Climate explained: why Mars is cold despite an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide



The atmosphere of Mars is thin and very dry.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, CC BY-ND

Paulo de Souza, Griffith University


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

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If tiny concentrations of carbon dioxide can hold enough heat to create a global warming impact on Earth, why is Mars cold? Its atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide.

The recipe for the temperature of a planet’s surface has four major ingredients: atmospheric composition, atmospheric density, water content (from oceans, rivers and air humidity) and distance from the Sun. There are other ingredients, including seasonal effects or the presence of a magnetosphere, but these work more like adding flavour to a cake.

When we look at Earth, the balance of these ingredients makes our planet habitable. Changes in this balance can result in effects that can be felt on a planetary scale. This is exactly what is happening with the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of our planet.

Increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur hexafluoride and other gases in the atmosphere have been raising the temperature of our planet’s surface gradually and will continue to do so for many years to come.




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As a consequence, places covered in ice start melting and extreme weather events become more frequent. This poses a growing challenge for us to adapt to this new reality.

Small concentration, big effect

It is surprising to realise how little the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other greenhouse gases has to change to cause such a shift in our climate. Since the 1950s, we have raised CO₂ levels in the atmosphere by a fraction of a percent, but this is already causing several changes in our climate.

This is because CO₂ represents a tiny part of Earth’s atmosphere. It is measured in parts per million (ppm) which means that for every carbon dioxide molecule there are a million others. Its concentration is just 0.041%, but even a small percentage change represents a big change in concentration.

We can tell what Earth’s atmosphere and climate were like in the distant past by analysing bubbles of ancient air trapped in ice. During Earth’s ice ages, the concentration of carbon dioxide was around 200ppm. During the warmer interglacial periods, it hovered around 280ppm, but since the 1950s, it has continued to rise relentlessly. By 2013, CO₂ levels surpassed 400ppm for the first time in recorded history.

This graph, based on samples of air bubbles fro ice cores and direct measurements of carbon dioxide, shows the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution.
NASA, CC BY-ND

This rise represents almost a doubling in concentration, and it clear that, in the recipe for Earth’s surface temperature, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are to be used in moderation.

The role of water

Like flour for a cake, water is an important ingredient of the Earth’s surface. Water makes temperature move slowly. That’s why the temperatures in tropical rainforests does not change much, but the Sahara desert is cold at night. Earth is rich in water.

Let’s have a look at our solid planets. Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, but it has a very thin atmosphere and is not the warmest planet. Venus is very, very hot. Its atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide (over 96%) and it is very dense.

The atmosphere of Mars is also rich in carbon dioxide (above 96%), but it is extremely thin (1% of Earth’s atmosphere), very dry and located further away from the Sun. This combination makes the planet an incredibly cold place.

The absence of water makes the temperature on Mars change a lot. The Mars exploration rovers (Spirit at Gusev Crater and Opportunity at Meridiani Planun) experienced temperatures ranging from a few degrees Celsius above zero to minus 80℃ at night: every single Martian day, known as sol.




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Terraforming or terra fixing

One of the interesting challenges we face while building space payloads, like we do at Griffith University, is to build instruments that can withstand such a wide temperature range.

I love conversations about terraforming. This is the idea that we could fly to a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere and fix it by using some sort of machine to filter nasty gases and release good ones we need to survive, at the correct amount. That is a recurrent theme in many science fiction films, including Aliens, Total Recall and Red Planet.

I hope we can fix our own atmosphere on Earth and reduce our planet’s fever.The Conversation

Paulo de Souza, Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Saturn has more moons than Jupiter – but why are we only finding out about them now?


This Hubble Space Telescope image of Saturn and a few of its moons shows how hard it can be to spot the gas giant’s tiny orbiting companions.
NASA / ESA / Hubble

Lucyna Kedziora-Chudczer, Swinburne University of Technology

With the discovery of 20 more moons orbiting Saturn, the ringed planet has overtaken Jupiter as host to the most moons in the Solar system. Saturn now has 82 known moons, whereas Jupiter has a paltry 79.

Announced at the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Centre by a team of astronomers from the Carnegie Institute for Science led by Scott S. Sheppard, the discovery is the latest advance in the 400-year history of our understanding of the satellites of our neighbouring planets.

As technology has improved, we have observed more and more of these tiny, distant worlds – and we can be reasonably confident there are still plenty waiting to be discovered.

