Category Archives: Planets

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.

Evolution of Venus’ crust

Hi there! Of course, you know Venus. This planet is sometimes nicknamed the twin sister of the Earth, but beside its size, it does not look like the Earth. Venus is closer to the Sun than us, and it has a very thick atmosphere, which is essentially composed of carbon dioxide. This atmosphere has a pressure of 93 bar at the surface of the planet, to be compared with 1 bar for the Earth, and the temperature reaches there 470°C. Definitely hostile.

Anyway, I do not speak of the atmosphere today, but of the surface. I present Inferences on the mantle viscosity structure and the post-overturn evolutionary state of Venus, by T. Rolf and collaborators, which has recently been published in Icarus.

The interior of Venus

Given its size, i.e. a diameter of 12,000 km, which is 95% of the one of the Earth, Venus must be differentiated. It has a crust, a mantle, and core, with increasing densities when you go deeper below the surface. We think the crust to be essentially basaltic, while the core must contain heavy elements. Surprisingly, the space missions did not detect any magnetic field, which means that the core may be not solid, or may be not cooling…

The outer part of the mantle should be fluid, which means that a fluid layer separates the core from the mantle. We know very few of the thicknesses and the compositions of these different layers. Actually, these could only be guessed from the measurements we dispose on, which are the gravity and the topography (see just below). Once you know the gravity field of Venus and its topography, you can elaborate interior models, which would be consistent with your data.

Gravity and topography

First, gravity. When a small body, like an artificial satellite, orbits a spherical planetary body, the gravitational perturbation affecting its motion depends only on the distance between the satellite and the planet. Now, if the planet is not spherical, and has mass anomalies, then the perturbation will not only depend on the distance, but also on the direction planet-satellite. You can determine the gravity field from the orbital deviation of your spacecraft.

It is convenient to write the gravity field as a sum of spherical harmonics. The first term (order 0) is a spherical one, then the order 2 (you have no order 1 if the center of your reference frame is the center of mass) represents the triaxiality of the planet, i.e. the planet seen as a triaxial ellipsoid. And the higher order terms will represent anomalies, with increasing resolutions. These resolutions are modeled as spatial periods. Such a representation has usually an efficient convergence, except for highly elongated bodies (see here).

We use such a representation for the topography as well. The difference is that the result is not the gravity field in any direction, but the altitude of the surface for a given point, i.e. a latitude and a longitude. The spacecraft measure the topography with a laser, which echo gives you the distance between the spacecraft and the surface. The altitude is directly deduced from this information.

Topography of Venus. The altitude variations are about 13 km with respect to a reference ellipsoid. © Calvin Hamilton, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Topography of Venus. The altitude variations are about 13 km with respect to a reference ellipsoid. © Calvin Hamilton, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The best representations we dispose on for Venus come from the American spacecraft Magellan, which orbited Venus between 1990 and 1994. These representations go to the order 180.

Modeling the crustal evolution

In this study, the authors simulated possible evolutionary paths for the crust of Venus, and compared their results with the present Venus, i.e. the gravity and topography as we know them.

For that, they simulated the thermochemical evolution of Venus in using a numerical code, StagYY. This is a 3D-code, which models convection in the mantle, i.e. internal motions. This code is based on finite elements, i.e. the interior of Venus is split into small elements. This splitting is made following a so-called Yin-Yang grid, which is appropriate for spherical geometries. This code includes several features like phase transition (i.e. from solid to fluid, and conversely), compositional variations, partial melting and melt migration. Moreover, it is implemented for parallel computing.

In other words, these are huge calculations. The authors started with 10 simulations in which the crust was modeled as a single plate, i.e. a stagnant lid. The simulations differed by the modeling of the viscosity, and by the radiogenic heating rate. This is the heating of Venus by the decay of the radiogenic elements, which was most effective in the early Solar System.

Once these 10 simulations have run, the authors kept the one, which resulted in the closest Venus to the actual one, and introduced episodic overturns in it.

