bombarded by asteroids and comets during the Late Bombardment Period 3.8-4.1 billion years ago. In fact, the Near Side is much smoother than the Far Side (never observed from Earth), so one theory is that the Moon was actually two chunks of material that collided. However, the giant impact hypothesis indicates that a large object collided into Earth’s surface and while some mass fused with Earth, the rest formed the Moon. This theory explains why the Moon’s interior is similar to that of Earth. The Moon’s gravitational pull contributes the movement of ocean tides, stabilizes Earth’s tilt, and gradually slows the Earth’s rotation.

OVERVIEW

  • Order in Solar System: #3
  • Number of Moons: 1
  • Orbital Period: 1 year
  • Rotational Period: 1 day
  • Mass: 2.9736 x 10^24 kg
  • Volume: 1.08321 x 10^12 km³
  • Radius: 6,371 km
  • Surface Area: 5.10 x 10^8 km²
  • Density: 5.515 g/cm
  • Surface Pressure: 101.325 kPa
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.0167
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 287.2 K
  • Escape Velocity: 11.186 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: N/A

The 8 Planets – Part 2: Venus

NEXT STOP: VENUS!

Venus

An inferno fireball on the inside, a smooth yellow marble on the outside. Venus, the two-faced planet known as “heaven and hell.” Beautiful yet dangerous, Venus is rightfully named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. In modern culture, people associate Venus with beauty products… and Venus Williams, the world champion tennis player.

Shrouded by its thick sulfuric cloud atmosphere, Venus is the second planet from the Sun and the hottest planet on average in the solar system. Also known as the Morning Star or Evening Star, Venus reflects sun light strongly, with a high albedo. Because Venus’ size is similar to Earth’s, Venus is sometimes to referred to as “Earth’s twin” or “Earth’s sister.” Other than size, however, Venus and Earth have nothing in common. Venus’ atmosphere rains sulfuric acid on the dry dessert-like surface! Its thick atmosphere (90 times thicker than Earth’s) composed of mainly CO2 traps carbon dioxide (greenhouse effect) and maintains a searing temperature on Venus. Venus may have harbored water once, but rising temperatures evaporated all liquid water, leaving a volcanically active surface.  Mapped in 1990-1991 by Project Magellan, Venus’ surface comprises of 80% smooth, volcanic plains (70% plains with wrinkled ridges and 10% smooth plains) and 20% two highland “continents” Aphrodite Terra and Ishtar Terra. Venus has little impact craters but various volcanic features such as “novae” (star-like fracture systems) and “arachnoids” (spider-web-like fractures). Scientists know little about Venus’ interior without seismic data, but Venus’ size and density suggest an interior similar to Earth’s. Scientists have attempted to build probes to land on Venus’ surface, but all attempts failed (most only enter Venus’ atmosphere then burn up and crash). Venus’ clouds reflect and scatter 90% of sunlight, so scientists can only map its surface with radar. In fact, Venus’ atmosphere has an ozone layer and its clouds can produce lightning! Unlike any other planet, Venus spins from east to west, in a retrograde motion. Because Venus spins backward, its rotational period is longer than its orbital period; a day on Venus is longer than a year! Unlike Earth, Venus has a negligible magnetic field, unable to divert most solar wind. Like Mercury, Venus undergoes phases as seen from Earth. When Venus is in a crescent phase observers can actually see a mysterious ashen light. In the 17th century, Galileo proved the heliocentric theory with observations of Venus’ phases. Though Venus has no moons, scientists believe the planet had at least one that crashed into its surface. 10 million years after the collision, another impact changed Venus’ spin. Another possibility is that strong solar tides can disturb large satellites. Recently, the Transit of Venus occurred in June, when the planet crossed over the Sun.

MISSIONS: Venera, Sputnik, Mariner, Cosmos, Vega, Pioneer Venus, Magellan, Cassini, MESSENGER, Venus Express

*Many of these missions (Sputnik, Mariner) are series with only some successful and some only fly-bys; Venera is exclusive for Venus

OVERVIEW

  • Order in Solar System: #2
  • Number of Moons: 0
  • Orbital Period: 225 days
  • Rotational Period: 243 days
  • Mass: 4.8685 x 10^24 kg (0.815 Earths)
  • Volume: 9.28 x 10^11 km³ (0.866 Earths)
  • Radius: 6,052 km (0.9499 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 4.60 x 10^8 km² (0.902 Earths)
  • Density: 5.243 g/cm
  • Surface Pressure: 9.3 MPa
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.2
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 735 K
  • Escape Velocity: 10.36 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: -4.9 (crescent) to -3.8 (full)

The 8 Planets – Part 1: Mercury

NEXT STOP: MERCURY!