How do we even know Saturn has moons?

Although most planets of the Solar system are visible to the naked eye and have been known to humans since antiquity, it wasn’t until Galileo Galilei turned a telescope on Jupiter in 1610 that we discovered Earth was not alone in having an orbiting companion.

Galileo saw Jupiter’s four largest moons and could make out what we now know are Saturn’s rings. Decades later, with better telescopes, Christian Huygens and Giovanni Domenico Cassini observed Saturn’s moons.




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It became clear that the giant planets are surrounded by multitudes of satellites, resembling smaller versions of the Solar system. By the middle of the 19th century, telescopes had improved enough that the first eight moons of Saturn – including Titan, the largest – had been viewed directly.

The introduction of photographic plates, which enabled the detection of fainter objects with long-exposure observations, helped astronomers increase their count of Saturn’s moons to 14.

Closer inspections

It was a long journey (literally) to the next big improvement in our view of Saturn’s moons. Many of the smaller moons were not discovered until the Voyager fly-by missions in the 1980s and the more recent 13-year stopover of the Cassini spacecraft in Saturn’s orbit.

Until these closer visits, we knew little about the moons aside from the fact that they existed.

One of Cassini’s goals was to explore Titan, which is the only moon in the Solar system with a thick, smoggy atmosphere. Another was to take a look at Saturn’s other mid-sized moons, including frozen Enceladus, which may hold an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust.




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Cassini also discovered much smaller moons, so-called “shepherd moons” that interact with Saturn’s rings by carving gaps and wavy patterns as they pass through a rubble of rocks and snowballs.

Bigger telescopes, more moons

These close-up observations from space advanced our understanding of individual moons that stay near to Saturn. Recently, many more moons have been found in orbits much further from the planet.

These more distant moons could only be detected with large optical telescopes such as the Subaru telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The telescope is equipped with sensitive cameras that can detect some of the faint objects separated by millions of kilometres from Saturn.

The new moons were discovered by comparing photos like this pair taken about an hour apart. While the background stars stay fixed, the moon – highlighted with orange bars – moves between frames.
Scott Sheppard

To confirm that these objects are indeed associated with Saturn, astronomers have to observe them over days or even months to reconstruct the shape and size of the moon’s orbit.

Many small moons are fragments of shattered large moons

Such observations revealed a population of moons that are often described as “irregular” moons. They are split into three distinct groups: Inuit, Gallic, and Norse. They all have large, elliptical orbits at an angle to those of moons closer to the planet.

Each group is thought to have formed from a collision or fragmentation of a larger moon. The Norse group consists of some of the most distant moons of Saturn, which orbit in the opposite direction to the rotation of the planet. This suggests they could have formed elsewhere and were later captured by the gravitational force of Saturn.

Of the 20 new moons, 17 belong to the Norse group including the furthest known moon from the planet. Their estimated sizes are of the order of 5km in diameter.

Most of the newly discovered moons have retrograde orbits, going in the opposite direction to Saturn’s spin.
Carnegie Institution for Science

Have we found all the moons now?

Are we likely to find even more moons around Saturn? Absolutely.

Some of the newly discovered moons are very faint and at the limit of detection with currently available instruments. New, bigger telescopes such as Giant Magellan Telescope will allow us to observe even fainter objects.

In the meantime, the 20 new moons need names. Carnegie Science has invited everyone to help.The Conversation

Lucyna Kedziora-Chudczer, Program Manager / Adjunct Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How big is the Moon? Let me compare …



The size of the Moon can be deceptive when viewed from Earth.
Flickr/Ovi Gherman, CC BY-NC-ND

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

Even though we can see the Moon shining brightly in the night sky – and sometimes in daylight – it’s hard to put into perspective just how large, and just how distant, our nearest neighbour actually is.

So just how big is the Moon?

The Moon passing in front of Earth, captured by the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), more than a million kilometres away from our planet.

That answer isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think. Like Earth, the Moon isn’t a perfect sphere. Instead, it’s slightly squashed (what we call an oblate sphereoid). This means the Moon’s diameter from pole to pole is less than the diameter measured at the equator.




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Why the Moon is such a cratered place


But the difference is small, just four kilometres. The equatorial diameter of the Moon is about 3,476km, while the polar diameter is 3,472km.

To see how big that is we need to compare it to something of a similar size, such as Australia.

