Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Io


Establishing the age of the Moon is critical to understanding solar system evolution and the formation of rocky planets, including Earth. However, despite its importance, the age of the Moon has never been accurately determined. We present uranium-lead dating of Apollo 14 zircon fragments that yield highly precise, concordant ages, demonstrating that they are robust against postcrystallization isotopic disturbances. Hafnium isotopic analyses of the same fragments show extremely low initial (176)Hf/(177)Hf ratios corrected for cosmic ray exposure that are near the solar system initial value. Our data indicate differentiation of the lunar crust by 4.51 billion years, indicating the formation of the Moon within the first ~60 million years after the birth of the solar system.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Moon, Dwarf planet, Venus, Io, Impact crater


The deep nitrogen-covered basin on Pluto, informally named Sputnik Planitia, is located very close to the longitude of Pluto’s tidal axis and may be an impact feature, by analogy with other large basins in the Solar System. Reorientation of Sputnik Planitia arising from tidal and rotational torques can explain the basin’s present-day location, but requires the feature to be a positive gravity anomaly, despite its negative topography. Here we argue that if Sputnik Planitia did indeed form as a result of an impact and if Pluto possesses a subsurface ocean, the required positive gravity anomaly would naturally result because of shell thinning and ocean uplift, followed by later modest nitrogen deposition. Without a subsurface ocean, a positive gravity anomaly requires an implausibly thick nitrogen layer (exceeding 40 kilometres). To prolong the lifetime of such a subsurface ocean to the present day and to maintain ocean uplift, a rigid, conductive water-ice shell is required. Because nitrogen deposition is latitude-dependent, nitrogen loading and reorientation may have exhibited complex feedbacks.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Mars, Moon, Neptune, Io, Ecliptic


Mars hosts the solar system’s largest volcanoes. Although their size and impact crater density indicate continued activity over billions of years, their formation rates are poorly understood. Here we quantify the growth rate of a Martian volcano by (40)Ar/(39)Ar and cosmogenic exposure dating of six nakhlites, meteorites that were ejected from Mars by a single impact event at 10.7 ± 0.8 Ma (2σ). We find that the nakhlites sample a layered volcanic sequence with at least four discrete eruptive events spanning 93 ± 12 Ma (1416 ± 7 Ma to 1322 ± 10 Ma (2σ)). A non-radiogenic trapped (40)Ar/(36)Ar value of 1511 ± 74 (2σ) provides a precise and robust constraint for the mid-Amazonian Martian atmosphere. Our data show that the nakhlite-source volcano grew at a rate of ca. 0.4-0.7 m Ma(-1)-three orders of magnitude slower than comparable volcanoes on Earth, and necessitating that Mars was far more volcanically active earlier in its history.Mars hosts the solar system’s largest volcanoes, but their formation rates remain poorly constrained. Here, the authors have measured the crystallization and ejection ages of meteorites from a Martian volcano and find that its growth rate was much slower than analogous volcanoes on Earth.

Concepts: Earth, Solar System, Mars, Venus, Io, Impact crater, Asteroid, Olympus Mons


Four small moons–Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra–follow near-circular, near-equatorial orbits around the central ‘binary planet’ comprising Pluto and its large moon, Charon. New observational details of the system have emerged following the discoveries of Kerberos and Styx. Here we report that Styx, Nix and Hydra are tied together by a three-body resonance, which is reminiscent of the Laplace resonance linking Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa and Ganymede. Perturbations by the other bodies, however, inject chaos into this otherwise stable configuration. Nix and Hydra have bright surfaces similar to that of Charon. Kerberos may be much darker, raising questions about how a heterogeneous satellite system might have formed. Nix and Hydra rotate chaotically, driven by the large torques of the Pluto-Charon binary.

Concepts: Planet, Moon, Jupiter, Orbital resonance, Io, Pluto, Natural satellite, Europa


The Jovian moon Io hosts the most powerful persistently active volcano in the Solar System, Loki Patera. The interior of this volcanic, caldera-like feature is composed of a warm, dark floor covering 21,500 square kilometres surrounding a much cooler central ‘island’. The temperature gradient seen across areas of the patera indicates a systematic resurfacing process, which has been seen to occur typically every one to three years since the 1980s. Analysis of past data has indicated that the resurfacing progressed around the patera in an anti-clockwise direction at a rate of one to two kilometres per day, and that it is caused either by episodic eruptions that emplace voluminous lava flows or by a cyclically overturning lava lake contained within the patera. However, spacecraft and telescope observations have been unable to map the emission from the entire patera floor at sufficient spatial resolution to establish the physical processes at play. Here we report temperature and lava cooling age maps of the entire patera floor at a spatial sampling of about two kilometres, derived from ground-based interferometric imaging of thermal emission from Loki Patera obtained on 8 March 2015 ut as the limb of Europa occulted Io. Our results indicate that Loki Patera is resurfaced by a multi-phase process in which two waves propagate and converge around the central island. The different velocities and start times of the waves indicate a non-uniformity in the lava gas content and/or crust bulk density across the patera.

