Category Archives: Planets

Modeling the atmosphere of Jupiter

Hi there! Today we have a look at Jupiter, the largest planet of our Solar System. Several spacecrafts have visited it, from Pioneer 10 in 1972 to JUNO, which still operates. These missions have given us information on the behavior of its thick atmosphere, which raise the need for advanced modeling. This is why the authors of this study, An Equatorial Thermal Wind Equation: Applications to Jupiter, developed an equation modeling its behavior at low latitudes. This modeling appears to be successful for Jupiter when confronted to Galileo data, and for Neptune as well. The study, by Philip S. Marcus, Joshua Tollefson, Michael H. Wong, and Imke de Pater, has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The atmosphere of Jupiter

The planet Jupiter has a mean radius of 69,911 km, but is flattened at its poles. Its polar radius is 66,854 km, while the equatorial one is 71,492 km. This is a consequence of the rotation of the planet, which alters the shape of the atmosphere. Because, yes, Jupiter has a thick atmosphere. This is actually a gas giant planet.

It is pretty difficult to set an inner limit to the atmosphere of Jupiter, since when deep enough, the gaseous and liquid phases cohabit. This is not as if you would have encountered a solid surface. The thickness of the atmosphere is estimated to be some 5,000 km.

As you can imagine, the deeper you go, the higher the pressure. So, it may be convenient to measure the depth as a pressure and not as a distance, i.e. you express the depth in bars / pascals, instead of km / miles.

The atmosphere of Jupiter is mostly composed of hydrogen and helium, with some methane, hydrogen sulfide, and possibly water. It is composed as, from the bottom to the top:

  • the troposphere,
  • the stratosphere,
  • the thermosphere,
  • the exosphere.

Observing the atmosphere of Jupiter shows lateral bands, with different velocities. The winds are particularly strong at low latitudes, i.e. close to the equator.

The spacecraft Galileo delivered an atmospheric probe in December 1995, which transmitted measurements up to the depth of 23 bars, i.e. 150 km, before being destroyed.

The Galileo mission

Galileo was a NASA mission, which operated around Jupiter between December 1995 and September 2003. It has been launched from Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, in October 1989, and made fly-bys of Venus, twice the Earth, and two asteroids, before orbital insertion around Jupiter in 1995. The two asteroids visited were Gaspra and Ida. Galileo gave us accurate images of these small bodies (some 15 and 40 km, respectively), and discovered the small moon of Ida, i.e. Dactyl.

Gaspra seen by Galileo. © NASA
Gaspra seen by Galileo. © NASA
Ida and Dactyl seen by Galileo. © NASA
Ida and Dactyl seen by Galileo. © NASA

Galileo journeyed around Jupiter during almost 8 years, studying the planet and its main satellites. It discovered in particular an internal ocean below the surface of Europa, and the magnetic field of Ganymede. It also gave us the variations of the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere over more than 1,000 km. And this is where you need a thermal wind equation.

The Thermal Wind Equation

You can find in the literature a Thermal Wind Equation, which relates the horizontal variations of the temperature of an atmosphere to the variations of the velocity of the winds. This equation does not usually work at low latitudes, i.e. close to the equator, because at least one of its assumptions is invalid. The Rossby number, denoted Ro, and which represents the ratio between the inertial force and the Coriolis force in the fluid, should be small. In other words, the dynamics of the fluid (the atmosphere) should be dominated by the Coriolis force. But this does not work at low latitudes, when the centrifugal force dominates.

This Thermal Wind Equation is anyway often used, even at low latitudes, because the literature did not offer you any better option. This is why the authors of the present study developed its equatorial extension.

The need for an equatorial extension

An obvious reason for developing such an equation holds even in the absence of data. You need to know the limitations of the Thermal Wind Equation, and a good way for that is to confront it with a more accurate one. In the presence of data, it is even better, because you can confront your two equations with the observations. And several phenomena remained to be explained:

  • the wind variations (wind shear) measured by Galileo. The measurements were made at a latitude of 7°, which is pretty close to the equator,
  • the velocity of a Jovian stratospheric jet,
  • ammonia plumes, which had been detected in the deep atmosphere,
  • on Saturn: an equatorial jet, at latitudes smaller than 3°,
  • on Neptune: zonal vertical wind shear appears to be inconsistent with the temperature profile, which has been measured by another spacecraft, Voyager 2, in 1989. This is actually the only spacecraft which visited Neptune.

