The unusual, and in my opinion unique planet Ceres hasn’t been in the news too often since the great bright spot mystery, but is back with news of having volcanoes that spew mud.
The largest object in the asteroid belt is an active world unlike any other in the solar system.
Nothing is normal on Ceres — least of all its mud volcanoes.
In new research published in Nature Astronomy, a large team of astronomers has laid out a new view of the weirdest world in our solar system. It seems that Ceres has had a busy last few billion years — including random smatterings of volcanism, but of a type seen nowhere else in the solar system.
Ceres is the largest world in the asteroid belt, and is believed to be a remnant proto-planet, or the kind of small worlds that served as the building blocks of the planets we see today. There’s abundant evidence that Ceres may have once had an ocean that’s since frozen over, and the tantalizing clues to a geologically active history.
Ceres even appears to have a form of volcanism. There are two types of volcanism in the solar system, typically: the kinds of magma eruptions seen on Earth and Jupiter’s moon Io, where heated rock wells up from the core to the surface. And then there’s the kind of volcanism seen on Europa and Enceladus, where large plumes of frozen water erupt. Scientists call this cryovolcanism.
Ceres’ Mud Volcanoes
Hanna Sizemore, a Planetary Science Institute research scientist and author on the paper, says Ceres’ volcanoes are a weird mix of the two. “The big difference on Ceres is that you’re in this hybrid between the inner rocky solar system and the icy outer solar system,” she says. That means that while water may be a driving mechanism for the volcanoes, the actual material could include rock, salt, and heated material from the interior of Ceres, which is both a rocky and an icy world at once. When those volcanoes explode, “It would probably look superficially like lava extrusion on the earth, but it would be mud oozing out of cracks or fissures on the surface,” Sizemore says.
Sizemore says a new cryovolcano appears on Ceres roughly once every 50 million years, as indicated by data from the Dawn spacecraft, which has orbited Ceres for around three years. The craft has seen a series of “domes” dotting the world that have similar proportions to mountains, but are made of ices that have since settled after their volcanically active period ended, leveling them out a little.
Bright Spots’ Origin
And those famous bright spots on Ceres could also be some of the more recent areas of cryovolcanism. The brightness is caused by large deposits of salts, which would be expected to come up from down below. We may have also “narrowly” (geologically wise) missed seeing an eruption, by anywhere from “hundreds to millions” of years, according to Sizemore.
So what’s causing it? Sizemore says one of the team’s suspicions is that an impact long ago drove deep into the mantle of Ceres. This could be a contact point between the surface and warmer materials near the core, which could still be geologically active today. “To some extent, we don’t fully understand the mechanisms to maintain heat in these icy bodies,” she says, pointing out other icy worlds that should be dead but which instead seem quite active, like Pluto.
In fact, there are a lot of unknowns about the whole thing—but this new study at least gets the conversation started.
“Our main question is where is the heat coming from that can mobilize these materials,” Sizemore says. “Frankly we don’t know the answer to that. It’s a field that’s opening up. This idea of cryovolcanism has been viewed skeptically over time.” But now, it’s a booming field of research. Yet even as we understand cryovolcanism on other worlds, it’s unlikely anything else we find will quite be like Ceres.
This article originally appeared on Discovermagazine.com.
Russia and America’s Long Space Partnership Could Soon Fall Apart
It’s Not You
During the 1960s, the United States and Russia were engaged in a bitter space race. But starting in the 1970s, their rival space agencies started to collaborate. Nowadays, both countries help run the International Space Station.
But it’s starting to look, Ars Technica reports, as though international rivalries could tear that mutually beneficial relationship apart. If it does, it’ll be a blow not just to space research but to the prospects of a friendly, demilitarized international space community.
I Just Need Some Space
One key issue driving the split is that after NASA decommissioned its Space Shuttle program, it started relying on Russia to launch its astronauts and equipment into orbit. Increasingly, though, NASA has inked contracts with American companies like SpaceX, cutting Russia out of the loop.
“I think we are going through a long transition in the relationship,” space historian John Logsdon told Ars. “When Russia joined the station partnership, it demanded and got, on the basis of its human spaceflight experience, treatment as first among US partners. Now, 25 years later, it is no longer a space superpower, but one among several second-tier countries.”
What does China want to do on the Moon’s far side?
What will China’s Chang’e-4 mission learn about the far side of the Moon? Here are a few things the mission is designed to do.
