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Astronomy

14.5 Planetary Evolution

Astronomy14.5 Planetary Evolution
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

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

  • Describe the geological activity during the evolution of the planets, particularly on the terrestrial planets
  • Describe the factors that affect differences in elevation on the terrestrial planets
  • Explain how the differences in atmosphere on Venus, Earth, and Mars evolved from similar starting points in the early history of the solar system

While we await more discoveries and better understanding of other planetary systems, let us look again at the early history of our own solar system, after the dissipation of our dust disk. The era of giant impacts was probably confined to the first 100 million years of solar system history, ending by about 4.4 billion years ago. Shortly thereafter, the planets cooled and began to assume their present aspects. Up until about 4 billion years ago, they continued to acquire volatile materials, and their surfaces were heavily cratered from the remaining debris that hit them. However, as external influences declined, all the terrestrial planets as well as the moons of the outer planets began to follow their own evolutionary courses. The nature of this evolution depended on each object’s composition, mass, and distance from the Sun.

Geological Activity

We have seen a wide range in the level of geological activity on the terrestrial planets and icy moons. Internal sources of such activity (as opposed to pummeling from above) require energy, either in the form of primordial heat left over from the formation of a planet or from the decay of radioactive elements in the interior. The larger the planet or moon, the more likely it is to retain its internal heat and the more slowly it cools—this is the “baked potato effect” mentioned in Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System. Therefore, we are more likely to see evidence of continuing geological activity on the surface of larger (solid) worlds (Figure 14.18). Jupiter’s moon Io is an interesting exception to this rule; we saw that it has an unusual source of heat from the gravitational flexing of its interior by the tidal pull of Jupiter. Europa is probably also heated by jovian tides. Saturn may be having a similar effect on its moon Enceladus.

A figure showing the stages in the geological history of a terrestrial planet. The stages are labeled from top to bottom, with representative planets shown to the right: “Accretion, heating, differentiation”, “Formation of solid crust, heavy cratering”, “Widespread mare-like volcanism”, Reduced volcanism, possible plate tectonics,” with Venus and Earth shown to the right, “Mantle solidification, end of tectonic activity”, with Mars and Mercury shown to the right, and “Cool interior, no activity” with the Moon shown to the right.
Figure 14.18 Stages in the Geological History of a Terrestrial Planet. In this image, time increases downward along the left side, where the stages are described. Each planet is shown roughly in its present stage. The smaller the planet, the more quickly it passes through these stages.

The Moon, the smallest of the terrestrial worlds, was internally active until about 3.3 billion years ago, when its major volcanism ceased. Since that time, its mantle has cooled and become solid, and today even internal seismic activity has declined to almost zero. The Moon is a geologically dead world. Although we know much less about Mercury, it seems likely that this planet, too, ceased most volcanic activity about the same time the Moon did.

Mars represents an intermediate case, and it has been much more active than the Moon. The southern hemisphere crust had formed by 4 billion years ago, and the northern hemisphere volcanic plains seem to be contemporary with the lunar maria. However, the Tharsis bulge formed somewhat later, and activity in the large Tharsis volcanoes has apparently continued on and off to the present era.

Earth and Venus are the largest and most active terrestrial planets. Our planet experiences global plate tectonics driven by convection in its mantle. As a result, our surface is continually reworked, and most of Earth’s surface material is less than 200 million years old. Venus has generally similar levels of volcanic activity, but unlike Earth, it has not experienced plate tectonics. Most of its surface appears to be no more than 500 million years old. We did see that the surface of our sister planet is being modified by a kind of “blob tectonics”—where hot material from below puckers and bursts through the surface, leading to coronae, pancake volcanoes, and other such features. A better understanding of the geological differences between Venus and Earth is a high priority for planetary geologists.

The geological evolution of the icy moons and Pluto has been somewhat different from that of the terrestrial planets. Tidal energy sources have been active, and the materials nature has to work with are not the same. On these outer worlds, we see evidence of low-temperature volcanism, with the silicate lava of the inner planets being supplemented by sulfur compounds on Io, and replaced by water and other ices on Pluto and other outer-planet moons.

Elevation Differences

Let’s look at some specific examples of how planets differ. The mountains on the terrestrial planets owe their origins to different processes. On the Moon and Mercury, the major mountains are ejecta thrown up by the large basin-forming impacts that took place billions of years ago. Most large mountains on Mars are volcanoes, produced by repeated eruptions of lava from the same vents. There are similar (but smaller) volcanoes on Earth and Venus. However, the highest mountains on Earth and Venus are the result of compression and uplift of the surface. On Earth, this crustal compression results from collisions of one continental plate with another.