I do not want to detail the calculations, but the authors show that when the centrifugal force dominates (significant Rossby number), then the wind shear is related to the second derivative of the temperature with respect to the longitude, instead with the first derivative, as suggested by the classical Thermal Wind Equation. The authors show that their Equatorial Thermal Wind Equation is actually a generalization of the classical one.

Successful modeling

Yes, this is a success. For instance, the authors show that the classical equation cannot be consistent with the detection of the ammonia plumes at the measured velocities, given the temperature required. However, it can be consistent with the equatorial equation, under an assumption on the longitudinal variation of the temperature. Either you consider that the equatorial equation is not accurate enough, or you see this result as a constraint on the temperature.

It works for Neptune as well

Recently, the same authors, in another study measured the wind velocity on Neptune from the Earth, with the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii. The classical Thermal Wind Equation says that these measurements are inconsistent with the temperature profile given by Voyager 2. The Equatorial Thermal Wind Equation show that the two measurements are actually consistent. This is another success!

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Thunderstorms on Saturn

Hi there! You know the thunderstorms on our Earth. In fact, you can have thunderstorms once you have an atmosphere. And you have many atmospheres in our Solar System, particularly on the giant planets. Today we describe a thunderstorm on Saturn, which happened between November 2007 and July 2008, and was observed by Cassini. This thunderstorm is described in Analysis of a long-lived, two-cell lightning storm on Saturn, by G. Fischer et al. This study will be published soon in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Physics of a thunderstorm

Basically, a thunderstorm results from the encounter between cool and hot air. For instance, after a hot summer day, you have hot air in the low atmosphere, while colder air is brought by the wind. Then the hot air, which is lighter, gains altitude. This convective motion induces displacements of electric charges, and so a difference of electrostatic potential between the ground and the top atmosphere. This difference in electrostatic potential creates electric lightning, which actually balances the charges between the sky and the ground. All this results in unstable weather conditions, in particular rain and strong wind. The rain is due to the moist contained in the hot air, which coalesced as clouds while gaining altitude. Thunderstorms are among the most dangerous natural phenomena.

As I said, you can have thunderstorms on any planet with an atmosphere. Today, we are on Saturn.

The atmosphere of Saturn

The radius of Saturn is about 60,000 km, which corresponds to the distance to the center, where the atmospheric pressure reaches 1 bar. At its center Saturn has probably a rocky core, which radius is about 25,000 km. This leaves room for a very thick atmosphere, i.e. what I would call the Saturnian air, mainly composed of molecular hydrogen and helium. Interestingly for us, there are clouds in the atmosphere of Saturn, which composition depend on the altitude, itself correlated with the pressure. The less dense clouds (up to 2 bars), in the upper atmosphere, mainly consist of ammonia ice, while denser clouds contain water ice. The densest clouds, which pressure exceeds 9.5 bars, contain water droplets with ammonia in aqueous solution.

The winds on Saturn are very strong, i.e. up to 1,800 km/h, or 1,120 mph, which of course facilitates the encounters between different air masses (with different temperatures). Moreover, the atmosphere of Saturn is organized into parallel bands, as is the atmosphere of Jupiter. These bands rotate at slightly different rates, which prompted the International Astronomical Union to define 3 reference systems for the rotation of Saturn:

  • System I: spin period of 10 h14 min for the equatorial bands,
  • System II: spin period of 10 h 39 min 24 s, at the other latitudes,
  • System III: spin period of 10 h 39 min 22.3 s, for the radio emissions.

The detected episodes

To be honest with you, I did not manage to get an exhaustive list of the detected events. By the way, if you have some information, I would be glad to get it. You can comment at the end of this article.

You can find below a list of thunderstorms, which have been detected by the Cassini spacecraft between 2004 and 2010. The study we discuss today is on the Storm F.