Stagnant-lid vs. overturn

Venus does not present any tectonic activity. Did it have some in the past? This is a question this study tried to answer.

An overturn is a sudden peak in the heat transfer from the core to the crust through the mantle, due to a too strong difference of temperature, i.e. when the mantle gets colder. Such an episodic phenomenon is triggered by a too thick crust, and results in a melting of this crust, in heating it. In other words, it regulates the thickness of the crust.

Overturns should have happened

And here are the results: the best stagnant-lid scenario, called S2 in the study, presents some discrepancy between the simulated present Venus and the observed one. These discrepancies are present in the topography, in the gravity field, and in the age of the surface. The surface is estimated to be between 0.3 and 1 Gyr old, while the best stagnant-lid scenario predicts that the most probable age is 0.25 Gyr… a little too young.

However, episodic overturns give a surface, which is 0.6 Gyr old. Moreover, the gravity and topography are much better fit. The only remaining problem is that this scenario should result in much detections of plumes than actually detected.

As the authors honestly recall, some physical phenomena were not considered, in particular the influence of the dense atmosphere, and intrusive volcanism. Anyway, this study strongly suggests that episodic overturn happened.

Further data will improve our understanding of Venus. Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) has pre-selected 3 potential future space missions, including EnVision, i.e. an orbiter around Venus. The final decision is expected in 2021.

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.

On the early evolution of Jupiter

Hi there! Today we will discuss on how Jupiter formed. I guess you know Jupiter, i.e. the largest planet of our Solar System. It is a gaseous planet, which means that it is composed of a large and thick atmosphere, which surrounds a solid core. Jupiter is currently studied by the NASA spacecraft Juno. The study I present you, The primordial entropy of Jupiter, by Andrew Cumming, Ravi Helled, and Julia Venturini, simulates different possible paths for the accretion of the atmosphere of Jupiter. The goal is to compare the outcomes with the current atmosphere, to eventually discard some scenarios and constrain the primordial Jupiter. This study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The planet Jupiter

Jupiter is the largest planet of our Solar System, and the most massive one. It is about 1,000 more massive than our Earth, and 1,000 less massive than the Sun. As such, it has a tremendous influence on the architecture of our System, particularly the small bodies. The Main Asteroid Belt presents gaps, which are due to mean-motion resonances with Jupiter. Jupiter is also responsible for the destabilization of the orbits of objects which pass close to it. A famous example is the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 which Jupiter tidally destroyed before its impact. You can find below a comparison between Jupiter, Saturn, and our Earth.

Jupiter Saturn Earth
Equatorial radius 71,492 km 60,268 km 6,378 km
Polar radius 66,854 km 54,364 km 6,357 km
Distance to the Sun 5.20 AU 9.58 AU 1 AU
Orbital period 11.86 yr 29.46 yr 1 yr
Spin period 9 h 55 m 10 h 33 m 23 h 56 m
Density 1.326 g/cm3 0.687 g/cm3 5.514 g/cm3

I compare with our Earth given our special connection with that planet, but the comparison with Saturn is much more relevant from a physical point of view. For gaseous planets, the radius correspond to an atmospheric pressure of 1 bar. I here provide a unique spin period, but the gaseous planets experience differential rotation, i.e. the equator may spin slightly faster than the poles.

You can see that our Earth is much denser than the giant guys. The reason is the thick atmosphere, which is less dense than a rocky body. Actually Jupiter is assumed to have a rocky core as well, which would be surrounded by hydrogen, which pressure increases with the depth.

Jupiter seen by Voyager 2 in 1979. © NASA / JPL / USGS
Jupiter seen by Voyager 2 in 1979. © NASA / JPL / USGS

Observers especially know Jupiter for its Great Red Spot, i.e. a giant storm, which is observed since the 17th century.

Jupiter is currently the target of the NASA mission Juno.

