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Astronomy 2e

10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution

Astronomy 2e10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Compare the planetary evolution of Venus, Earth, and Mars

Venus, Mars, and our own planet Earth form a remarkably diverse triad of worlds. Although all three orbit in roughly the same inner zone around the Sun and all apparently started with about the same chemical mix of silicates and metals, their evolutionary paths have diverged. As a result, Venus became hot and dry, Mars became cold and dry, and only Earth ended up with what we consider a hospitable climate.

We have discussed the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus and the runaway refrigerator effect on Mars, but we do not understand exactly what started these two planets down these separate evolutionary paths. Was Earth ever in danger of a similar fate? Or might it still be diverted onto one of these paths, perhaps due to stress on the atmosphere generated by human pollutants? One of the reasons for studying Venus and Mars is to seek insight into these questions.

Some people have even suggested that if we understood the evolution of Mars and Venus better, we could possibly reverse their evolution and restore more earthlike environments. While it seems unlikely that humans could ever make either Mars or Venus into a replica of Earth, considering such possibilities is a useful part of our more general quest to understand the delicate environmental balance that distinguishes our planet from its two neighbors. In Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System, we return to the comparative study of the terrestrial planets and their divergent evolutionary histories.

Part a is an image of the Ingenuity Helicopter flying above the surface of Mars. Part b is an image of the Zhurong rover next to the Tianwen-1 lander on Mars.
Figure 10.32 New Vehicles on Mars. (a) The Ingenuity Helicopter flies above the martian surface. (b) The Chinese Zhurong rover, deployed in June 2021, is next to the Tianwen-1 lander; the “group portrait” was taken by a wireless camera placed by the rover. (credit a: modification of work by NASA/JPL; credit b: modification of work by the China National Space Administration)
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