Everyone knows the solar system is 4.5 billion years old. Everyone, that is, except Nature herself.
Jupiter: With the Juno spacecraft having entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4 (see Space.com’s celebration), PhysOrg posted a piece about “unsolved mysteries of the solar system’s biggest planet.” The puzzles remain after visits by the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft in 1973–1974, the two Voyager flybys in 1979, distant observations by Ulysses in 1992, Galileo’s eight-year orbital reconnaissance between 1995 and 2003, the Cassini flyby of 2000, and the New Horizons view in 2007. Juno, the first spacecraft slated to undergo polar orbits around Jupiter, will give scientists new data on the water content of Jupiter after the Galileo Probe in 1995 surprisingly measured only trace amounts of water in the clouds. Scientists also seek to understand the Great Red Spot, the polar auroras, and the poles. Will they make progress explaining the unsolved mysteries this time around? Remember that one of the biggest puzzles is how the small moon Io can remain so volcanically active for billions of years. Unfortunately, Juno is not equipped to answer that question. According to the Juno mission page, its main goal is to “understand the origin and evolution” of Jupiter. One cannot observe the past, however; only the Jupiter of 2016 is currently available for observation. Don’t expect Juno to “solve the mysteries of life” like PhysOrg titillated.
Mercury has been in the news a lot recently. New Scientist calls it “arguably our solar system’s weirdest planet.” The simplistic textbook explanation has long been that rocky planets form out of debris in a dust disk that orbited the early sun. But Mercury has elements in concentrations that don’t fit the picture. UK astronomer David Rothery comments, “We have a hard job explaining where in the solar system Mercury formed, and how it happened.”
- Homebrew meteorites reveal origins of Mercury’s weird crust (New Scientist)
- Researchers find surface of Mercury arose from deep inside the planet (PhysOrg)
- Mercury’s origins traced to rare meteorite: Experiments show planet cooled dramatically in half a billion years (Science Daily)
- Surface of Mercury arose from deep inside the planet (Science Daily)
In short, the “weird crust” of Mercury is being explained by two competing processes: impacts from outside, and volcanoes from inside. One strange area the size of Canada, covering 15% of Mercury’s surface, is unusually high in magnesium. Mercury is also high in sulfur, but most asteroids are not. The explanations offered in the articles sound convoluted. They require positing that a very rare type of meteorite brought in the weird stuff. One astronomer “cautions that the group’s results are not set in stone and that Mercury may have been an accumulation of other types of starting materials.”
Venus volcanism: A paper in Icarus looks at Maat Mons, the highest volcano on Venus at 9 km (6 miles) above the plains. It’s one that could have been recently active. The crater system and lava flows look young, but evidence of explosive eruptions was not identified. “Preservation of fine-scale (3–4 pixels) structures within the pit craters and summit pits is consistent with geologically very recent activity, but no evidence for current activity can be identified.”
Earth planetary protection: Speculations about the early Earth’s magnetic field on Science Daily indicate that mysteries remain. Peter Driscoll (Carnegie Institution) has to deal with “a surprising amount of variability” trying to reconcile the dynamo theory with “anomalous directions” of the field in the fossil record. One can only wonder if the “widespread implications” for his “bizarre fluctuations” at certain points in time left the Earth protected for life. The magnetic field is essential for habitability. Driscoll counts on futureware to solve remaining puzzles. New information from the twin Van Allen Probes sheds light on the mysterious third Van Allen Belt. Science Daily gives us more reason to appreciate the invisible shields that give Earth planetary protection from dangerous radiation. The Van Allen Belts were detected by the first Explorer satellites made and launched by JPL in 1958 before NASA was formed.
Announced today in Nature Physics, a new discovery led by researchers at the University of Alberta shows for the first time how the puzzling third Van Allen radiation belt is created by a “space tsunami.” Intense so-called ultra-low frequency (ULF) plasma waves, which are excited on the scale of the whole magnetosphere, transport the outer part of the belt radiation harmlessly into interplanetary space and create the previously unexplained feature of the third belt.