The mission Juno

The NASA mission Juno has been sent from Cape Canaveral in August 2011, and orbits Jupiter since July 2016, on a polar orbit. The nominal mission will be completed in July 2018, but I hope it will be extended (I do not have information on this point, sorry). Its goals are to understand origin and evolution of Jupiter, look for solid planetary core, map magnetic field, measure water and ammonia in deep atmosphere, observe auroras.

The  South pole of Jupiter seen by Juno. © NASA / JPL/ SwRI
The South pole of Jupiter seen by Juno. © NASA / JPL/ SwRI

It is composed of 9 instruments. Beside impressive images of cyclones in the atmosphere of Jupiter, it for instance gave us its gravity field of Jupiter with an unprecedented accuracy. Such a result permits to constrain the interior, see for instance this study, in which the authors modeled different interiors for Jupiter. They then compared the resulting, theoretical gravity field, which the one actually measured by Juno. They deduced that the core contains between 7 and 25 Earth masses of heavy elements.

The study I present today does not model the present Jupiter, but instead simulates the evolution of Jupiter from its early life to present. Once more, the goal is to compare with current and future observations. Let us see how a giant planet evolves.

The formation of a giant planet

There are two identified scenarios for the triggering of the formation of a planet:

  • Disk instability: a massive disk fragments into planet-sized self-gravitating clumps
  • Core accretion: solid particles collide and coagulate into larger and larger bodies until a body large enough to accrete a gaseous envelope.

The core accretion model consists of 3 phases:

  1. Primary core/heavy-element accretion: here you create the solid core,
  2. Slow envelope/gas accretion: in this phase, the solid core continues growing, while gas accretes as well,
  3. Rapid gas accretion: this is the final stage, where the core has already been formed.

Here the authors simulate the Phase 3. They are particularly interested in the heat transfer inside the atmosphere. There are two ways to transport heat in such an environment: by radiation, or by convection, i.e. transport of gas, which is a much more effective process. Moreover, convection permits the transport of heavy elements, and so a gradient of density in the atmosphere. This gradient of density would eventually stop the convection, the atmosphere reaching a kind of equilibrium.

Let us see how the authors simulated that process.

Simulations of different scenarios

The authors simulated the gas accretion of Jupiter using the numerical MESA code, for Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics. Yes, stellar, not planetary. But this is very relevant here, since a gaseous planet and a star are both made of a thick gaseous envelope.

These simulations differ by

  • The initial mass of the core,
  • its initial luminosity, which affects the heat transfers during the accretion process. This could be expressed in terms of entropy, which is a thermodynamical quantity expressing the overall activity of a fluid. It will then express the quantity of conductive transfers,
  • the initial mass of the envelope,
  • the temperature of the accreted material,
  • the time-dependent accretion rate. In some simulations it is an ad-hoc model, fitted from previous studies, and in other ones it is directly derived from formation models. The accretion rate is obviously time-dependent, since it slows down at the end of the accretion,
  • the opacity of the material, which is defined as the ratio of the gravitational acceleration over the pressure, multiplied by the optical depth. This affects the heat transfers.

And from all of these simulations, the authors deduce some properties of the final Jupiter, to be compared with future observations to constrain the evolution models.

The initial state constrains the final one

And here are some of the results:

  • Lower opacity and lower solid accretion rate lead to a low mass core,
  • if the gas accretion rate is high then the proto-Jupiter is likely to be fully radiative, i.e. no convection,
  • the rate at which the accretion slows down at the end determines the depth of the convection zone,

etc.

At this time, we do not dispose of enough data to constrain the initial parameters and the accretion rates, but why not in the future? Juno is still on-going, and we hope other missions will follow. For instance, stable regions in Jupiter’s interior can be probed with seismology. Seismology of giant planets would be pretty similar to helioseismology, i.e. this would consist in the detection of acoustic waves, which would be generated by convection in the interior.

The study and its authors

  • You can find the study here. The authors made it freely available on arXiv, thanks to them for sharing! And now the authors:
  • The website of Andrew Cumming, first author of the study,
  • and the one of Ravit Helled.

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.

