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New data hints at water volcanoes on Ceres

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft pulled into orbit earlier this month around the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, it spotted a mysterious bright spot inside a crater. There were suspicions that the spot could be caused by water spewing into space, now fresh views, presented for the first time yesterday, lend weight to the idea.

The pictures show the bright spot is visible even from the side, meaning it probably protrudes above the crater. “What is amazing is you can see this feature while the rim is very likely in front of the line of sight,” said Andreas Nathues, who is in charge of the mission’s camera, and presented the images yesterday at the Lunar and Planetary Science conference (LPSC) in The Woodlands, Texas. “We believe this could be some kind of outgassing.”

Images taken from dusk to dawn on Ceres show that the spot brightens throughout the day and completely disappears at night. This suggests it could be a pocket of ice on the surface that is being heated by the sun and releasing gas, similarly to how a comet behaves. However, Natheus said the team needed higher resolution data to confirm its true nature. This won’t come for a while, as Dawn is currently on the dark side of Ceres and won’t emerge until mid-April.

Distant observations using the Herschel telescope show Ceres is spitting water from somewhere on its surface, but only Dawn will be able to pinpoint the location. Revealing the origin of Ceres’s water could determine whether there is the potential for life beneath its surface, as is thought to be the case on icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn.

But a model of Ceres presented at the LPSC has added a wrinkle by suggesting comet-like behaviour is only possible at the poles of the dwarf planet, not the lower-latitude areas where the bright spot has been seen.

Comet jets and cryo-volcanoes

Timothy Titus of the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, presented a thermal model that examines where on the surface ice could remain stable over the life time of the solar system, rather than boiling away more quickly. If Ceres is acting like a comet, it must have ice patches that can survive for a long time before being heated by the sun as it moves into a warmer part of its orbit.

Titus found that ice could only be stable in regions above 40 degrees latitude. But the plumes spotted by Herschel seemed to come from nearer the equator, which implies they can’t be comet-like. “The water ice is just not stable at the latitudes that the plumes are supposedly coming from,” Titus says.

Another explanation is cryovolcanism, in which ice and water are forced out of the surface by processes similar to those that drive magma volcanoes on Earth. But according to a second model presented at the LPSC by David O’Brien of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, Ceres doesn’t have enough muscle to drive these eruptions.

Water down deep

The idea is that Ceres has a subsurface ocean covered by an icy shell. As the bottom of the shell freezes, it expands, putting pressure on the ocean and the shell itself. In order to create a cryovolcano, says O’Brien, the water pressure needs to build up enough to launch up through the shell before the ice cracks and relieves the pressure.

We don’t know exactly how deep the ice is on Ceres, so O’Brien tried a range of plausible depths. None produced the conditions for spewing cryovolcanoes – the ice always cracked before enough pressure built up. The best case scenario was water reaching about 90 per cent of the way to the surface.

Intriguingly, that means water could potentially reach the surface from a deep crater, where there was less ice to get through – perhaps even from a crater like the one where Dawn saw the bright spot. That doesn’t mean there is a cryovolcano producing a massive plume, but it could be just enough to replenish the ice on the surface, countering the instability that Titus discovered.

So Ceres could be producing comet-like emissions in this region, driven by a weak cryovolcano. “It’s sort of a midpoint between comets and cryovolcanic icy worlds,” says Titus.

There is more than one way to make a cryovolcano, though. Some models suggest the core of Ceres may be heated by radioactive isotopes left over from the dwarf planet’s formation. These could provide enough energy for punchier volcanism, perhaps producing larger plumes – and heat would of course be beneficial for any bacteria that may be lurking below the surface. “Any place you’ve got the potential for liquid water, you’ve got the potential for life,” says Titus. “Ceres could be an extremely exciting astrobiological target.”

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Space

Voyager 2 has discovered something amazing: Denser space outside the solar system

In November 2018, after a 41-year voyage, Voyager 2 crossed the boundary beyond which the Sun’s influence ends, and entered interstellar space. But the mission of the little probe is not yet complete – it continues to make amazing discoveries

Perhaps the probes have found some kind of traffic jam at the edge of the solar system. The Voyager flight continues and we will soon find out what it was.

Voyager 2 discovered something amazing: as the distance from the Sun increases, the density of space increases.

Voyager 1, which entered interstellar space in 2012, transmitted similar indicators to Earth. New data have shown that the increase in density may be a feature of the interstellar medium.

The solar system has several boundaries, one of which, called the heliopause, is determined by the solar wind, or rather by its significant weakening. The space inside the heliopause is the heliosphere, and the space outside is the interstellar medium. But the heliosphere is not round. It looks more like an oval, in which the solar system is at the leading edge, and a kind of tail stretches behind it.

Both Voyagers crossed the heliopause at the leading edge, but within 67 degrees heliographic latitude and 43 degrees longitude apart.

Interstellar space is usually considered a vacuum, but this is not entirely true. The density of matter is extremely small, but it still exists. In the solar system, the solar wind has an average density of protons and electrons from 3 to 10 particles per cubic centimeter, but it is lower the further from the Sun.

The average concentration of electrons in the interstellar space of the Milky Way is estimated to be about 0.037 particles per cubic centimeter. And the plasma density in the outer heliosphere reaches approximately 0.002 electrons per cubic centimeter. When the Voyager probes crossed the heliopause, their instruments recorded the electron density of the plasma through plasma oscillations.

Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause on August 25, 2012 at a distance of 121.6 astronomical units from the Earth (121.6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun – about 18.1 billion km). When he first measured plasma oscillations after crossing the heliopause on October 23, 2013 at a distance of 122.6 astronomical units (18.3 billion km), he found a plasma density of 0.055 electrons per cubic centimeter.

