News From Space: The Weird Atmospheres of Titan and Io

alien-worldStudying the known universe is always interesting, mainly because you never know what you’re going to find. And just when you think you’ve got something figured out – like a moon in orbit around one of the Solar Systems more distant planet’s – you learn that it can still find ways to surprise you. And interestingly enough, a few surprises have occurred back to back in recent weeks which are making scientists rethink their assumptions about these moons.

The first came from Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon and the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. All told, the surface has over 400 volcanic regions, roughly 100 mountains – some of which are taller than Mount Everest – and extensive lava flows and floodplains of liquid rock that pass between them. All of this has lead to the formation of Io’s atmosphere, which is basically a thin layer of toxic fumes.

Io_mapGiven its distance from Earth, it has been difficult to get a good reading on what the atmosphere is made up of. However, scientists believe that it is primarily composed of sulfur dioxide (SO2), with smaller concentrations of sulfur monoxide (SO), sodium chloride (NaCl), and atomic sulfur and oxygen. Various models predict other molecules as well, but which have not been observed yet.

However, recently a team of astronomers from institutions across the US, France, and Sweden, set out to better constrain Io’s atmosphere. Back in September they detected the second-most abundant isotope of sulfur (34-S) and tentatively detected potassium chloride (KCl). Expected, but undetected, were molecules like potassium chloride (KCl), silicone monoxide (SiO), disulfur monoxide (S2O), and other isotopes of sulfur.

Io_surfaceBut more impressive was the team’s tentative of potassium chloride (KCl), which is believed to be part of the plasma torus that Io projects around Jupiter. For some time now, astronomers and scientists have been postulating that Io’s volcanic eruptions produce this ring of plasma, which includes molecular potassium. By detecting this, the international team effectively found the “missing link” between Io and this feature of Saturn.

Another find was the team’s detection of the sulfur 34-S, an isotope which had previously never been observed.  Sulfur 32-S had been detected before, but the ratio between the 34-S and 32-S was twice that of what scientists believed was possible in the Solar System. A fraction this high has only been reported once before in a distant quasar – which was in fact an early galaxy consisting of an intensely luminous core powered by a huge black hole.

These observations were made using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) antenna – a radio telescope located in northern Chile. This dish is a prototype antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). And while Io is certainly an extreme example, it will likely help terrestrial scientists characterize volcanism in general – providing a better understanding of it here on Earth as well as outside the Solar System.

TitanThe second big discovery was announced just yesterday, and comes from NASA’s Cassini space probe. In its latest find investigating Saturn’s largest moon, Cassini made the first off-world detection of the molecule known as propelyne. This simple organic compound is a byproduct of oil refining and fossil fuel extraction, and is one of the most important starting molecules in the production of plastics.

The molecules were detected while Cassini used its infrared spectrometer to stare into the hydrocarbon haze that is Titan’s atmosphere. The discovery wasn’t too surprising, as Titan is full of many different types of hydrocarbons including methane and propane. But spotting propylene has thus far eluded scientists. What’s more, this is the first time that the molecule has been spotted anywhere outside of Earth.

titan_cassiniThese finding highlight the alien chemistry of Saturn’s giant moon. Titan has moisture and an atmosphere, much like our own, except that its rains are made of hydrocarbons and its seas composed of ethane. Scientists have long wanted to explore this world with a boat-like rover, but given the current budget environment, that’s a distant prospect. Still, sales of propylene on Earth are estimated at $90 billion annually.

While no one is going to be mounting a collection mission to Titan anytime soon, it does offer some possibilities for future missions. These include colonization, where atmospheric propylene could be used to compose settlements made of plastic. And when it comes to terraforming, knowing the exact chemical makeup of the atmosphere will go a long way towards finding a way to make it breathable and warm.

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video about Cassini’s latest discovery. With the government shutdown in effect, NASA’s resources remain offline. So we should consider ourselves lucky that the news broke before today and hope like hell they get things up and running again soon!