From coast to coast

The distance from Perth to Brisbane, as the crow flies, is 3,606km. If you put Australia and the Moon side by side, they look to be roughly the same size.

The Moon vs Australia.
NASA/Google Earth

But that’s just one way of looking at things. Although the Moon is about as wide as Australia, it is actually much bigger when you think in terms of surface area. It turns out the surface of the Moon is much larger than that of Australia.

The land area of Australia is some 7.69 million square kilometers. By contrast, the surface area of the Moon is 37.94 million square kilometres, close to five times the area of Australia.

The Moon rising above Uluru: You’d need five Australias to cover the land mass of the Moon.
Flickr/jurek d Jerzy Durczak, CC BY-NC

How far is the Moon?

Asking how far away is the Moon is another of those questions whose answer is more complicated than you might expect.

The Moon moves in an elliptical orbit around the Earth, which means its distance from our planet is constantly changing. That distance can vary by up to 50,000km during a single orbit, which is why the size of the Moon in our sky varies slightly from week to week.

Notice the difference in size? The Moon viewed from Earth at perigee (closest approach at 356,700km on October 26 2007) and apogee (farthest approach at 406,300km on April 3 2007).
Wikimedia/Tomruen, CC BY-SA

The Moon’s orbit is also influenced by every other object in the Solar System. Even when all of that is taken into account, the distance answer is still always changing, because the Moon is gradually receding from the Earth as a result of the tidal interaction between the two.

That last point is something we’ve been able to better study as a result of the Apollo missions. The astronauts who visited the Moon placed an array of mirror reflectors on its surface. Those reflectors are the continual target of lasers from the Earth.

By timing how long it takes for that laser light to travel to the Moon and back, scientists are able to measure the distance to the Moon with incredible precision, and to track the Moon’s recession from Earth. The result? The Moon is receding at a speed of 38mm per year – or just under 4 metres per century.

Drive me to the Moon

Having said all that, the average distance between the Moon and Earth is 384,402km. So let’s put that into context.

If I were to drive from Brisbane to Perth, following the fastest route suggested by Google, I would cover 4,310km on my road trip. That journey, driving across the breadth of our country, would take around 46 hours.

The full Moon rising over the Perth Hills, in Western Australia, in 2016.
Paean Ng/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

If I wanted to clock up enough kilometres to say that I’d covered the distance between the Earth and the Moon, I’d have to make that trip more than 89 times. It would take five-and-a-half months of driving, non-stop, assuming I didn’t run into any traffic jams on the way.

Fortunately, the Apollo 11 astronauts weren’t restricted to Australian speed limits. The command module Columbia took just three days and four hours to reach lunar orbit following its launch on July 16 1969.

An eclipse coincidence

The equatorial diameter of the Sun is almost 1.4 million kilometres, which is almost exactly 400 times the diameter of the Moon.

That ratio leads to one of astronomy’s most spectacular quirks – because the distance between the Earth and the Sun (149.6 million kilometres) is almost (but not quite) 400 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.




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The result? The Moon and the Sun appear almost exactly the same size in Earth’s sky. As a result, when the Moon and the Sun line up perfectly, as seen from Earth, something wonderful happens – a total eclipse of the Sun.

The total solar eclipse seen from north Queensland in November 2012.

Sadly, such spectacular eclipses will eventually come to an end on Earth. Thanks to the Moon’s recession, it will one day be too distant to perfectly obscure the Sun. But that day will be a long time coming, with most estimates suggesting it will occur in something like 600 million years’ time.

The moonwalkers

While we’ve dispatched out robot envoys to the icy depths of the Solar System, the Moon remains the only other world on which humanity has walked.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the Moon and one of the few moonwalkers still alive today.
NASA

Fifty years after that first adventure, the number of people to have walked on the Moon who are still alive is in sharp decline. Twelve people have had that experience but, as of today, just four remain.




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Vast as the Moon is, those 12 moonwalkers barely scratched the surface. Hopefully, in the coming years, we will return, to inspire a whole new generation and to continue humanity’s in-person exploration of our nearest celestial neighbour.The Conversation

The Moon over the Sydney Opera House.
Flickr/Paul Carmon, CC BY-NC-ND

Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the Moon is such a cratered place


Look at the circular patterns on the Moon’s surface, as seen from Earth.
Flickr/Bob Familiar, CC BY

Katarina Miljkovic, Curtin University

Look up on a clear night and you can see some circular formations on the face of our lunar neighbour. These are impact craters, circular depressions found on planetary surfaces.