Impacts on Jupiter

Hi there! Today is a little different. I present you a study of the impacts on Jupiter. This study, Small impacts on the giant planet Jupiter, by Hueso et al., has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.
This is something different from usual by the implication of amateur astronomers. The professional scientific community sometimes needs their help, because they permit to tend to a global coverage of an expected event, like a stellar occultation. This is here pretty different since impacts on Jupiter are not predicted, so they are observed by chance. And the more observations, the more chance.
Thanks to these data, the authors derived an estimation of the impact rate on Jupiter.

The fall of Shoemaker-Levy 9

Before getting to the point, let me tell you the story of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. This comet has been discovered around Jupiter in March 1993 by Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker, David Levy, and Philippe Bendjoya. Yes, this was discovered as a satellite of Jupiter, but on an unstable orbit. This comet was originally not a satellite of Jupiter, and when passing by Jupiter captured it. And finally, Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed on Jupiter between July, 16 and July, 22 1994. Why during 6 days? Because the comet got fragmented. 23 fragments have been detected, which crashed close to the South Pole of Jupiter in 1994. This resulted in flashes more visible than the Red Spot, and scars which could be seen during several months. Moreover, Shoemaker-Levy 9 polluted the atmosphere of Jupiter with water.

Impacting Jupiter

Shoemaker-Levy 9 is a spectacular and well-known example of impact on Jupiter. But Jupiter is in fact regularly impacted. Cassini even mentioned a black dot on Jupiter in 1690, which could result from an impact. This is how things work.

Jupiter attracts the impactors

As you know, Jupiter is the most massive body in the Solar System, beside the Sun of course. As such, it attracts the small objects passing by, i.e. it tends to focus the trajectories of the impactors. So, the impactors are caught in the gravitational field of Jupiter, but usually on a hyperbolic orbit, since they come from very far away. As a consequence their orbits are unstable, and they usually will be ejected, or crash onto Jupiter. Let us assume we crash on Jupiter.

Jupiter destroys the impactors

Before the crash, the distance to Jupiter decreases, of course, and its gravitational action becomes stronger and stronger. A consequence is that the differential action of Jupiter on different parts of a given body, even a small one, gets stronger, and tends to disrupt it (tidal disruption). This is why Shoemaker-Levy 9 has been fragmented.

The impactors do not leave any crater

When the fragments reach Jupiter, they reach in fact its upper atmosphere. Since this atmosphere is very large and thick, the impactors do not create visible craters, but only perturbations in the atmosphere. We see at least a flash (a bright fireball), and then we may see kind of clouds, which are signatures of the atmospheric pollution due to the impactors. I mentioned a flash, actually they may be several of them, because the impactor is fragmented.

Let us now discuss on the observations of such events.

Observing an impact

Jupiter is usually easy to observe from the Earth, but only 9 months each year. It is too close to the Sun during the remaining time. While visible, everybody is free to point a telescope at it, and record the images. Actually amateur astronomers do it, and some impacts were detected by them. Once you have recorded a movie, then you should watch it slowly and carefully to detect an impact. Such an event lasts a few seconds, which is pretty tough to detect on a movie which lasts several hours.

The authors studied 5 events, at the following dates:

  1. June 3, 2010, detected twice, in Australia and in the Philippines,
  2. August 20, 2010, detected thrice, in Japan,
  3. September 9, 2012, detected twice, in the USA
  4. March 17, 2016, detected twice, in Austria and Ireland,
  5. May 26, 2017, detected thrice, in France and in Germany.

Once an observer detects such an event, he/she posts the information on an astronomy forum, to let everybody know about it. This is how several observers can get in touch. If you are interested, you can also consult the page of the Jupiter bolides detection project.

The detection of impacts can be improved in observing Jupiter through blue filters and wide filters centered on the methane absorption band at 890 nm, because Jupiter is pretty dark at these wavelengths, making the flash more visible. Moreover, one of the authors, Marc Delcroix, made an open-source software, DeTeCt, which automatically detects the flashes from observations of Jupiter.

All of these events were discovered by amateurs, and professionals exploited the data to characterize the impactors.