“Remarkably, we observed huge plasma waves,” says Ian Mann, physics professor at the University of Alberta, lead author on the study and former Canada Research Chair in Space Physics. “Rather like a space tsunami, they slosh the radiation belts around and very rapidly wash away the outer part of the belt, explaining the structure of the enigmatic third radiation belt.”
Mars dunes: A “bewildering” type of sand dune on Mars, unseen on the Earth, was reported by Science Daily, indicating that a well-studied phenomenon can still puzzle scientists. Space.com has some bad news for life seekers: based on manganese oxides found by the Curiosity rover, Mars probably had much more oxygen billions of years ago. (Oxygen is to the origin of life as chemical weapons is to villagers in a war zone.) The oxygen is not a biosignature, a scientist said; “it’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated.” It came from photolysis of water as Mars lost its magnetic field, scientists now think. Also on Space.com, Charles Q. Choi shares new speculations that huge moons may have crashed into Mars in the past, leaving little Phobos and Deimos as remnants. (Keep that explanatory device—large impacts—in mind as we look at other examples.)
Asteroid rings: The gravity is so low on most asteroids, one wouldn’t predict that dust could stay in orbit to form a ring. “Hold on to your belts,” rushes New Scientist to the rescue. “Asteroids cling on to their rings despite the prying gravity of giant gas planets.” The Centaurs are asteroids orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. Some of them appear to have rings. Was that predicted?
“They live in a very chaotic region. They keep hitting, or getting very close to the giant planets. It’s like pinball: they hit Saturn, they go around Neptune,” says Othon Winter of Sao Paulo State University in Brazil. “They are very unstable, so it was expected that the rings would not survive, but the results show the opposite.”
Models show most of the rings surviving for 100 million years, while others were stripped away by gravity. The age of the solar system, however, is 45 times longer. Why should they remain today? Are the scientists assuming what they need to prove, tweaking their models to fit observations to assumptions of long ages? Incidentally, samples of asteroid Itokawa returned by the Japanese probe Hayubasa indicate a violent history, according to PhysOrg. Violence and rings don’t go together well.
Ceres: As the Dawn Spacecraft completes its reconnaissance of Ceres, the largest asteroid, new puzzles have surfaced. The bright spots in Occator Crater appear to be neither ice nor epsom salt, as earlier proposed, but sodium carbonate. Astrobiology Magazine reports that they may have originated from “recent hydrothermal activity”—recent meaning within 80 million years (1/75th the assumed age of the solar system). How a small body remained “thermal” that long is the puzzle. “The upwelling of this material suggests that temperatures inside Ceres are warmer than previously believed,” the post says. “.…More intriguingly, the results suggest that liquid water may have existed beneath the surface of Ceres in recent geological time.” Space.com remarks that finding substances derived by water “was something we had not expected.” Predictions were wrong again:
“In the case of Ceres, we have a lot of carbonates — really a huge amount,” De Sanctis said. “We did not expect to have such a huge amount of carbonates.”
Add “strange Ceres” to “weird Mercury” in the hall of bizarre solar system objects. To account for the unexpected composition, some are proposing that Ceres originated out near Neptune and migrated inward. But there’s even less chance of liquid water out there. “The chemistry is unusual, and it’s key to understand how the body was formed and how it was evolved.” The scientific data was published in Nature Geoscience (see also Mikhail Zolotov’s summary in Nature Geoscience). For Space.com, Elizabeth Howell summarizes 5 of the biggest mysteries of Ceres: (1) its lack of impact-associated asteroids, (2) no meteorites from Ceres ever found on Earth, (3) the source of its water vapor, (4) the location of its origin, (5) the true nature of its bright spots.
Saturn: The “grand finale” of Saturn is coming up, according to a descriptive piece in Nature Geoscience. The Cassini orbiter will make high polar orbits and then dive between the rings and Saturn for its last few passes before plunging into Saturn and burning up on September 15, 2017. These unique orbits will provide incredibly detailed views of the rings, better than any since the orbital insertion in 2004.