About a century ago, they were suspected to exist on Earth but the cosmic origin was often met with suspicion and most geologists believed that craters were of volcanic origin.

Around 1960, the American astrogeologist Gene Shoemaker, one of the founders of planetary science, studied the dynamics of crater formation on Earth and planetary surfaces. He investigated why they – including our Moon – are so cratered.




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Images from Apollo

By 1970, there were more than 50 craters discovered on Earth but that work was still considered controversial, until pictures of the lunar surface brought by the Apollo missions confirmed that impact cratering is a common geological process outside Earth.

The crater Daedalus on the far side of the Moon as seen from the Apollo 11 spacecraft in lunar orbit. Daedalus has a diameter of about 80km.
NASA

Unlike Earth’s surface, the lunar surface is covered with craters. This is because Earth is a dynamic planet, and tectonics, volcanism, seismicity, wind and oceans all play against the preservation of impact craters on Earth.

It does not mean Earth – even Australia – has not been battered. We should have been hit by more rocks from space than the Moon has, simply because our planet is larger.

In contrast to Earth, our Moon has been inactive over long geological timescales and has no atmosphere, which has allowed the persistent impact cratering to remain over eons. The lunar cratering record spans its entire bombardment history – from the Moon’s very origins to today.

The big ones

The largest and oldest impact crater in the Solar system is believed to be on the Moon, and it is called the South Pole-Aitken basin, but we cannot see it from Earth because it is on the far side of the Moon. The Moon is tidally locked to Earth’s rotation and the same side always faces toward us.

The South Pole-Aitken Basin shown here in the elevation data (not natural colours) with the low center in dark blue and purple and mountains on its edge, remnants of outer rings, in red and yellow.
NASA/GSFC/University of Arizona

But this crater, more than 2,000km across, is thought to predate any other large impact bombardment that occurred during lunar evolution. Impact simulations suggested it was formed by a 150-250km asteroid hurtling into the Moon at 15-20km per second!

From Earth, the human eye can observe areas of different shades of grey on the surface of the Moon facing us. The dark areas are called maria, and can be up to more than 1,000km across.

They are volcanic deposits that flooded depressions created by the formation of the large impact basins on the Moon. These volcanic eruptions were active for millions of years after these impacts occurred.

My favourite is the Orientale impact basin, the youngest of the large impact craters on the Moon, but still estimated to have formed “only” about 3.7 billion years ago.

Orientale basin is about 930km wide and has three distinct rings, which form a bullseye-like pattern. This view is a mosaic of images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

No other large impact event has occurred on the Moon since then. This is a good sign, because it implies there were no very large impacts occurring on Earth either after this time in evolutionary history. (The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth 66 million years ago was only about 10-15km in size and left a crater larger than 150km in size, which was substantial enough to cause a mass extinction.)

As seen from Earth

With a small telescope, or fancy binoculars, you can check out some of the best-preserved complex craters on the Moon, such as the Tycho or Copernicus craters.

Tycho Crater is one of the most prominent craters on the Moon.
NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

They are called complex craters because they are not entirely bowl-shaped, but are a bit shallower and include a peak in the centre of the crater as a consequence of the material collapsing into the hole made during impact. Tycho and Copernicus are both 80-100km across but have spectacular central peaks and prominent “ejecta rays” – areas where material was ejected across the lunar surface after an impact.

The formation of these craters excavated underlying material that was brighter than the actual surface. This is because lunar surface is subjected to space weathering, which causes surface rocks to darken.

Still a target for impacts

The Apollo 12, 14, 15, and 16 missions placed several seismic stations on the Moon between 1969 and 1972, creating the first extraterrestrial seismic network (ALSEP). During one year of operations, more than 1,000 seismic events were recorded, of which 10% were associated with meteoroids impacts.

So the Moon is still being hit by objects, albeit mostly tiny ones. But as there is no atmosphere on the Moon, there is no gas to help burn up these rocks from space and stop them smashing into the Moon.




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The seismic network was functional until it was switched off in 1977, in preparation for new space missions. No one expected that the next fully operational extraterrestrial seismometer would not be placed on a planetary surface (Mars) until 40 years later.

Nowadays, from Earth, using a small telescope (and armed with a little patience), you can see so-called “impact flashes”, which are small meteorite impacts on the lunar surface that is facing us.

You need to be quick to see the flashes – watch for the green boxes.