Mercury

What comes to mind when you think about Mercury? Perhaps the poisonous silvery liquid in old thermometers or the Roman counterpart of the Greek messenger god Hermes? The first planet of the solar system? The Moon’s look-alike? Or maybe… all of the above!

The innermost and terrestrial planet, Mercury is closest to the Sun and feels more of the Sun’s gravity than any other planet. Discovered as early as the 14th century BC, Mercury is one of the ancient planets. Mercury, like the speedy Roman messenger god, is also the speediest planet, traveling on the most elliptical (eccentric) orbit of the 8 planets. As the smallest planet, Mercury has the weakest gravity and no moons. With its heavily cratered surface, Mercury easily looks similar to Earth’s Moon and has been geologically inactive for billions of years. Its negligible atmosphere offers little resistance and protections against onslaughts of meteors and asteroids. Surprisingly, Mercury is not the hottest planet of the solar system even though it is closest to the Sun, because its very thin atmosphere cannot trap much heat. Moreover, Mercury has a low albedo (not very reflective) since its atmosphere mostly absorbs rather than reflects light from the Sun. Consequently, the Sun’s light obscures the already dim Mercury from our view, but individuals usually observe Mercury at dawn or dusk during minimal sunlight— hence, the terms morning star and evening star. Mercury’s largest surface feature is the 4,000-mile Caloris Basin, one of ~15 impact craters. Near the Caloris Basin is a region of hilly terrain called the “Weird Terrain.” Mercury has large ridges up to several hundred kilometers high on its surface. Other features are smooth plains and compression folds (rupes). Mercury’s core is large and rich in iron, since its gravity is not as strong as larger planets to compress it. It is 70% metallic and 30% silicate material. Around the now-believed-to-be molten core is the 500-700 km thick mantle and a 100-300 km think crust. In addition, due to its slow rotational period and small size, Mercury has a significant magnetic field, about 1.1% as strong as Earth’s. Like, Venus, Mercury appears in phases when observing from Earth. On average, Mercury is the closest planet to Earth at 1.08 AU (Earth to Venus is 1.3 AU).

HOW DID MERCURY FORM? – 3 Hypotheses

  1. Mercury was struck by a planetesimal 1/6 the mass of the planet and several kilometers across. The collision destroyed most of the crust and mantle, leaving a large core.
  2. Mercury was formed by the solar nebula (a gaseous cloud from which the Sun and planets formed by condensation) before the Sun’s energy output stabilized. Temperatures during the formation could have been as low as 2,500 K – 3,000 K or as high as 10,000 K. Originally twice the size as it is now, the protosun’s contraction high temperatures vaporized the outer layers of rock on Mercury.
  3. The solar nebula caused drag on materials accreting into Mercury, so that light elements left and heavier elements remained.

* MESSENGER found higher levels of potassium and sulfur than previously thought on Mercury’s surface. This means hypotheses 1 and 2 are unlikely, thus favoring the third hypothesis.

MISSIONS: MESSENGER, Mariner 10, BepiColombo

OVERVIEW

  • Order in Solar System: #1
  • Number of Moons: 0
  • Orbital Period: 88 days
  • Rotational Period: 59 days
  • Mass: 3.3 x 10^23 kg (0.055 Earths)
  • Volume: 6.083 x 10^10 km³ (0.056 Earths)
  • Radius: 2,439 km (0.3829 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 7.48 x 10^7 km² (0.147 Earths)
  • Density: 5.427 g/cm
  • Surface Pressure: trace
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.2
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 340 K
  • Escape Velocity: 4.25 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: -2.6 to 5.7

The 8 Planets: A Series

The Solar System

When you look at the sky on a clear night, what do you see? Stars twinkling, constellations rising, or perhaps a cow jumping over the full Moon? We can clearly see stars light years away, yet through even a telescope stars are only pinpoints of light. But is every bright point of light a star?

Some of the bright pinpoints of lights we see are actually the planets of our solar system. While we may only see 1 or 2 planets with the naked eye, we may observe the distinct features of planets through a telescope. The reddish coloration of Mars. The rings of Saturn. Jupiter’s four biggest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. But how can you tell whether they are planets or stars? Stars twinkle. Planets do not because they reflect sunlight. Most planets appear brighter than stars. Or… you could whip out your handy-dandy Google Sky Map app or any other sky map app!

That we are looking at the same sky our ancestors did over the last thousands of years is spectacular. Though pollution many have obscured some objects from our view, the sky has changed very little. From a dark area, we can still see what the hunter-gatherers saw!

To the observer, the local objects like the planets are intermixed among the infinite stars. But what mysteries are the eight planets hiding? How is each planet unique? How many moons does each planet have? What are their histories? I hope to explore the planets from every angle, for these planets are our home (Earth) and our neighbors (all planets except Earth). Eight posts in the near future will be dedicated to the eight planets. Each planet will be explained and unraveled. Let the journey through the solar system begin!