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

Concept: Venus


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


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


Since the late 1970s, satellite-based instruments have monitored global changes in atmospheric temperature. These measurements reveal multidecadal tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling, punctuated by short-term volcanic signals of reverse sign. Similar long- and short-term temperature signals occur in model simulations driven by human-caused changes in atmospheric composition and natural variations in volcanic aerosols. Most previous comparisons of modeled and observed atmospheric temperature changes have used results from individual models and individual observational records. In contrast, we rely on a large multimodel archive and multiple observational datasets. We show that a human-caused latitude/altitude pattern of atmospheric temperature change can be identified with high statistical confidence in satellite data. Results are robust to current uncertainties in models and observations. Virtually all previous research in this area has attempted to discriminate an anthropogenic signal from internal variability. Here, we present evidence that a human-caused signal can also be identified relative to the larger “total” natural variability arising from sources internal to the climate system, solar irradiance changes, and volcanic forcing. Consistent signal identification occurs because both internal and total natural variability (as simulated by state-of-the-art models) cannot produce sustained global-scale tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling. Our results provide clear evidence for a discernible human influence on the thermal structure of the atmosphere.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Observation, Gas, Atmosphere, Venus, Stratosphere, Troposphere


The temperatures of giant-planet upper atmospheres at mid- to low latitudes are measured to be hundreds of degrees warmer than simulations based on solar heating alone can explain. Modelling studies that focus on additional sources of heating have been unable to resolve this major discrepancy. Equatorward transport of energy from the hot auroral regions was expected to heat the low latitudes, but models have demonstrated that auroral energy is trapped at high latitudes, a consequence of the strong Coriolis forces on rapidly rotating planets. Wave heating, driven from below, represents another potential source of upper-atmospheric heating, though initial calculations have proven inconclusive for Jupiter, largely owing to a lack of observational constraints on wave parameters. Here we report that the upper atmosphere above Jupiter’s Great Red Spot-the largest storm in the Solar System-is hundreds of degrees hotter than anywhere else on the planet. This hotspot, by process of elimination, must be heated from below, and this detection is therefore strong evidence for coupling between Jupiter’s lower and upper atmospheres, probably the result of upwardly propagating acoustic or gravity waves.

Concepts: Energy, Light, Earth, Sun, Planet, Heat, Atmosphere, Venus


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


Molecular nitrogen (N2) comprises three-quarters of Earth’s atmosphere and significant portions of other planetary atmospheres. We report a 19 per mil (‰) excess of (15)N(15)N in air relative to a random distribution of nitrogen isotopes, an enrichment that is 10 times larger than what isotopic equilibration in the atmosphere allows. Biological experiments show that the main sources and sinks of N2 yield much smaller proportions of (15)N(15)N in N2. Electrical discharge experiments, however, establish (15)N(15)N excesses of up to +23‰. We argue that (15)N(15)N accumulates in the atmosphere because of gas-phase chemistry in the thermosphere (>100 km altitude) on time scales comparable to those of biological cycling. The atmospheric (15)N(15)N excess therefore reflects a planetary-scale balance of biogeochemical and atmospheric nitrogen chemistry, one that may also exist on other planets.

Concepts: Evolution, Earth, Planet, Gas, Atmosphere, Venus, Planetary science, Mesosphere


The history of Mars' atmosphere is important for understanding the geological evolution and potential habitability of the planet. We determine the amount of gas lost to space through time using measurements of the upper-atmospheric structure made by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft. We derive the structure of (38)Ar/(36)Ar between the homopause and exobase altitudes. Fractionation of argon occurs as a result of loss of gas to space by pickup-ion sputtering, which preferentially removes the lighter atom. The measurements require that 66% of the atmospheric argon has been lost to space. Thus, a large fraction of Mars' atmospheric gas has been lost to space, contributing to the transition in climate from an early, warm, wet environment to today’s cold, dry atmosphere.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Earth, Planet, Mars, Mercury, Atmosphere, Venus, NASA


Large impacts provide a mechanism for resurfacing planets through mixing near-surface rocks with deeper material. Central peaks are formed from the dynamic uplift of rocks during crater formation. As crater size increases, central peaks transition to peak rings. Without samples, debate surrounds the mechanics of peak-ring formation and their depth of origin. Chicxulub is the only known impact structure on Earth with an unequivocal peak ring, but it is buried and only accessible through drilling. Expedition 364 sampled the Chicxulub peak ring, which we found was formed from uplifted, fractured, shocked, felsic basement rocks. The peak-ring rocks are cross-cut by dikes and shear zones and have an unusually low density and seismic velocity. Large impacts therefore generate vertical fluxes and increase porosity in planetary crust.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Petroleum, Solar System, Planet, Bulk density, Venus, Granite, Impact crater


The lower cloud layer of Venus (47.5-50.5 km) is an exceptional target for exploration due to the favorable conditions for microbial life, including moderate temperatures and pressures (∼60°C and 1 atm), and the presence of micron-sized sulfuric acid aerosols. Nearly a century after the ultraviolet (UV) contrasts of Venus' cloud layer were discovered with Earth-based photographs, the substances and mechanisms responsible for the changes in Venus' contrasts and albedo are still unknown. While current models include sulfur dioxide and iron chloride as the UV absorbers, the temporal and spatial changes in contrasts, and albedo, between 330 and 500 nm, remain to be fully explained. Within this context, we present a discussion regarding the potential for microorganisms to survive in Venus' lower clouds and contribute to the observed bulk spectra. In this article, we provide an overview of relevant Venus observations, compare the spectral and physical properties of Venus' clouds to terrestrial biological materials, review the potential for an iron- and sulfur-centered metabolism in the clouds, discuss conceivable mechanisms of transport from the surface toward a more habitable zone in the clouds, and identify spectral and biological experiments that could measure the habitability of Venus' clouds and terrestrial analogues. Together, our lines of reasoning suggest that particles in Venus' lower clouds contain sufficient mass balance to harbor microorganisms, water, and solutes, and potentially sufficient biomass to be detected by optical methods. As such, the comparisons presented in this article warrant further investigations into the prospect of biosignatures in Venus' clouds. Key Words: Venus-Clouds-Life-Habitability-Microorganism-Albedo-Spectroscopy-Biosignatures-Aerosol-Sulfuric Acid. Astrobiology 18, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Oxygen, Bacteria, Sulfur, Sulfuric acid, Microorganism, Sulfur dioxide, Venus, Planetary habitability


Three Earth-sized exoplanets were recently discovered close to the habitable zone of the nearby ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 (ref. 3). The nature of these planets has yet to be determined, as their masses remain unmeasured and no observational constraint is available for the planetary population surrounding ultracool dwarfs, of which the TRAPPIST-1 planets are the first transiting example. Theoretical predictions span the entire atmospheric range, from depleted to extended hydrogen-dominated atmospheres. Here we report observations of the combined transmission spectrum of the two inner planets during their simultaneous transits on 4 May 2016. The lack of features in the combined spectrum rules out cloud-free hydrogen-dominated atmospheres for each planet at ≥10σ levels; TRAPPIST-1 b and c are therefore unlikely to have an extended gas envelope as they occupy a region of parameter space in which high-altitude cloud/haze formation is not expected to be significant for hydrogen-dominated atmospheres. Many denser atmospheres remain consistent with the featureless transmission spectrum-from a cloud-free water-vapour atmosphere to a Venus-like one.

Concepts: Scientific method, Planet, Atmosphere, Star, Venus, Terrestrial planet, Extrasolar planet, Habitable zone