  • Storm 0: May 26–31, 2004
  • Storm A: July 13–27, 2004
  • Storm B: August 3–15, 2004
  • Storm C: Sept. 4–28, 2004
  • Storm D: June 8–15, 2005
  • Storm E: Jan. 23 – Feb. 23, 2006
  • Storm F: Nov. 27, 2007 – July 15, 2008
  • Storm G: Nov. 19 – Dec. 11, 2008
  • Storm H: Jan. 14 – Dec. 13, 2009
  • Storm I: Feb. 7 – July 14, 2010

These events were identified in detecting radio emissions, due to Saturn electrostatic discharges (SEDs for short). Before that, the Voyager spacecrafts have detected SEDs in 1980 and 1981, but attributed their origins to impacts in the rings. Since then, other events have been detected. In particular, Great White Spot events, i.e. huge disturbance encircling the planets, can be seen from the Earth. They seem to appear roughly every 30 years, which could be correlated with the duration of Saturn’s year (29.46 years). The last Great White Spot has been observed in 2010-11.

The Great White Spot observed by Cassini in February 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
The Great White Spot observed by Cassini in February 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Radio and optical observations

As I said, these events are usually detected thanks to their radio emissions. For that, Cassini disposed of the Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) instrument, equipped with a High Frequency Receiver.
This receiver listened to Saturn in 3 different modes alternatively, allowing to cover a pretty wide range between 325 and 16025 kHz.
These radio measurements were supplemented by optical observations by the Cassini ISS (Imaging Science Subsystem), by optical observations from Earth, and even by Earth-based radiotelescopes, for the strongest discharges.

The detection of such events strongly depends on the location of the spacecraft with respect to the storm. When the spacecraft is opposite to the storm, you detect almost nothing. Almost, because measuring radio emissions permits over-the-horizon detection, especially when the SED storm is located on the night side (opposite the Sun) and Cassini on the day side. This could be due to a temporary trapping of the radio waves below Saturn’s ionosphere before they are released.

So, Cassini’s RPWS detects the discharges, ISS and the Earth-based telescopes see the storms… Let us see the results for the Storm F (November 2007 to July 2008).

The Storm F

RPWS detected about 277,000 SEDs related to this Storm F. But the analysis of the images revealed two phases.

One or two events?

From November 2007 to March 2008, ISS saw one convection cell, at the latitude of ~35° south. And in March 2008 a second cell appeared, at roughly the same latitude, and separated from the first cell by about 25° in longitude. These two cells drifted both of about 0.35° per day. The presence of these two cells with a correlated motion makes this event a very interesting one… and the authors also detected dark ovals.

Dark ovals

A storm appears as a a bright spot, while a dark oval is a dark one. Several dark ovals were seen, the largest one, nicknamed S3 drifted by 0.92° per day, i.e. much faster than the storms. These dark ovals have probably no SED activity. Several explanations have been proposed to explain these features. They could either be clouds of carbon soot particles, produced by the dissociation of methane in the lightning channels, or remnants of convection cells, in which the ammonia particles have fallen deeper into the atmosphere, leaving darker spots.

Features related to the Storm F. The rectangle focuses on the so-called Storm Alley. This image was taken by Cassini ISS on 23 April 2008. © NASA
Features related to the Storm F. The rectangle focuses on the so-called Storm Alley. This image was taken by Cassini ISS on 23 April 2008. © NASA

So, this paper describes the event. The physics behind still needs some clarification, so you can be sure that devoted papers will follow. Stay tuned!

The study and its authors

You can find the study here. And now, the authors:

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

The red spot of Jupiter

Hi there! Today: the red spot of Jupiter. When you observe Jupiter with a common telescope, you just cannot miss it (if it is on the visible side, of course, since Jupiter rotates in about 9.5 hours). It is a red oval, located in the southern equator of Jupiter, as large as 3 Earth. It is actually an anticyclonic storm, which persists since at least 1830. The different space missions have permitted to observe its evolution and measure the winds composing it. Today I present the result of observations by the spacecraft Juno. The study, The rich dynamics of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from JunoCam: Juno images, has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The Red Spot

This Red Spot has been continuously observed since 1830. To be honest, I don’t know who observed it at that time, but the fact is that it is stable since at least 188 years. Before that, several astronomers, including Giovanni Cassini, claimed to have observed it between 1665 and 1713. It is even depicted by Donato Creti in 1711. But, because of the absence of observations between 1713 and 1830,

  1. we do not know whether it is the same spot or not,
  2. it could have disappeared and reappeared during the 18th century.
Astronomical Observations: Jupiter, by Donato Creti (1711).
Astronomical Observations: Jupiter, by Donato Creti (1711).

