Tag Archives: planetary geology

New Pluto data released


Cool image time! During today’s New Horizons’ press conference, principal investigator Alan Stern noted that only 4%-5% of the data has been recovered. They have finished first phase of download and are moving into second phase, which will be dominated by engineering and other data, not images. So, for the next couple of months they will only be able to release images once and awhile. Beginning in September images, however, they will begin downloading images at a much faster pace.

Some results from today:
» Read more

Active lava flows found on Venus

volcanoes on Venus

Cool image time! Using archival data from Venus Express, scientists have identified several spots on Venus where it appears there are active lava flows.

Using a near-infrared channel of the spacecraft’s Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC) to map thermal emission from the surface through a transparent spectral window in the planet’s atmosphere, an international team of planetary scientists has spotted localised changes in surface brightness between images taken only a few days apart. “We have now seen several events where a spot on the surface suddenly gets much hotter, and then cools down again,” says Eugene Shalygin from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, and lead author of the paper reporting the results in Geophysical Research Letters this month. “These four ‘hotspots’ are located in what are known from radar imagery to be tectonic rift zones, but this is the first time we have detected that they are hot and changing in temperature from day to day. It is the most tantalising evidence yet for active volcanism.”

The hotspots are found along the Ganiki Chasma rift zone close to the volcanoes Ozza Mons and Maat Mons. Rift zones are results of fracturing of the surface, which is often associated with upwelling of magma below the crust. This process can bring hot material to the surface, where it may be released through fractures as a lava flow.

There have been hints of volcanic activity on Venus since Pioneer Venus Orbiter first circled the planet from 1978 to 1992. This appears to be the first solid evidence of it.

Layered mesas inside Martian crater

Layered mesas inside a Martian crater

Cool image time! In their weekly release of new images, the hi-resolution camera team for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have posted a wonderful image of the complex layering and terracing inside Spallanzani Crater, located in the high latitudes of the red planet’s southern hemisphere. The image on the right is only one small section of the much larger image.

So what is the composition of these layers? Spallanzani Crater lies in the high latitudes of the Southern hemisphere (around 60 degrees in latitude) so there is a good possibility that the deposits are ice-rich. If we look more closely we will notice fractured mounds, which sometimes indicate the presence of subsurface ice. Another interesting observation is the presence of grooves in the shaded slopes of some of the layers. Perhaps these grooves formed because of the sublimation (the direct transfer of solid ice to water vapor) of ice from these slopes since slopes tend to get warmer than the surrounding terrains.

This image hardly shows a breakthrough discovery, but I like it because it illustrates nicely the wonderful but very alien landscape of Mars. To walk its surface will be a daily adventure for its first colonists.

The geological history of Venus: What’s known, not known, and unknown.

The geological history of Venus: What’s known, not known, and unknown.

This is a very clearly written overview by James Head, one of the world’s preeminent planetary geologists, of what has been learned about the geology of Earth’s sister planet, the planet of a million volcanoes. Key quote:

Many features on Venus (folded mountain belts, rift zones, tesserae) were like Earth, but there were few signs of Earth-like plate tectonics, so that Venus seemed to have a single lithospheric plate that was losing heat conductively and advectively. But the cratering record presented a conundrum. First, the average age of the surface was <20% of the total age of the planet, and second, the average was not a combination of very old and very young surfaces, such as Earth’s continents and ocean basins. Third, the lack of variability in crater density, and of a spectrum of crater degradation, meant that all geological units might be about the same age. This implied that the observed surface of Venus must have been produced in the past hundreds of millions of years, possibly catastrophically, with very little volcanic or tectonic resurfacing since then! Suddenly, Venus was not like Earth, nor like the Moon, Mars, or Mercury.

Some scientists even believe that Venus was essentially resurfaced in a massive volcanic event about a half billion years ago. Others disagree. Meanwhile, the European probe Venus Express has gotten hints that volcanic activity is still going on.

As Head concludes, it has been 20 years since the last spacecraft arrived at Venus to do geological research. It is time to return.