Sources: universetoday.com, wired.com

New Space: “Sail Rover” to Explore Mercury

zephyr-580x435In addition to their ongoing plans to explore Mars for signs of life, the Jovian moon of Europa, and tow an asteroid closer to Earth, NASA also has plans to explore the surface of Venus. For decades, scientists have been yearning to get a closer look at this world’s pockmarked surface, but the volcanic activity, clouds of sulfuric acid and extreme heat are not exactly favorable to robotic rovers.

But according to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, a windsailing rover could be just the means through which the hellish surface environment could be surveyed. This rover, nicknamed Zephyr, would use the high speeds and hot temperatures of Venus to its advantage, deploying a sail after entering the atmosphere and sailing to the ground.

mercury_surfaceThe rover would not be able to move around the surface, but would have electronics inside that are able to withstand the temperatures of 450 degrees Celsius (840 degrees Fahrenheit). Whenever the science team wanted to move some distance, however, they would deploy another sail that could use the wind to transport it across the surface. But mainly, the rover would remain on the ground conducting surface analysis.

Geoffrey Landis, who is with NASA’s Glenn Research Center and a part of the project to develop Zephyr, has long been an advocate of exploring Venus. This has included using solar powered airplane to explore the atmosphere, and colonizing the planet with floating cities. On the subject of Zephyr, he stated that:

A sail rover would be extraordinary for Venus. The sail has only two moving parts-just to set the sail and set the steering position-and that doesn’t require a lot of power. There’s no power required to actually drive. The fundamental elements of a rover for Venus are not beyond the bounds of physics. We could survive the furnace of Venus if we can come up with an innovative concept for a rover that can move on extremely low power levels.

venus_terraformedIn addition to providing volumes of information on the planet’s, exploring the surface of Venus could yield some interesting clues as to how it came to look like something out of Dante’s Inferno. It has been suggested that at one time, Venus may have boasted an atmosphere and surface water similar to Earth’s, but was transformed into a toxic nightmare thanks to a runaway Greenhouse Effect.

Studying how this came to happen would go a long way to helping scientists understand Climate Change here on Earth, and as well as give them the chance to test out possible solutions. And of course, any working solutions might go a long way towards terraforming Venus itself, which is something many scientists are currently advocating since it might be cheaper and less time consuming than transforming Mars.

Then again, if the resources and budget are there, there’s no reason why we can’t try to retool both for human settlement. After all, we might not have much a choice in the coming centuries. Human beings aren’t exactly known for their slow population growth or conservation skills!

Source: universetoday.com

News From Space: Volcanic Eruption on Io!

Io.1Io, the innermost of Jupiter’s four largest moons, has always been a source of wonder for astronomers and scientists. In addition to its pockmarked and ashen surface, it is the most volcanically active object in the Solar System, with about 240 active regions. This is due to the immense tidal forces that Jupiter provides, which create oceans of lava beneath the surface and huge volcanoes blasting it hundreds of kilometers into space.

Naturally, these eruptions are not visible directly from Earth unless one is using infrared cameras. But recently, a new series of eruptions were observed by Dr. Imke de Pater, Professor of Astronomy and of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California in Berkeley. She was using the Keck II telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii on August 15, 2013 when it immediately became apparent something big was happening at Io.

Io_eruptionIn a telephone interview with Universe Today, de Pater claims this eruption is one of the top 10 most powerful eruptions that have been seen on Io, and she just happened to have the best seat in the house to observe it.

When you are right at the telescope and see the data, this is something you can see immediately, especially with a big eruption like that. It is a very energetic eruption that covers over a 30 square kilometer area. For Earth, that is big, and for Io it is very big too. It really is one of the biggest eruptions we have seen.

However, the fact that it occurred in the Rarog Patera region of Io, aptly named for a Czech fire deity, is somewhat unusual. While many regions of Io are volcanically active, de Pater said she’s not been able to find any other previous activity that has been reported in the Rarog Patera area, which the team finds very interesting.