And this is possible, since the red spot is currently shrinking. We know it thanks to the different spacecraft having met Jupiter (Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and now Juno) and the Hubble Space Telescope. It attained its maximal known width by the end of the 19th century, some 25,000 miles (40,000 km), while it is a little more than 10,000 miles (16,000 km) by now. At this rate, it should become a circle by 2040.

Global view of Jupiter, with the Red Spot at 22° South. © Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA
Global view of Jupiter, with the Red Spot at 22° South. © Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA

It rotates counter-clockwise with a period of 6 days, while the atmosphere of Jupiter rotates clockwise. The top of the spot is higher of 8 kilometers than the surrounding clouds, which makes it colder.

The spacecraft JUNO orbits Jupiter since July 2016, and permits a new analysis of the Red Spot.

The spacecraft JUNO

The NASA spacecraft JUNO, for JUpiter Near-polar Orbiter, has been launched to Jupiter from Cape Canaveral in August 2011. It orbits Jupiter since July 2016, on a polar orbit. This means that it flies over the poles of Jupiter. Its orbit is very eccentric, with a period of 53 days.

Contrary to Galileo, it is interested only in the planet itself, not in its satellites. Its payload is composed of 9 instruments, and among its objectives are the map of the magnetic field of Jupiter, the map of its gravitational field, which contains information on the solid core which is beneath the atmosphere, and a better knowledge of the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

Among the nine instruments is the camera JunoCam, which provided the data permitting this study.

The data: JunoCam images

JunoCam has not been conceived as a science, but as an outreach instrument, i.e. designed to give beautiful images. And it does.
But in this case, it appears that its data can be used for science. You can find below some images of the Red Spot by Juno, this video having been made by Gerald Eichstädt, one of the authors of the study. You can find more of them on its Youtube channel.

JunoCam has a field of 58°, and 4 filters:

  • Blue at 480.1 nanometers (nm),
  • Green at 553.5 nm,
  • Red at 698.9 nm. These three filters are in the visible spectrum,
  • while the fourth one is centered in the methane absorption band at 893.3 nm. This last one belongs to the near infrared spectral domain.

The authors used the images taken in visible light, i.e. with the first three filters, during a close fly-by of the Red Spot on 2017 July, 11.

From raw data to measurements

To make good science from raw data, you have to treat them. In particular, the authors needed to

  • consider the exact location and orientation of the spacecraft,
  • correct the images from distortion. For that, they assumed that the camera had Brown-Conrady radial distortion, or decentering distortion, which would be due to physical elements in a lens not being perfectly aligned.

Once they made these corrections, they got 4 images, distributed over 581 seconds. In comparing the location of the cloud features on these four images, they got the wind velocities in the upper level of the spot.

5 features in the spot

And from these velocities, they identified 5 structures, which are listed in the Table below.

Location Size Winds’ velocity
Compact cloud clusters Northern part 500 x 250 km 30-50 m/s
Mesoscale waves Northern boundary 2,000 x 500 km 50 m/s
Internal spiraling vortices South-West 1,000 x 1,000 km 75 m/s
Central nucleus Center 5,200 x 3,150 km 10-20 m/s
Large dark thin filaments Border 2,000-7,000 x 150 km 2-4 m/s