Treating the data

Once the impacts have been detected, the information and images reach the professionals. In order to characterize the impactor, they estimate the intensity and duration of the flash by differential photometry between images during the event and images before and after, to subtract the luminosity of Jupiter. Then they plot a lightcurve of the event, which could show several maximums if we are lucky enough. From the intensity and duration they get to the energy of the impact. And since they can estimate the velocity of the impact, i.e. 60 km/s, which is a little larger than the escape velocity of Jupiter (imagine you want to send a rocket from Jupiter… you should send it with a velocity of at least 60 km/s, otherwise it will fall back on the planet), they get to the size of the impactor.

A 45-m impactor every year

The most frequent impacts are probably the ones by micrometeorites, as on Earth, but we will never be able to observe them. They can only be estimated by dynamical models, i.e. numerical simulations, or by on-site measurements by spacecrafts.

The authors showed that the diameters of the impactors, which were involved in the detected events, could be from the meter to 20 meters, depending on their density, which is unknown. Moreover, they estimate that events by impactors of 45 m should occur and could be detectable every year, but that impacts from impactors of 380 meters would be detectable every 6 to 30 years… if observed of course. And this is why the authors insist that many amateurs participate to such surveys, use the DeTeCt software, report their observations, and share their images.

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.

Ice on Mercury

Hi there! You know Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System. It has recently been explored during 4 years by the American spacecraft MESSENGER, which gave us invaluable data on its surface, its magnetic field, its interior…
Today I present you a study on the ice on Mercury. It is entitled Constraining the thickness of polar ice deposits on Mercury using the Mercury Laser Altimeter and small craters in permanently shadowed regions, by Ariel N. Deutsch, James W. Head, Nancy L. Chabot & Gregory A. Neumann, and has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.
We know that there is some ice at the surface of Mercury, and the study wonders how much. Since Mercury is close to the Sun, its surface is usually hot enough to sublimate the ice… except in permanently shadowed regions, i.e. in craters. For that, the authors compared the measured depth of small craters, and compared it with the expected depth from the excavation of material by an impactor. The difference is supposed to be ice deposit.

Mercury and MESSENGER

The planet Mercury is known at least since the 14th century BC. It was named after the Roman messenger god Mercurius, or Hermes in Greek, since the messengers saw it at dawn when they left, and at dusk when they arrived. The reason is that Mercury is in fact pretty close to the Sun, i.e. three times closer than our Earth. So, usually the Sun is so bright that it prevents us from observing it. Unless it is below the horizon, which happens at dawn and at dusk.

Mercury makes a full revolution around the Sun in 88 days, and a full rotation in 58 days. This 2/3 ratio is a dynamical equilibrium, named 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which has been reached after slow despinning over the ages. This despinning is indeed a loss of energy, which has been favored by the tidal (gravitational) action of the Sun. This resulting spin-orbit resonant configuration is a unique case in the Solar System. A consequence is that the Solar day on Mercury lasts 176 days, i.e. if you live on Mercury, the apparent course of the Sun in the sky lasts 176 days.

The proximity of the Sun makes Mercury a challenge for exploration. Mariner 10 made 3 fly-bys of it in 1974-1975, mapping 45% of its surface, and measuring a tiny magnetic field. We had to wait until 2011 for the US spacecraft MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) to be the first human-made object inserted into orbit around Mercury. The orbital phase lasted 4 years, and gave us a full map of the planet, gravity data, accurate measurements of its rotation, a list of craters, measurements of the magnetic field,…

The instrument of interest today is named MLA, for Mercury Laser Altimeter. This instrument used an infrared laser (wavelength: 1,064 nanometers) to estimate the height of the surface from the reflection of the laser: you send a laser signal, you get it back some time later, and from the time you have the distance, since you know the velocity, which is the velocity of the light. And in applying this technique all along the orbit, you produce a map of the whole planet. This permits for instance to estimate the size and depth of the craters.

The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).
The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).

