terrestrial planets

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Mars today shows evidence of flowing water in its past from the presence of delta basins, canyons, and surface mineralogy. The remaining water on Mars today seems to be locked up in ice, but at some point in the early history of the solar system, Mars had flowing rivers, lakes, and even oceans.

The problem with this idea of a warm and wet early Mars is that the sun was fainter in the past, thereby providing even less energy than today to help thaw a frozen planet. One possibility is that early Mars had a much thicker greenhouse atmosphere than today, which could have provided enough additional warming to melt the ice. However, many climate models struggle to provide sufficient warming, even with a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere. Another option is that episodes of volcanic eruptions of meteor impacts could have temporarily warmed Mars long enough for water to flow and carve the fluvial features we see today. However, this type of episodic warming may not provide enough rainfall to carve the martian valleys observed today.

In a recent paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, titled “Climate cycling on early Mars caused by the carbonate-silicate cycle,” my co-authors and I propose that climate cycling between warm and glacial states could have occurred on early Mars, driven by the carbonate-silicate cycle as we discuss in a previous study. For early Mars, the accumulation of greenhouse gases may have risen and fallen in episodic cycles, providing punctuated periods of warmth for carving the martian valleys. Our proposed hypothesis combines the notion of enhanced greenhouse warming with episodic warming, which can potentially be tested by future exploration of the martian surface.

The outer edge of the habitable zone is traditionally defined as the outermost orbital distance at which a planet could sustain liquid water on its surface. At this distance orbit, Earth-like planets with plate tectonics (or a similar process for recycling volatiles) should build up dense carbon dioxide atmospheres that help offset the reduction in starlight. Carbon dioxide released from volcanoes provides additional greenhouse warming, although rainwater dissolves some of this. The amount of carbonic acid that dissolves in rainwater and reaches the ground depends upon the temperature: the colder it gets, the less carbon dioxide gets rained out of the atmosphere. This feedback is part of the carbonate-silicate cycle, which regulates an Earth-like planet’s carbon dioxide over geologic (million year) time scales.

In a recent paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, titled “Limit cycles can reduce the width of the habitable zone,” my co-authors and I examine the propensity of this carbonate-silicate cycle to cause a planet to oscillate between completely frozen and completely ice-free climate states. We update a simplified climate model to account for the increase in weathering that occurs as a planet builds up a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere. Beginning with a planet in completely ice-covered conditions, we allow volcanic outgassing of carbon dioxide to continue until the planet melts from the enhanced greenhouse effect. However, under certain conditions, the planet will then start to rain out and weather the atmospheric carbon dioxide at such a fast rate that the greenhouse effect decreases and the planet again plummets into global glaciation.

This type of climate cycle between glacial and ice-free states is not likely to occur on Earth today, but such cycles might have been possible on early Earth during the Hadean eon. Extrasolar planets may also be prone to this type of climate cycling, although predicting whether or not this should occur depends upon knowing a planet’s volcanic outgassing rate. Our climate calculations place boundaries on the conditions under which we should expect such climate cycles to occur for Earth-like planets orbiting a range of different stars.

Small red stars, known by astronomers as “M-dwarfs”, are the most abundant type of star in the sky and are also the most long-lived of all stars. This means there are plenty nearby of M-dwarfs to search for possible habitable planets, and many current and planned exoplanet surveys emphasize the search for potential worlds orbiting within the habitable zone of these low-mass stars. Astrobiologists often use the term “habitability” to indicate a planet’s ability to sustain liquid water on its surface, thereby providing conditions where life might be able to develop and thrive. The corresponding “habitable zone” describes the range of orbital distances that can support these clement conditions and not lose the water to a rapid runaway greenhouse (from too close an orbit) or a cool condensing atmosphere (from too far an orbit).

The problem with planets orbiting M-dwarfs is that they are prone to fall into “synchronous rotation” so that one side of the planet always faces the star, while the other side remains in perpetual darkness. Synchronous rotation can occur as a result of tidal forces from gravitational interactions between two orbiting bodies (Earth’s moon is an example of an object in synchronous rotation, so that we only ever see one side from the ground). For a planet orbiting an M-dwarf, the “sub-stellar point” beneath a constant stream of starlight is ceaselessly warmed, while the opposing “anti-stellar point” receives no starlight at all and resides in total darkness. One potential problem is that the atmosphere may condense into large ice caps on the frigid night side of these planets, which could result in total atmosphere collapse and the loss of habitable conditions.