In particular,

  • the compact cloud clusters are composed of between 50 and 60 single wind cells, each with a size between 50 and 70 kilometers. This size suggests ammonia condensation.
  • The mesoscale waves could either be atmospheric gravity waves, i.e. when buoyancy tries to restore equilibrium between two media (see picture below, of atmospheric gravity waves observed on Earth), or shear instability waves, due to high wind.
  • Satellite image of atmospheric gravity waves over the Arabian Sea. Their visibility is due to sunlight, caused by the "impression" of the atmospheric waves on the sea surface. ©Jeff Schmaltz MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA-GSFC
    Satellite image of atmospheric gravity waves over the Arabian Sea. Their visibility is due to sunlight, caused by the "impression" of the atmospheric waves on the sea surface. ©Jeff Schmaltz MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA-GSFC
  • The cause of the internal spiraling vortices still needs to be understood.
  • The central nucleus is probably a cyclonic region, with turbulent winds.
  • It is not clear whether the large dark thin filaments are traced by darker aerosols, or represent areas with differetn altitudes and particles densities. They could be Vortex Rossby Waves, which accelerate the tangential winds, and play an important role in hurricanes. You can find more details here.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Forming Mars

Hi there! Of course, you know the planet Mars. You can here from it these days, since it is exceptionally close to our Earth. Don’t worry, this is a natural, geometrical phenomenon.

Anyway, it is a good time to observe it. But I will not speak of observing it, today. We will discuss its formation instead, because the issue of the formation of Mars remains a challenge. This is the opportunity to present The curious case of Mars’ formation, by James Man Yin Woo, Ramon Brasser, Soko Matsumura, Stephen J. Mojzsis, and Shigeru Ida. Astronomy and Astrophysics will publish it pretty soon.

Mars is too small

The following table gives you comparative characteristics of Venus, the Earth, and Mars.

Venus Earth Mars
Semimajor axis 0.723 AU 1.000 AU 1.524 AU
Eccentricity 0.007 0.017 0.093
Inclination 3.39° 1.85°
Orbital period 224.7 d 365.25 d 686.96 d
Spin period -243.02 d 23.93 h 24.62 h
Mean diameter 12,104 km 12,742 km 6,779 km

The last line reveals a problem: Venus and the Earth are about the same size, while Mars is much smaller! But this is not the only problem: the compositions of the Earth and Mars are VERY different.

It is pretty easy to know the composition of the Earth: you just analyze samples. And for Mars? Just the same!

Interestingly, there are Martian meteorites on Earth. These are ejecta from impacts, which were ejected from Mars, and then traveled in the Solar System, until reaching our Earth.

In fact, over the tens of thousands of meteorites which have been found on Earth, a little more than one hundred were significantly different than the other ones, i.e. younger formation ages, a different oxygen isotopic composition, the presence of aqueous weathering products… Most of these meteorites were known as SNC, after the three groups they were classified into:

  • S for Shergottites, after the Shergotty meteorite (India, 1865),
  • N for Nakhlites, after the Nakhla meteorite (Egypt, 1911),
  • C for Chassignites, after the Chassigny meteorite (France, 1815).

Such a significant number of similar meteorites, which are that different from the other ones, suggests they come from a large body. Mars is an obvious candidate, which has been confirmed after the discovery that trapped gases in these meteorites are very similar to the ones, which are present in the atmosphere of Mars.

The Martian meteorite NWA (Northwest Africa) 2046, found in September 2003 in Algeria. This is a Shergottite. © Michael Farmer and Jim Strope.
The Martian meteorite NWA (Northwest Africa) 2046, found in September 2003 in Algeria. This is a Shergottite. © Michael Farmer and Jim Strope.

After that, the numerous space missions improved our knowledge of the Martian composition. And it finally appeared that both planets are essentially made of chondritic material. The Earth should accrete about 70% of enstatite chondrite (and same for the Moon), while Mars only about 50%. Chondrites are non-metallic meteorites, the enstatite chondrites being rich in the mineral enstatite (MgSiO3). These numbers are derived from the documented isotopic compositions of the Earth and Mars, i.e. the ratio of the different chemical elements. An isotope is a variant of a particular chemical element, which differs in neutron number.

If you want to convincingly simulate the formation of Mars, the product of your simulations should be similar to Mars in mass AND in composition. And this is very challenging. Let us see why, but first of all let us recall how to form planets from a disk.