After flying another 20 astronomical units (2.9 billion kilometers), Voyager 1 reported an increase in the density of interstellar space to 0.13 electrons per cubic centimeter.

Voyager 2 crossed the heliopause on November 5, 2018 at a distance of 119 astronomical units (17.8 billion kilometers. On January 30, 2019, it measured plasma oscillations at a distance of 119.7 astronomical units (17.9 billion kilometers), finding that the density plasma is 0.039 electrons per cubic centimeter.

In June 2019, Voyager 2’s Instruments showed a sharp increase in density to about 0.12 electrons per cubic centimeter at a distance of 124.2 astronomical units (18.5 billion kilometers).

What caused the increase in the density of space? One theory is that the lines of force of the interstellar magnetic field become stronger with distance from the heliopause. This can cause electromagnetic ion cyclotron instability. Voyager 2 did detect an increase in the magnetic field after crossing the heliopause.

Another theory is that the material carried away by the interstellar wind should slow down in the heliopause, forming a kind of plug, as evidenced by the weak ultraviolet glow detected by the New Horizons probe in 2018, caused by the accumulation of neutral hydrogen in the heliopause.

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NASA has banned fighting and littering on the moon

New details of the agreement signed by representatives of a number of countries on the development of the moon and the extraction of minerals within the framework of the Artemis program have appeared. Reported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

So, astronauts involved in the mission are prohibited from littering and fighting on the territory of a natural satellite of the Earth.

So, we present to you the new rules for being on the Moon:

Everyone comes in peace;

Confidentiality is prohibited, all launched objects must be identified and registered;

All travel participants agree to help each other in case of emergencies;

All received data is transferred to the rest of the participants, and space systems must be universal;

Historic sites must be preserved and all rubbish must be disposed of;

Rovers and spacecraft should not interfere with other participants.

“”It is important not only to go to the moon with our astronauts, but also that we bring our values ​​with us,” said Mike Gold, acting head of NASA’s international and inter-agency relations.

According to him, violators of the above rules will be asked to “just leave” the territory of the moon.

The effect of these principles so far applies to eight signatory countries of the agreement: the USA, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Countries other than China can join if they wish.

 It should be noted that at the moment NASA is prohibited from signing any bilateral agreements with the PRC leadership.

The first NASA mission to the moon, known as “Artemis 1”, is scheduled for 2021 without astronauts, and “Artemis 2” will fly with a crew in 2023.

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Methane snow found on the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains

Scientists believe that it arose as a result of the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above the surface of the planet.

In the images of the Cthulhu region – a dark region in the equatorial regions of Pluto – planetary scientists have found large reserves of methane snow that covers the peaks of local mountains and hills. It formed quite differently from how snow forms on Earth, astronomers write in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

“The white caps on the tops of Pluto’s mountains did not arise from the cooling of air currents that rise along the slopes into the upper atmosphere, as it happens on Earth, but from the accumulation of large amounts of methane at an altitude of several kilometers above Pluto’s surface. This gas condensed on the mountain tops, “the scientists write.

We owe almost everything we know about Pluto to the New Horizons interplanetary station. It was launched in January 2006, and in mid-July 2015 the station reached the Pluto system. New Horizons flew just 13 thousand km from the dwarf planet, taking many photographs of its surface. 

New Horizons data indicated an interesting feature of Pluto – in its depths, a giant subglacial ocean of liquid water can be hidden. It can be a kind of engine of those geological processes, traces of which can be seen on the surface of a dwarf planet. Because of this discovery of New Horizons, many discussions began among planetary scientists. Scientists are trying to understand how such a structure could have arisen, as well as to find out the appearance of Pluto in the distant past.

Members of the New Horizons science team and their colleagues from France, led by planetary scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center (USA) Tanguy Bertrand, have discovered another unusual feature of Pluto. They studied the relief of one of the regions of the dwarf planet – the Cthulhu region. This is what astronomers call a large dark region at Pluto’s equator, which is whale-like in shape and is covered in many craters, mountains and hills.

Snow in Pluto’s mountains

By analyzing images of these structures taken by the LORRI camera installed on board New Horizons, astronomers have noticed many blank spots on the slopes of the highest mountain peaks. Having studied their composition, scientists have found that they consist mainly of methane.

Initially, planetary scientists assumed that these are deposits of methane ice. However, Bertrand and his colleagues found that the slopes and even the tops of Pluto’s equatorial mountains are actually covered not only with ice, but also with exotic methane snow that forms right on their surface.

Planetary scientists came to this conclusion by calculating how methane behaves in Pluto’s atmosphere. In doing so, they took into account how the molecules of its gases interact with the sun’s rays and other heat sources. It turned out that at the equator of Pluto, at an altitude of 2-3 km from its surface, due to the special nature of the movement of winds, unique conditions have formed, due to which snow is formed from methane vapor.

Unlike Earth, where such deposits are formed as a result of the rise of warm air into the upper atmosphere, on Pluto this process goes in the opposite direction – as a result of contact of the cold surface of the peaks and slopes of mountains with warm air masses from the relatively high layers of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

Previously, as noted by Bertrand and his colleagues, scientists did not suspect that this was possible. The fact is that they did not take into account that due to the deposition of even a small amount of methane snow and ice, the reflectivity of the peaks and slopes of mountains in the Cthulhu region increases. As a result, their surface temperature drops sharply, and snow forms even faster.

Scientists suggest that another mysterious feature of Pluto’s relief could have arisen in a similar way – the so-called Tartarus Ridges, located east of the Sputnik plain. A distinctive feature of this mountainous region is strange peaks that are shaped like skyscrapers or blades. Bertrand and his colleagues suggest that these peaks are also methane ice deposits that grow “from top to bottom.”

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