Thanks to the atmosphere on Earth, similar-sized rocks from space cannot make an impact here because they tend to predominantly burn up, but on the Moon they crash into the soil and release its kinetic energy of the impact via bright thermal emission.The Conversation

Katarina Miljkovic, ARC DECRA fellow, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lights in the sky from Elon Musk’s new satellite network have stargazers worried



The panel of 60 Starlink satellites just before they were released to go into orbit around Earth.
Official SpaceX Photos

Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University

UFOs over Cairns. Lights over Leiden. Glints above Seattle. What’s going on?

Starlink satellites travel silently across the skies of Leiden.

The launch of 60 Starlink satellites by Elon Musk’s SpaceX has grabbed the attention of people around the globe. The satellites are part of a fleet that is intended to provide fast internet across the world.

Improved internet services sound great, and Musk is reported to be planning for up to 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit. But this fleet of satellites could forever change our view of the heavens.

Will we lose the night sky to city lights and satellites?
Jeff Sullivan, CC BY-NC-ND

Starlink’s ambitious mission

Starlink is an ambitious plan to use satellites in low Earth orbit (about 500km up) to provide global internet services.




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This is different from the approach previously used for most communication satellites, in which larger individual satellites were placed in high geosynchronous orbits – that stay in an apparently fixed position above the Equator (about 36,000km up).

Communications with satellites in geosynchronous orbits often require satellite dishes, which you can see on the sides of residential apartment buildings. Communication with satellites in low Earth orbit, which are much closer, won’t require such bulky equipment.

But the catch with satellites in low Earth orbit, which move quickly around the world, is they can only look down on a small fraction of the globe, so to get global coverage you need many satellites. The Iridium satellite network used this approach in the 1990s, using dozens of satellites to provide global phone and data services.

Starlink is far more ambitious, with 1,600 satellites in the first phase, increasing to 12,000 satellites during the mid-2020s. For comparison, there are roughly 18,000 objects in Earth orbit that are tracked, including about 2,000 functioning satellites.

Lights in the sky

It’s not unusual to see satellites travelling across the twilight sky. Indeed, there’s a certain thrill to seeing the International Space Station pass overhead, and to know there are people living on board that distant light. But Starlink is something else.

The first 60 satellites, launched by SpaceX last week, were seen travelling in procession across the night sky. Some people knew what they were seeing, but the silent procession of light also generated UFO reports. If you’re lucky, you may see them pass across your skies tonight.

If the full constellation of satellites is launched, hundreds of Starlink satellites will be above the horizon at any given time. If they are visible to the unaided eye, as suggested by initial reports, they could outnumber the brightest natural stars visible to the unaided eye.

Astronomers’ fears were not put to rest by Musk’s tweets:

Satellites are very definitely visible at night, particularly in the hours before dawn and after sunset, as they are high enough to be illuminated by the Sun. The Space Station’s artificial lighting is effectively irrelevant to its visibility.

In areas near the poles, including Canada and northern Europe, satellites in low Earth orbit can be illuminated throughout the night during the summer months.

Hundreds of satellites being visible to the unaided eye would be a disaster. They would completely ruin our view of the night sky. They would also contaminate astronomical images, leaving long trails across otherwise unblemished images.

The US$466 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, based in Chile, is an 8-metre aperture telescope with a 3,200-megapixel camera. It’s designed to rapidly survey the sky during the 2020s.

With the full constellation of Starlink satellites, many images taken with this telescope will contain a Starlink satellite. Longer exposures could contain dozens of satellite streaks.

Dark skies or darkened hopes?

Is there any cause for optimism? Yes and no.

Musk has produced some amazing feats of technology, such as the SpaceX Falcon and Tesla cars, but he’s also disappointed some on other projects, such as the Hyperloop tunnel transport plan.




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While Starlink certainly blew up on Twitter, for now at least, Musk is 11,940 satellites short of his 12,000.

Also, initial reports may have overestimated the brightness of the Starlink satellites, with the multiple satellites closely clustered together being confused with one satellite.

While some reports have indicate binoculars are needed to see the individual satellites, they also report that Starlink satellites flare, momentarily becoming brighter than any natural star.

If the individual satellites usually are too faint to be seen with the unaided eye, that would at least preserve the natural wonder of the sky. But professional astronomers like myself may need to prepare for streaky skies ahead. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that.The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Associate professor in astronomy, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.