Forming planets from a disk

At its early stage, a planetary system is composed of a proto-star, and a pretty flat disk, made of gas and dust. Then the dust accretes into clumps, which then collides to form planetary embryos, i.e. proto-planets. These embryos continue to grow with collisions, until forming the current planets. Meanwhile, the gas has dissipated.

Anyway, interactions between the protoplanets and between them and the gas can lead to planetary migration. This means that we cannot be sure whether the planets we know formed close to their current location. This makes room for several scenarios.

Two models of planetary formation

The obvious starting point is to assume that the planets formed close to their current locations. This so-called Classical model works pretty well for Venus, the Earth, Jupiter, Saturn… but not for Mars. The resulting Mars is too massive.

An idea for by-passing this problem is to start with a depletion of material at the location of Mars. This is equivalent to an excess inside the terrestrial orbit. In such a configuration, less material is available to the proto-Mars, which eventually has a mass, which is close to the present one.

You can get this excess of material inside the terrestrial orbit if you buy the Grand Tack scenario: when Jupiter formed, it created a gap in the inner disk, and the mutual interaction resulted in an inward migration of Jupiter, until reaching the present orbit of Mars. In moving inward (Type II migration), Jupiter pushed the material inward. Then, a 3:2 mean-motion resonance with Saturn occurred, which created another gap, and made Jupiter move outward, until its present location.

This way, you can form a planetary object, which is similar to Mars in mass and location.

But what about its composition?

The composition challenge

This is still a challenge. The composition of a planetary object is strongly affected by the one of the disk, where the object formed… which may not be its present location.

The authors added a free parameter to the model: the break location, which would split the protoplanetary disk into an inner and an outer region. The inner region would be rich in enstatite chondrites, while the outer one would be rich in ordinary chondrites.

A break location at 1.3 AU gives the best fit for the difference of composition between Mars and the Earth, for both formation scenarios (Classical and Grand Tack).

So, the Grand Tack with a break location at 1.3 AU could be the right scenario. But another possibility exists: the Classical scenario says that if Mars formed where it is, then it should be heavier. But what if Mars formed actually further from the Sun, and then migrated inward? Then, it would not need any depletion of material to have the right mass. And the break barrier should have been further than 1.3 AU. But you have to explain why it migrated inward.

Anticipating the composition

One of the good things with scenarios of formation is that thr gives more details on the outcomes, than actually observed. For instance, this study predicts the isotopic composition of 17O, 50Ti, 54Cr, 142Nd, 64Ni and 92Mo, in the Martian mantle. Further data, collected by space missions, will give additional constraints on these parameters, and test the validity of the present study. 8 missions are currently operational in orbit or on Mars, and InSight is en-route, after having been launched in May 2018. It should land on Mars on November 26, and will study its interior with a seismometer, and a heat transfer probe.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

There was water on Mars

Hi there! Well, we already knew that there has been liquid water on the surface of Mars, a long time ago. Indeed, the space mission Mariner 9 imaged valley networks in 1972. Since then, several missions refined the data. The study I present today, Estimate of the water flow duration in large Martian fluvial systems, by Vincenzo Orofino, Giulia Alemanno, Gaetano Di Achille and Francesco Mancarella, uses the most recent observations to estimate the length and depth of former Martian rivers, and their duration of formation and erosion. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Planetary and Space Science.

Evidences of liquid water in the past

The current atmosphere of Mars is pretty thin, its pressure being on average 0.6% the one of the Earth. Such a small atmospheric pressure prevents the existence of liquid water at the surface. Water could survive only as ice, otherwise would be just vaporized. And ice water has been found, particularly in the polar caps. But if the atmosphere were thicker in the past, then liquid water would have survived… and we know it did.

We owe to Mariner 9 a map of 85% of the Martian surface, which revealed in particular river beds, deltas, and lake basins. The study we discuss today focused on valley networks, which are particularly present in the southern highlands of Mars. These valleys are typically less than 5 km wide, but may extend over thousands of kms, and they reveal former rivers.

