Probing the Impacts of Early Earth
Between 3 and 4 billion years ago, the planets of the inner Solar System were scarred by a number of large impacts. This period, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, marks the final stage of planetary formation in the Solar System. But a new paper published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems suggests that it was also the beginning of plate tectonics here on Earth.
Curiosity Finds Water, But Don’t Plan A Mission On It
New measurements by Curiosity at Gale Crater show that Martian sediments contain almost 2% water by weight, says a study released today in Science. These measurements, taken by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM), were taken in November 2012 at a site named Rocknest. Rocknest, a sandy patch near Curiosity’s landing site, was one of the first ports-of-call for the rover upon arriving at Mars.
The Science study, lead by Laurie Leshin (Polytechnic Institute), is the first detailed analysis of SAM readings at Rocknest. SAM cooked its samples at a temperature of 835 degrees C before measuring the gases that baked out. Those measurements showed that the sand at Rocknest contained 2% water by weight. To put that in perspective, if future astronauts could collect all of the water from the sediment, they would produce 33 liters from every cubic meter of dirt they processed.
Isotopic measurements taken by SAM also suggest that the sediments at Rocknest are being sponged up by the atmosphere, says Leshin. The evidence is a high ratio of deuterium to hydrogen. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen that contains one neutron. This makes it approximately twice as heavy as hydrogen. As the Martian atmosphere slowly escaped into space, more deuterium than hydrogen remained behind. This left Martian surface water with much more deuterium than water belched out by Martian volcanoes. The results suggest that over time, the sediments sponged up water from the Martian atmosphere, says Leshin.
Obstacles to Manned Spaceflight
Despite holding a significant amount of water, future space missions will likely be unable to do much with it. First, it’s difficult to extrapolate the results from Gale Crater to Mars as a whole. The rocks at Gale Crater were deposited in water, which is somewhat atypical for the Martian surface. Nearly 2/3 of the Martian surface is basalt, volcanic rock that contains a lot less water than sedimentary rocks. This is due to the fact that mineral grains in volcanic rocks are intergrown, leaving no pore space for water to collect inside the rock.
Further, the water that is contained within these sediments will be difficult to extract. The reason why can be shown with a simple home experiment. Take a cup of sand and record the amount of water you put in. Do this until the sand is completely soaked, with a little bit of water puddling on the top. Now, turn the cup to let the water leak out and measure the amount of water you have. You’ll notice that you only get out about a third of the water you put in. Why? Because the sand particles will have a film of water clinging to them thanks to surface tension. The finer the sediment, the more water you leave behind. More can be removed by pumping, but at the trace levels found by Curiosity, even that will be unextractable.
Further adding to the difficulty of extracting that water is that clay, a very fine sediment that forms the majority of rocks in Gale Crater. Clays that form from weathering of volcanic rocks like those found on Mars, are generally hydrophilic. The chemical composition of these clays attracts water and prevents it from leaving. The crystalline structure found in clay minerals also provides more space to stash away water.
In practice, to extract the water found by Curiosity, future astronauts would need to bake the sediments and collect the water vapor evaporating from the rocks. This would require extra equipment like an oven, as well as the tools and equipment necessary to operate it. As a result, it quickly becomes more practical to simply bring all the water needed from Earth, since reprocessing will already be necessary in the first place for the astronauts’ Mars-bound travel supply.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
IBEX measures the wake produced by the Solar System for the first time
NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer has successfully mapped the wake produced by our Solar System as it moves through the local interstellar medium.
Launched in 2008, IBEX has already helped us map the boundary of the Sun’s influence where the solar wind streaming from the Sun’s surface is no longer strong enough to push out its own “bubble” against the interstellar medium. We’ve previously covered the fascinating, complex interaction between the charged particles from the Sun and ISM that takes place at the edge of the heliosphere.
As part of these investigations, IBEX has now managed to map the wake of our Solar System as we move through the ISM for the first time by combining three years of data to produce this map of the ENA density looking down the tail.
What are ENAs, I hear you ask? Well, put simply, they are your average atoms. The Sun throws out charged ions (Protons, as one helpful reader reminded me in the specific case of a Hydrogen atom stripped of electrons) in every direction. When these charged ions meet other charged ions from the interstellar medium, they gain an electron and become neutral. Charged particles are affected by magnetic fields but neutral atoms are not, meaning that their paths stop curving and they effectively travel in straight lines forever afterward.
IBEX measures ENA energetic intensity as they impact the detector after travelling from the interface between the heliosphere and the interstellar medium, producing the image above. A couple of things are important here: the image roughly corresponds with the velocity of the solar wind produced by the Sun – fast at the poles and slower close to the equator. But theres also a few degrees of rotation, apparently due to the interaction between the solar wind and the magnetic field of the galaxy as the particles leave the influence of the heliosphere (represented by the purple magnetic field lines in the principle image).
Astrophysicists dont know exactly how long the tail is, but assume that it vanishes as particles from the solar wind effectively dissipate and become part of the local interstellar medium.
NASA has a pretty sweet video explaining the process here.
Image Credit: NASA/IBEX
LRO Images GRAIL impact craters
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter has managed to capture the final resting places of a pair of satellites purposely impacted into the Moon after completing their original mission.