Ice on Mercury

The discovery of ice at the poles of Mercury was announced in 1992. It was permitted by Earth-based radar imagery made at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave desert, in California (USA). Ice is pretty easy to uncover, because of its high reflectivity. But this raises some questions:

  1. How can ice survive on Mercury?
  2. How much ice is there?
  3. How did it arrive?
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google

The first question is not really a mystery. Because of its long Solar day and its absence of atmosphere (actually Mercury has a very tenuous exosphere, but we can forget it), Mercury experiences huge variations of temperature between day and night, i.e. from 100K to 700K, or -173°C to 427°C, or -279°F to 801°F (it is in fact not accurate at the 1°F level…). So, when a region is illuminated, the water ice is definitely not stable. However, there are regions, especially at the poles, which are never illuminated. There ice can survive.

The last two questions are answered by this study.

Ice is still present in craters

For not being illuminated, it helps to be close to a pole, but the topography can be helpful as well. The surface of Mercury is heavily cratered, and the bottoms of some of these craters are always hidden from the Sun. This is where the authors looked for ice. More precisely, they investigated 10 small craters within 10 degrees of the north pole. And for each of them, they estimated the expected depth from the diameter, and compared it with the measured depth. If it does not match, then you have water ice at the bottom. Easy, isn’t it?

The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA
The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA

Well, it is not actually that easy. The question is: did the water ice arrive after or before the excavation of the crater? If it arrived before, then the impactor just excavated some ice, and the measurements do not tell you anything.

Another challenge is to deal with the uncertainties. MLA was a wonderful instrument, with an accuracy smaller than the meter. Very well. But you are not that accurate if you want to predict the depth of a crater from its diameter. The authors used an empirical formula proposed by another study: d=(0.17±0.04)D0.96±0.11, where d is the depth, and D the diameter. The problem is the ±, i.e. that formula is not exact. This uncertainty is physically relevant, since the depth of the crater might depend on the incidence angle of the impact, which you don’t know, or on the material at the exact location of the impact… and this is a problem, since you cannot be that accurate on the theoretical depth of the crater. The authors provide a numerical example: a 400-m diameter crater has an expected depth between 21.2 and 127.7 m… So, there is a risk that the thickness of ice that you would measure would be so uncertain that actual detection would be unsure. And this is what happens in almost of all the craters. But the detection is secured by the fact that several craters are involved: the more data you have, the lower the uncertainties. And the ice thickness derived from several craters is more accurate than the one derived from a single crater.

Results: how much ice?

And the result is: the ice thickness is 41+30-14m. The uncertainty is large, but the number remains positive anyway, which means that the detection is positive! Moreover, it is consistent with previous studies, from the detection of polar ice with Goldstone facilities, to similar studies on other regions of Mercury. So, there is ice on Mercury.
An extrapolation of this result suggests that the total mass of water ice on the surface of Mercury is “1014-1015 kg, which is equivalent to ~100-1,000 km3 ice in volume, assuming pure water ice with no porosity” (quoted from the study).

The origin of ice

Mercury is a dense planet, i.e. too dense for such a small planet. It is widely accepted that Mercury as we see it constituted a core of a proto-Mercury, which has been stripped from its mantle of lighter elements. Anyway, Mercury is too dense for the water ice to originate from it. It should come from outside, i.e. it has been brought by impactors. The authors cite studies stating that such a quantity could have been brought by micrometeorites, by Jupiter-family comets, and even by a single impactor.

Another spacecraft soon

Such a study does not only exploit the MESSENGER data, but is also a way to anticipate the future measurements by Bepi-Colombo. This mission will be constituted of two orbiters, one supervised by the European Space Agency (ESA), and the other one by the Japanese agency JAXA. Bepi-Colombo should be launched in October 2018 from Kourou (French Guiana), and inserted into orbit around Mercury in April 2026. Its accuracy is expected to be 10 times better than the one of MESSENGER, and the studies inferring results from MESSENGER data can be seen as predictions for Bepi-Colombo.

The study and its authors

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