Concepts: Solar System, Volcano, Magma, Basalt, Io, Lava, Caldera, Volcanic gas


Unrest at large calderas rarely ends in eruption, encouraging vulnerable communities to perceive emergency warnings of volcanic activity as false alarms. A classic example is the Campi Flegrei caldera in southern Italy, where three episodes of major uplift since 1950 have raised its central district by about 3 m without an eruption. Individual episodes have conventionally been treated as independent events, so that only data from an ongoing episode are considered pertinent to evaluating eruptive potential. An implicit assumption is that the crust relaxes accumulated stress after each episode. Here we apply a new model of elastic-brittle failure to test the alternative view that successive episodes promote a long-term accumulation of stress in the crust. The results provide the first quantitative evidence that Campi Flegrei is evolving towards conditions more favourable to eruption and identify field tests for predictions on how the caldera will behave during future unrest.

Concepts: Italy, Volcano, Io, Naples, Campania, Campi Flegrei, Caldera, Yellowstone Caldera


Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia is a bright, roughly circular feature that resembles a polar ice cap. It is approximately 1,000 kilometres across and is centred on a latitude of 25 degrees north and a longitude of 175 degrees, almost directly opposite the side of Pluto that always faces Charon as a result of tidal locking. One explanation for its location includes the formation of a basin in a giant impact, with subsequent upwelling of a dense interior ocean. Once the basin was established, ice would naturally have accumulated there. Then, provided that the basin was a positive gravity anomaly (with or without the ocean), true polar wander could have moved the feature towards the Pluto-Charon tidal axis, on the far side of Pluto from Charon. Here we report modelling that shows that ice quickly accumulates on Pluto near latitudes of 30 degrees north and south, even in the absence of a basin, because, averaged over its orbital period, those are Pluto’s coldest regions. Within a million years of Charon’s formation, ice deposits on Pluto concentrate into a single cap centred near a latitude of 30 degrees, owing to the runaway albedo effect. This accumulation of ice causes a positive gravity signature that locks, as Pluto’s rotation slows, to a longitude directly opposite Charon. Once locked, Charon raises a permanent tidal bulge on Pluto, which greatly enhances the gravity signature of the ice cap. Meanwhile, the weight of the ice in Sputnik Planitia causes the crust under it to slump, creating its own basin (as has happened on Earth in Greenland). Even if the feature is now a modest negative gravity anomaly, it remains locked in place because of the permanent tidal bulge raised by Charon. Any movement of the feature away from 30 degrees latitude is countered by the preferential recondensation of ices near the coldest extremities of the cap. Therefore, our modelling suggests that Sputnik Planitia formed shortly after Charon did and has been stable, albeit gradually losing volume, over the age of the Solar System.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Solar System, Mars, Moon, Io, Pluto, Tidal locking


Observations of volcanoes from space are a critical component of volcano monitoring, but we lack quantitative integrated models to interpret them. The atmospheric sulfur yields of eruptions are variable and not well correlated with eruption magnitude and for many eruptions the volume of erupted material is much greater than the subsurface volume change inferred from ground displacements. Up to now, these observations have been treated independently, but they are fundamentally linked. If magmas are vapour-saturated before eruption, bubbles cause the magma to become more compressible, resulting in muted ground displacements. The bubbles contain the sulfur-bearing vapour injected into the atmosphere during eruptions. Here we present a model that allows the inferred volume change of the reservoir and the sulfur mass loading to be predicted as a function of reservoir depth and the magma’s oxidation state and volatile content, which is consistent with the array of natural data.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Scientific method, Carbon dioxide, Sulfur, Volcano, Magma, Io, Volcanology


Planetary auroras reveal the complex interplay between an atmosphere and the surrounding plasma environment. We report the discovery of low-altitude, diffuse auroras spanning much of Mars' northern hemisphere, coincident with a solar energetic particle outburst. The Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, a remote sensing instrument on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, detected auroral emission in virtually all nightside observations for ~5 days, spanning nearly all geographic longitudes. Emission extended down to ~60 kilometer (km) altitude (1 microbar), deeper than confirmed at any other planet. Solar energetic particles were observed up to 200 kilo–electron volts; these particles are capable of penetrating down to the 60 km altitude. Given minimal magnetic fields over most of the planet, Mars is likely to exhibit auroras more globally than Earth.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Planet, Mars, Io, Solar wind, Planetary science, Aurora


Maps of crustal thickness derived from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission revealed more large impact basins on the nearside hemisphere of the Moon than on its farside. The enrichment in heat-producing elements and prolonged volcanic activity on the lunar nearside hemisphere indicate that the temperature of the nearside crust and upper mantle was hotter than that of the farside at the time of basin formation. Using the iSALE-2D hydrocode to model impact basin formation, we found that impacts on the hotter nearside would have formed basins with up to twice the diameter of similar impacts on the cooler farside hemisphere. The size distribution of lunar impact basins is thus not representative of the earliest inner solar system impact bombardment.

Concepts: Earth, Solar System, Mars, Moon, Venus, Io, Impact crater, Crust