Fortunately, the large-scale motions of the atmosphere help to redistribute this energy and, in many studies with climate models, can help avoid this atmospheric freeze-out. In a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, my co-author and I use a three-dimensional computer climate model to examine the role of geothermal heating on planets orbiting M-dwarfs. Geothermal heating is another consequence of tidal forces from a close orbit, and this additional surface warming can help to amplify the asymmetric distribution of energy transport toward the night side of the planet. This can help to induce the melting of ice near the anti-stellar point and create additional habitable area surrounding the night-time hemisphere.

We also examine the large-scale dynamical circulations on these synchronous rotating planets in comparison to the general circulation patterns on Earth. We demonstrate that the direction of of the meridional (i.e. north-south) circulation changes directions from one side of the sub-stellar point to the other. That is, a global average of the meridional circulation provides an incomplete picture of the large-scale dynamics because the eastern and western hemispheres each show strong motion but in opposite directions that cancel when summed together. Additionally, we examine the presence of a cross-polar circulation that transports energy and mass from the sub-stellar to anti-stellar point across the northern and southern poles. This also contributes toward maintaining climate stability and avoiding atmospheric freeze-out with a circulation pattern atypical of those observed on Earth.

Our study emphasizes the need for careful analysis when considering how the atmospheric dynamics of a synchronously rotating terrestrial planet may differ from our own. The study of Earth-like exoplanets must begin with analogies to observations on Earth, and studies like ours help to apply Earth system models toward more general planetary system. As research into planetary habitability continues, through theory as well as observations, we will indeed continue to observe how even basic physical principles can manifest in very different ways on these alien worlds.

Only recently have humans gained the capability to willfully and technologically manipulate the environment on a global scale. This sort of planetary engineering includes present-day geoengineering proposals to counteract anthropogenic climate change by reflecting away a fraction of incoming sunlight. Although such a feat seems technically achievable, whether or not we should engage in such geoengineering is a question of ethics. Other, more futuristic, kinds of planetary engineering include plans for terraforming Mars to increase global temperatures and make the red planet habitable for Earth life. For terraforming as well, the technology for terraforming may be available today, but whether or not we should deliberately modify another planet is a question of ethics.

I recently published a paper in the journal Astrobiology that develops a two-axis framework for comparing different views about how we value organisms, environments, planetary systems, and space. The ecological compass is shown in this figure with a scale from “space” to “intelligence” along the horizontal axis. This axis is intended to represent the vast diversity of life on Earth, from humans and other animals on the far right, to microscopic organisms near the middle, to planetary systems and space on the far left. The vertical axis of the ecological compass contrasts two types of value: instrumental value and intrinsic value. Instrumental value describes the usefulness or purpose that an object, organism, or system provides; for example, a logger may assign instrumental value to trees that are grown for lumber. Intrinsic value describes the an object, organism, or system as valuable for its own sake; in this sense, a hiker may view a tree as valuable simply by virtue of its being a tree. With this two-axis system, we can describe and compare various attitudes toward nature and their implications for planetary engineering.

An anthropocentric view, which assigns instrumental value to all life other than humans, may find no environmental objection to planetary engineering. This is because anthropocentrism is only concerned with the effects of planetary engineering on humans. A zoocentric (or ratiocentric) framework extends intrinsic value to animals and gives at least some consideration to how human actions affect these organisms. As such, zoocentrism suggests that some consideration should be given to the effects of geoenginering on non-human animals. Likewise, a macrocentric viewpoint considers large, visible organisms as intrinsically valuable, while a microcentric viewpoint considers even microorganisms to possess intrinsic value. Under these ethical frameworks, the decision to terraform a planet such as Mars will depend upon the organisms that are already inhabiting it. Finally, a cosmocentric framework places intrinsic value across the entire biological spectrum from intelligent creatures and microorganisms to planets and space. This suggests that a cosmocentric ethical framework would refrain from any sort of planetary engineering because a planet is valued for its own sake.

This ecological compass is intended to be used as a tool for discussions of human valuation of nature. As a tool it cannot provide the answer to whether or not we should engage in planetary engineering, but it can at least help us raise important questions about how we value nature in advance of any decisions.

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