Galileo_IoAccording to Ashley Davies of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena, California, Rarog Patera was identified as a small, relatively innocuous hot spot by the Galileo spacecraft during its encounter with the Jovian moon during the late 90’s. However, the observations made indicated that the volcanic activity was at a level way, way below what was seen on Aug 15.

Though we cannot see the eruptions directly, observation using the Keck telescope in the past have ascertained there are likely fountains of lava gushing from volcanically active fissures. But unlike volcanic eruptions here on Earth, which are already awesome and frightening to behold, eruptions on Io would be roughly 1000 times as powerful.

And since Io has no atmosphere to speak of, and the planet’s mass is significantly less than that of Earth’s (0.015 that of Earth’s to exact), the lava shoots off into space. Thus, for anyone standing on the moon’s surface, the result would look very much like a space launch at night, with plumes of flames reaching from the ground and extending indefinitely into the sky.

Io_Earth_Moon_ComparisonAs de Pater further indicated in the course of her interview, volcanic activity remains quite unpredictable on the Jovian moon:

We never know about eruptions – they can last hours, days months or years, so we have no idea how long it will stay active. but we are very excited about it.

No data or imagery has been released on the new eruption yet since the team is still making their observations and will be writing a paper on this topic. One thing is clear at this point, though. Despite its mysterious nature, Io still has a few surprises left for Earth scientists.

And for more information on the mysterious planet of Io, check out this Astronomycast podcast, featuring an interview with Dr. Pamela Gay of Southern Illinois University:

http://www.astronomycast.com/2011/12/ep-244-io/

Source: universetoday.com, astronomycast.com

Global Warming Slowed by Volcanoes

Klyuchevskaya Volcano. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Klyuchevskaya Volcano. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Global mean temperatures have been rising in recent years, consistent with every projection provided by Climate Change specialists and planetary ecologists. However, it now seems as though the rate of increase is not as bad as it should have been, thanks to a series of small-to-moderate-sized volcanic eruptions that have spewed sunlight-blocking particles high into the atmosphere.

Between 2000 and 2010, the average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide rose more from about 370 parts per million to nearly 390. According to Ryan Neely III, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, if that uptick were the only factor driving climate change, the average global temperature would have risen about 0.2°C. But a surge in the concentration of light-scattering particles in the stratosphere countered as much as 25% of that potential temperature increase.

Sanpedropable Volcano as seen from the ISS
San Pedro Volcano, as seen from the ISS

In addition, Neely and his colleagues ran a series of simulations that indicated that human the human contribution of aerosols to the stratosphere – which would have had a counteractive effect to the carbon – was minimal between 2000 and 2010. William Randel, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder claimed that the pattern of stratospheric particulate variations during the past decade “shows the fingerprint of volcanoes, with the right episodes showing up at the right time.”

For some time now, researchers and ecologists have known that sulfur dioxide, a major biproduct of volcanic eruptions, has a global cooling effect. Once introduced into the upper atmosphere, this particulate matter blocks out solar radiation and prevents it from being absorbed by the Earth’s soil, water, and plant life. In fact, it was a massive series of eruptions which took place during the Cretaceous–Paleogene Era that is believed to be linked to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

converted PNM fileFor many years, geoengineers have considered releasing sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere in order to slow down the process of Climate Change, a measure intended to give Earth’s scientists more time to develop alternative fuels and its people more time to get their act together. However, at this juncture it seems that the planet has obliged us and given us a bit of window, and completely unheeded.

It’s good to know that human agency alone does not determine the course this planet will take. At the same time however, one should not get too enthused and think this means we’re in for a big reprieve. Based on the most recent data, humanity still only has a few decades before the worst begins to happen and our world slowly becomes uninhabitable.

Source: sciencemag.org, Wired.com