SciCombinator

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

Concept: Solar System

407

Planetary formation models show that terrestrial planets are formed by the accretion of tens of Moon- to Mars-sized planetary embryos through energetic giant impacts. However, relics of these large proto-planets are yet to be found. Ureilites are one of the main families of achondritic meteorites and their parent body is believed to have been catastrophically disrupted by an impact during the first 10 million years of the solar system. Here we studied a section of the Almahata Sitta ureilite using transmission electron microscopy, where large diamonds were formed at high pressure inside the parent body. We discovered chromite, phosphate, and (Fe,Ni)-sulfide inclusions embedded in diamond. The composition and morphology of the inclusions can only be explained if the formation pressure was higher than 20 GPa. Such pressures suggest that the ureilite parent body was a Mercury- to Mars-sized planetary embryo.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Dwarf planet, Mercury, Venus

296

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

295

Chemical disequilibrium in planetary atmospheres has been proposed as a generalized method for detecting life on exoplanets through remote spectroscopy. Among solar system planets with substantial atmospheres, the modern Earth has the largest thermodynamic chemical disequilibrium due to the presence of life. However, how this disequilibrium changed over time and, in particular, the biogenic disequilibria maintained in the anoxic Archean or less oxic Proterozoic eons are unknown. We calculate the atmosphere-ocean disequilibrium in the Precambrian using conservative proxy- and model-based estimates of early atmospheric and oceanic compositions. We omit crustal solids because subsurface composition is not detectable on exoplanets, unlike above-surface volatiles. We find that (i) disequilibrium increased through time in step with the rise of oxygen; (ii) both the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic may have had remotely detectable biogenic disequilibria due to the coexistence of O2, N2, and liquid water; and (iii) the Archean had a biogenic disequilibrium caused by the coexistence of N2, CH4, CO2, and liquid water, which, for an exoplanet twin, may be remotely detectable. On the basis of this disequilibrium, we argue that the simultaneous detection of abundant CH4 and CO2 in a habitable exoplanet’s atmosphere is a potential biosignature. Specifically, we show that methane mixing ratios greater than 10-3 are potentially biogenic, whereas those exceeding 10-2 are likely biogenic due to the difficulty in maintaining large abiotic methane fluxes to support high methane levels in anoxic atmospheres. Biogenicity would be strengthened by the absence of abundant CO, which should not coexist in a biological scenario.

Concepts: Water, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Neptune, Uranus, Proterozoic

237

Determining whether Earth-like planets are common or rare looms as a touchstone in the question of life in the universe. We searched for Earth-size planets that cross in front of their host stars by examining the brightness measurements of 42,000 stars from National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler mission. We found 603 planets, including 10 that are Earth size ($$1-2\hbox{ \hspace{0.5em} }{R}_{\oplus }$$) and receive comparable levels of stellar energy to that of Earth ($$0.25-4\hbox{ \hspace{0.5em} }{F}_{\oplus }$$). We account for Kepler’s imperfect detectability of such planets by injecting synthetic planet-caused dimmings into the Kepler brightness measurements and recording the fraction detected. We find that 11 ± 4% of Sun-like stars harbor an Earth-size planet receiving between one and four times the stellar intensity as Earth. We also find that the occurrence of Earth-size planets is constant with increasing orbital period (P), within equal intervals of logP up to ∼200 d. Extrapolating, one finds $${5.7}_{-2.2}^{+1.7}$$% of Sun-like stars harbor an Earth-size planet with orbital periods of 200-400 d.

Concepts: Earth, Solar System, Planet, Jupiter, Universe, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Orbital period

112

Star-like objects with effective temperatures of less than 2,700 kelvin are referred to as ‘ultracool dwarfs’. This heterogeneous group includes stars of extremely low mass as well as brown dwarfs (substellar objects not massive enough to sustain hydrogen fusion), and represents about 15 per cent of the population of astronomical objects near the Sun. Core-accretion theory predicts that, given the small masses of these ultracool dwarfs, and the small sizes of their protoplanetary disks, there should be a large but hitherto undetected population of terrestrial planets orbiting them-ranging from metal-rich Mercury-sized planets to more hospitable volatile-rich Earth-sized planets. Here we report observations of three short-period Earth-sized planets transiting an ultracool dwarf star only 12 parsecs away. The inner two planets receive four times and two times the irradiation of Earth, respectively, placing them close to the inner edge of the habitable zone of the star. Our data suggest that 11 orbits remain possible for the third planet, the most likely resulting in irradiation significantly less than that received by Earth. The infrared brightness of the host star, combined with its Jupiter-like size, offers the possibility of thoroughly characterizing the components of this nearby planetary system.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Star, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Brown dwarf