Enceladus continues erupting huge ice plumes from rifts in the Saturnian moon that should be cold stone dead. Live Science published a piece about the active moon, distracting attention from the age question with speculations about hydrothermal vents in the subsurface ocean that might resemble the “Lost City” on Earth. Reporter Nola Taylor Redd quotes Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute, pointing out that the age question remains unresolved after 11 years of observations and a dozen close flybys of the geysers.
“There’s a serious energy crisis on Enceladus,” Glein said, referring to the energy required to keep that water liquid. “It’s one of the great mysteries of planetary science moving forward.”
The main thing that makes it a mystery is the assumed age of 4.5 billion years. Redd lists possible heat sources, none confirmed, to keep “Cold Faithful” erupting for billions of years over a volume greater than the Earth’s diameter, speading out to create an entire ring around Saturn, the E-ring. To assuage anxieties over scientific ignorance, she and Glein distract attention to speculations about possible life (see hydrobioscopy in the Darwin Dictionary).
Make a moon: The Kuiper Belt object Makemake has a moon. It’s hard for small bodies to hold onto moons, but Science Daily adds this body to the list of KBO’s with companions. “The apparent ubiquity of moons orbiting KBO dwarf planets supports the idea that giant collisions are a near-universal fixture in the histories of these distant worlds.” But is the invocation of unseen impacts a true explanation, or an ad hoc theory rescue device? Planetary scientists did not predict this “ubiquity of moons” so far from the sun. Surprisingly, the moon, nicknamed MK2, is very dark. “Makemake’s moon proves that there are still wild things waiting to be discovered, even in places people have already looked,” the lead author of a paper remarked.
Solar system mixer: It was so simple, back in the old days of Descartes, Laplace and the other early proponents of the Nebular Hypothesis. Swirling dust and gas; inner parts form rocks, outer parts form ices. Enter the chondrules, those puzzling “submillimeter spherules representing the major constituent of nondifferentiated planetesimals formed in the solar protoplanetary disk.” A paper in Science Advances admits that “The link between the dynamics of the disk and the origin of chondrules remains enigmatic.” To solve the enigma, four Parisian scientists had to mix things up a bit. “The three oxygen isotopes systematic of magmatic magnetites and silicates can only be explained by invoking an impact between silicate-rich and ice-rich planetesimals,” the open-access paper states. But how could such divergent bodies come together? “This suggests that these peculiar chondrules are by-products of the early mixing in the disk of populations of planetesimals from the inner and outer solar system.” One can imagine the call lines lighting up. See PhysOrg for summary of the proposal. Flinging debris forms chondrules, but it doesn’t disrupt asteroid rings? That’s odd.
Oh, what a tangled web they weave, when they first began to insist on billions of years. Let the planetary bodies speak for themselves. They shout, “I’m not as old as you think!”
Dr. Henry Richter, last surviving manager of the Explorer program at JPL, spoke to a creation group in California last Saturday. His implementation of James Van Allen’s magnetometer in Explorer 1, 2, and especially 3, led to the identification of the Van Allen Belts described above. Richter pointed to many aspects of the universe, life, and the human body as evidence for intelligent design. The profound evidence for design in the cosmos, followed by his experience of emptiness trying to be successful by his own efforts, made him receptive to the gospel, when he met the Christian lady that became his wife. His story appears in World Magazine this month. Evidence for the rapid decay of the Earth’s magnetic field led Dr. Richter (PhD in chemistry, Caltech) to doubt the long ages postulated by astronomers and evolutionary biologists. He has been a happy young-earth creationist ever since. Now 89 years old, Richter is working on a book about some of these evidences with the help of the editor of Creation-Evolution Headlines. It may be out later in the year.
Regarding the employment of unobserved impactors to explain every mystery, you’ll get a kick out of Spike Psarris’s demonstration of the trick in his excellent DVD, Our Created Solar System: What You’re Not Being Told About Astronomy.