Learn about the Moon’s history
No space mission has ever explored the far side from the surface. As such, it’s the first chance to explore a mysterious region of Earth’s natural satellite.
The “face” that’s never seen from Earth has some key differences to the more familiar “near side”. The far side has a thicker, older crust that is pocked with more craters. There are also very few of the “maria” (dark basaltic “seas” created by lava flows) that are evident on the near side.
Chang’e-4 has reportedly landed at a site known as Von Kármán crater, a 180km depression located in the far side’s southern hemisphere. But Von Kármán lies within a much bigger hole punched in the Moon – the South Pole-Aitken basin.
It’s the oldest, largest and deepest such basin on the Moon and formed when an asteroid – perhaps 500km across, or more – collided with it billions of years ago.
This event was so powerful that it is thought to have ploughed through the Moon’s outer crust layer and through into the zone known as the mantle.
One of the mission’s objectives is to study any exposed material from the mantle present at the landing site. This would provide insights into the internal structure and history of the Moon.
Indeed, data from orbiting spacecraft show that the composition of the basin is different from the surrounding lunar highlands. But exposed mantle material on the surface is just one possibility among several to explain this observation.
The rover will use its panoramic camera to identify interesting locations and its Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) to study minerals in the floor of the crater (as well as of ejecta – rocks thrown out by nearby space impacts).
Additionally, the Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR) instrument will be able to look into the shallow subsurface of the Moon, down to a depth of about 100m. It could probe the thickness of the lunar regolith – the broken up rocks and dust that make up the surface – and shed light on the structure of the upper lunar crust.
After the huge impact that created the South Pole-Aitken basin, a large amount of melted rock would have filled the depression. The science team wants to use Chang’e-4 to identify and study variations in its composition.
Filling an astronomy gap
The far side of the Moon has long been regarded as an ideal spot for conducting a particular kind of radio astronomy – in the low-frequency band – because it’s shielded from the radio noise of Earth.
There’s a frequency band (below about 10MHz) where radio astronomy observations can’t be conducted from Earth, because of manmade radio interference and other, natural factors.
Chang’e-4’s lander is carrying an instrument called the Low Frequency Spectrometer (LFS) which can make low frequency radio observations. It will be used in concert with a similar experiment on the Queqiao orbiting satellite.
The objectives include making a map of the radio sky at low frequencies and studying the behaviour of the Sun.
Speaking in 2016, Liu Tongjie, from the Chinese space agency (CNSA), said: “Since the far side of the Moon is shielded from electromagnetic interference from the Earth, it’s an ideal place to research the space environment and solar bursts, and the probe can ‘listen’ to the deeper reaches of the cosmos.”
Thus, the mission will fill a gap in astronomical observation, allowing scientists to study cosmic phenomena in a way that has never been possible from our planet.
Radiation on the Moon
Several space agencies want to land humans on the Moon in the not-too-distant future, and might send astronauts there for longer than we’ve ever stayed before. So understanding the potential risks from radiation are vital.
Earth’s thick atmosphere and strong magnetic field provide adequate shielding against galactic cosmic rays and energetic charged particles travelling from the Sun.
But astronauts on the Moon will be outside this protective bubble and exposed to particles travelling through open space at near the speed of light – with potentially damaging consequences for their health.
The Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry (LND) experiment, supplied by researchers in Germany, will aim to fill in some gaps in our understanding about the lunar radiation environment.
It will provide dosimetry (measure the ionising radiation dose that could be absorbed by the human body) with a view to future exploration, and contribute to understanding of particles originating from the Sun.
Mysterious signals are coming from deep space
Image Credit: CC BY 4.0 ESO / S. Brunier
Astronomers have picked up a very unusual repeating signal from a distant galaxy and nobody knows what it is.
Known as a fast radio burst – the signal is a powerful burst of radio waves that, despite lasting mere milliseconds, generates as much energy as the Sun does in an entire day.
While several of these bursts have been picked up over the last few years, this one – which is coming from a source 1.5 billion light years away – is particularly unusual because it appears to be repeating.
It is only the second time a repeating fast radio burst has ever been detected by scientists and as things stand, its exact nature and origins remain a complete mystery.
It has even been suggested that these repeating signals could be evidence of intelligent aliens.
“Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there,” said astrophysicist Ingrid Stairs from the University of British Columbia.
“And with more repeaters and more sources available for study, we may be able to understand these cosmic puzzles – where they’re from and what causes them.”
Source: BBC News |
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