Curiosity: Update 8 – Methane-less Mars

Shooting Lasers from MSL’s TLS instrument

Mars has lost at least half its atmosphere since the planet’s inception, Curiosity confirms. Mars’ atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Other than shielding life from harmful UV radiation, atmosphere also controls the fluctuations in climate. Because Mars’ atmosphere contains more heavier varieties of carbon dioxide than lighter ones, the ratio suggest the planet has sadly lost much of its atmosphere. Mars’ thin atmosphere has nearly untraceable amounts of methane, only a few parts of methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere. Microbes like bacteria emit methane. In fact, 95% of methane on Earth is produced by biological processes. Though Curiosity failed to find traces of methane in Gale Crater, Mars may yet host methane elsewhere.

Curiosity used its SAM instruments (Sample Analysis at Mars) and TLS (Tunable Laser Spectrometer). In the near future, SAM will analyze its first solid sample to search for organic compounds in rocks.

In addition, air samples from Curiosity match ones from trapped air bubbles in meteorites found on Earth. Ergo, those meteorites definitely originated from Mars. 1 billion years ago, a large asteroid collided into Mars and split into fragments.

References

 “NASA Rover Finds Clues to Changes in Mars’ Atmosphere.” JPL Caltech. JPL, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1388&gt;.

Vergano, Dan. “NASA’s Curiosity rover confirms Mars lost atmosphere.” USA Today. USA Today, 2 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Nov 2012. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/sciencefair/2012/11/02/curiosity-rover-mars-methane/1678033/&gt;.

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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 Milky Way – Structure and Origin

The Milky Way and Its Magellanic Clouds

The Milky Way and Its Magellanic Clouds

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Magellanic Clouds, or the galaxy’s satellite galaxies (revolves around Milky Way), are visible. The Magellanic Clouds are named for the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the first circumnavigator of the world. Because of interstellar dust (rocky planets and other material), we can only see 6,000 stars, but the Milky Way has 100 billion stars total. The farthest are 4,000 light years away. Earth’s atmosphere smears the sky, so stars appear to twinkle. About 10^6 stars— old as the universe— inhabit In globular clusters (~200 in Milky Way’s halo).

All pictures of the Milky Way are artists’ conceptions because no telescope can travel high enough (billions of light years) to capture the entire galaxy.

Milky Way – Structure

Shapley’s Subdivision of the Milky Way

  1. Nuclear Bulge: (10^6 solar masses) nucleus in the center, old stars (red)
  2. The Disk: (10^11 solar masses) thin, diffuse layer of material revolving around the bulge; the Sun is half-way on the disk; all young stars
  3. The Halo: hot gas about 100,000 K
  4. Galactic Corona: mass exists but unseen; 5-10 times as much mass as the nucleus, disk, and halo together, 95% of galaxy mass unknown matter
  • Visible Matter: 96% stars, 4% interstellar gas

Origin

  1. (13.6 billion years ago) A gas cloud of 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with mass ~ 1 trillion solar masses
  2. Contraction and rotation form spherical shape
  3. Inner part flattens to form disk of younger stars
  4. Galactic rotation forms spiral arms
  5. Supernovae gives off more heavy elements that eventually become the Sun