Nirgal Vallis seen by Mariner 9. © NASA
Nirgal Vallis seen by Mariner 9. © NASA

The history of these rivers is inseparable from the geological history of Mars.

The geologic history of Mars

We distinguish 3 mains eras in the geological history of Mars: the Noachian, the Hesperian, and the Amazonian.

The Noachian probably extended between 4.6 and 3.7 Gyr ago, i.e. it started when Mars formed. At that time, the atmosphere of Mars was much thicker that it is now, it generated greenhouse effect, and liquid water was stable on the surface. It even probably rained on Mars! During that era, the bombardment in the inner Solar System, including on Mars, was very intense, but anyway less intense than the Late Heavy Bombardment, which happened at the end of the Noachian. Many are tempted to consider it to be the cause of the change of era. Anyway, many terrains of the south hemisphere of Mars, and craters, date from the Noachian. And almost all of the river beds as well.

After the Noachian came the Hesperian, probably between 3.7 and 3.2 Gyr ago. It was a period of intense volcanic activity, during which the bombardment declined, and the atmosphere thinned. Then came the Amazonian, which is still on-going, and which is a much quieter era. The volcanic activity has declined as well.

So, almost all of the valley networks date from the Noachian. Let us now see how they formed.

Use of recent data

We owe to the space missions accurate maps of Mars. From these maps, the authors have studied a limited data set of 63 valley networks, 13 of them with a interior channel, the 50 remaining ones without. The interior channel is the former river bed, while the valley represents the area, which has been sculpted by the river. The absence of interior channel probably means that either they are too narrow to be detectable, or have been eroded.

These valley networks are located on sloppy areas, most of them close to the equator. The authors needed the following information:

  1. area,
  2. eroded volume,
  3. valley slopes,
  4. width and depth of the interior channel.

To get this information, they combined topographic data from the instrument MOLA (for Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter) on board Mars Global Surveyor (1997-2006) with THEMIS (THermal Emission Imaging System, on board Mars Odyssey, still operating). MOLA permits 3-D imagery, with a vertical resolution of 30 cm/pixel (in other words, the accuracy of the altitude) and a horizontal one of 460 m/pixel, while the THEMIS data used by the authors are 2D-data, with a resolution of 100 m /pixel. When the authors judged necessary, they supplemented these data with CTX data (ConTeXt camera, on board Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, still ongoing), with a resolution up to 6 m/pixel.

These information are very useful to estimate the formation time and the erosion rate of the valley network.

Dynamics of formation of a river bed

They estimated these quantities from the volume of sediments, which should have been transported to create the valley networks. The idea is, while water is flowing, assisted by the Martian surface gravity (fortunately, this number is very well known, and is roughly one-third of the gravity on Earth) and by the slope, it transports material. The authors assumed in their calculations that this material was only sediments, i.e. they neglected rock transport, and they did the maths.

Several competing models exist for sediment transport. This is actually difficult to constrain, given the uncertainties on the sediments themselves. Such phenomena also exist on Earth, but the numbers are very different for instance if you are in Iceland or in the Atacama Desert.

It also depends on the intermittence: is the water flow constant? You can say yes to make your life easier, but is it true? On Earth, you have seasonal variations… why not on Mars? A constant water flow means an intermittence of 100%, while no water means 0%.

And keep also in mind that the water flow depends on the atmospheric conditions: is the air wet or pretty arid? We can answer this question for the present atmospheric conditions, but how was it in the Noachian?

No icy Noachian

And this is one result of the present study: there must have been some evaporation in the Noachian, which means that it was not cold and icy. The authors show that such a Noachian would be inconsistent with the valley networks, as we presently observe them.

However, they get large uncertainties on the formation timescales of the valley networks, i.e. between 500 years and almost twice the age of the Solar System. They have anyway median numbers, i.e.

  • 30 kyr for a continuous sediment flow,
  • 500 kyr with an intermittence of 5%,
  • 3 Myr with an intermittence of 1%,
  • 30 Myr with an intermittence of 0.1%.

And from the data, they estimate that the intermittence should be in the range 1%-5%, which corresponds humid (5%) and semiarid/arid environments. This is how they can rule out the cold and icy Noachian.

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.