103

Meteorites represent the only samples available for study on Earth of a number of planetary bodies. The minerals within meteorites therefore hold the key to addressing numerous questions about our solar system. Of particular interest is the Ca-phosphate mineral merrillite, the anhydrous end-member of the merrillite-whitlockite solid solution series. For example, the anhydrous nature of merrillite in Martian meteorites has been interpreted as evidence of water-limited late-stage Martian melts. However, recent research on apatite in the same meteorites suggests higher water content in melts. One complication of using meteorites rather than direct samples is the shock compression all meteorites have experienced, which can alter meteorite mineralogy. Here we show whitlockite transformation into merrillite by shock-compression levels relevant to meteorites, including Martian meteorites. The results open the possibility that at least part of meteoritic merrillite may have originally been H(+)-bearing whitlockite with implications for interpreting meteorites and the need for future sample return.

Concepts: Earth, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Mineral, Meteorite, Comet

103

About 4.6 billion years ago, some event disturbed a cloud of gas and dust, triggering the gravitational collapse that led to the formation of the solar system. A core-collapse supernova, whose shock wave is capable of compressing such a cloud, is an obvious candidate for the initiating event. This hypothesis can be tested because supernovae also produce telltale patterns of short-lived radionuclides, which would be preserved today as isotopic anomalies. Previous studies of the forensic evidence have been inconclusive, finding a pattern of isotopes differing from that produced in conventional supernova models. Here we argue that these difficulties either do not arise or are mitigated if the initiating supernova was a special type, low in mass and explosion energy. Key to our conclusion is the demonstration that short-lived (10)Be can be readily synthesized in such supernovae by neutrino interactions, while anomalies in stable isotopes are suppressed.

Concepts: Energy, Galaxy, Sun, Supernova, Solar System, Black hole, Interstellar medium, Neutron star

101

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

100

Subglacial lakes are unique environments that, despite the extreme dark and cold conditions, have been shown to host microbial life. Many subglacial lakes have been discovered beneath the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, but no spatially isolated water body has been documented as hypersaline. We use radio-echo sounding measurements to identify two subglacial lakes situated in bedrock troughs near the ice divide of Devon Ice Cap, Canadian Arctic. Modeled basal ice temperatures in the lake area are no higher than -10.5°C, suggesting that these lakes consist of hypersaline water. This implication of hypersalinity is in agreement with the surrounding geology, which indicates that the subglacial lakes are situated within an evaporite-rich sediment unit containing a bedded salt sequence, which likely act as the solute source for the brine. Our results reveal the first evidence for subglacial lakes in the Canadian Arctic and the first hypersaline subglacial lakes reported to date. We conclude that these previously unknown hypersaline subglacial lakes may represent significant and largely isolated microbial habitats, and are compelling analogs for potential ice-covered brine lakes and lenses on planetary bodies across the solar system.

Concepts: Water, Lake, Glacier, Solar System, Antarctica, Glaciology, Subglacial lake, Ice cap

92

The NASA MESSENGER mission explored the innermost planet of the solar system and obtained a rich data set of range measurements for the determination of Mercury’s ephemeris. Here we use these precise data collected over 7 years to estimate parameters related to general relativity and the evolution of the Sun. These results confirm the validity of the strong equivalence principle with a significantly refined uncertainty of the Nordtvedt parameter η = (-6.6 ± 7.2) × 10-5. By assuming a metric theory of gravitation, we retrieved the post-Newtonian parameter β = 1 + (-1.6 ± 1.8) × 10-5 and the Sun’s gravitational oblateness, [Formula: see text] = (2.246 ± 0.022) × 10-7. Finally, we obtain an estimate of the time variation of the Sun gravitational parameter, [Formula: see text] = (-6.13 ± 1.47) × 10-14, which is consistent with the expected solar mass loss due to the solar wind and interior processes. This measurement allows us to constrain [Formula: see text] to be <4 × 10-14 per year.

Concepts: Sun, General relativity, Mass, Solar System, Mars, Gravitation, Mercury, Equivalence principle