It is interesting to compare the maximum heights of the volcanoes on Earth, Venus, and Mars (Figure 14.19). On Venus and Earth, the maximum elevation differences between these mountains and their surroundings are about 10 kilometers. Olympus Mons, in contrast, towers more than 20 kilometers above its surroundings and nearly 30 kilometers above the lowest elevation areas on Mars.

A figure comparing the relative heights of Mauna Loa, Mt. Everest, Maxwell Mountains, and Olympus Mons in relation to Earth’s sea level. Olympus Mons is many times taller and wider than all other mountains shown.
Figure 14.19 Highest Mountains on Mars, Venus, and Earth. Mountains can rise taller on Mars because Mars has less surface gravity and no moving plates. The vertical scale is exaggerated by a factor of three to make comparison easier. The label “sea level” refers only to Earth, of course, since the other two planets don’t have oceans. Mauna Loa and Mt. Everest are on Earth, Olympus Mons is on Mars, and the Maxwell Mountains are on Venus.

One reason Olympus Mons (Figure 14.20) is so much higher than its terrestrial counterparts is that the crustal plates on Earth never stop moving long enough to let a really large volcano grow. Instead, the moving plate creates a long row of volcanoes like the Hawaiian Islands. On Mars (and perhaps Venus) the crust remains stationary with respect to the underlying hot spot, and so a single volcano can continue to grow for hundreds of millions of years.

An overhead image of the volcano Olympus Mons on Mars, with a crater at the top.
Figure 14.20 Olympus Mons. The largest martian volcano is seen from above in this spectacular composite image created from many Viking orbiter photographs. The volcano is nearly 500 kilometers wide at its base and more than 20 kilometers high. (Its height is almost three times the height of the tallest mountain on Earth.) (credit: modification of work by NASA/USGS)

A second difference relates to the strength of gravity on the three planets. The surface gravity on Venus is nearly the same as that on Earth, but on Mars it is only about one third as great. In order for a mountain to survive, its internal strength must be great enough to support its weight against the force of gravity. Volcanic rocks have known strengths, and we can calculate that on Earth, 10 kilometers is about the limit. For instance, when new lava is added to the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, the mountain slumps downward under its own weight. The same height limit applies on Venus, where the force of gravity is the same as Earth’s. On Mars, however, with its lesser surface gravity, much greater elevation differences can be supported, which helps explain why Olympus Mons is more than twice as high as the tallest mountains of Venus or Earth.

By the way, the same kind of calculation that determines the limiting height of a mountain can be used to ascertain the largest body that can have an irregular shape. Gravity, if it can, pulls all objects into the most “efficient” shape (where all the outside points are equally distant from the center). All the planets and larger moons are nearly spherical, due to the force of their own gravity pulling them into a sphere. But the smaller the object, the greater the departure from spherical shape that the strength of its rocks can support. For silicate bodies, the limiting diameter is about 400 kilometers; larger objects will always be approximately spherical, while smaller ones can have almost any shape (as we see in photographs of asteroids, such as Figure 14.21).

An image of several irregular shaped asteroids.
Figure 14.21 Irregular Asteroid. Small objects such as asteroid Ida (shown here in multiple views taken by the Galileo spacecraft camera as it flew past) are generally irregular or elongated; they do not have strong enough gravity to pull them into a spherical shape. Ida is about 60 kilometers long in its longest dimension. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL)

Atmospheres

The atmospheres of the planets were formed by a combination of gas escaping from their interiors and the impacts of volatile-rich debris from the outer solar system. Each of the terrestrial planets must have originally had similar atmospheres, but Mercury was too small and too hot to retain its gas. The Moon probably never had an atmosphere since the material composing it was depleted in volatile materials.

The predominant volatile gas on the terrestrial planets is now carbon dioxide (CO2), but initially there were probably also hydrogen-containing gases. In this more chemically reduced (hydrogen-dominated) environment, there should have been large amounts of carbon monoxide (CO) and traces of ammonia (NH3) and methane (CH4). Ultraviolet light from the Sun split apart the molecules of reducing gases in the inner solar system, however. Most of the light hydrogen atoms escaped, leaving behind the oxidized (oxygen-dominated) atmospheres we see today on Earth, Venus, and Mars.

The fate of water was different on each of these three planets, depending on its size and distance from the Sun. Early in its history, Mars apparently had a thick atmosphere with abundant liquid water, but it could not retain those conditions. The CO2 necessary for a substantial greenhouse effect was lost, the temperature dropped, and eventually the remaining water froze. On Venus the reverse process took place, with a runaway greenhouse effect leading to the permanent loss of water. Only Earth managed to maintain the delicate balance that permits liquid water to persist on its surface.

With the water gone, Venus and Mars each ended up with an atmosphere of about 96 percent carbon dioxide and a few percent nitrogen. On Earth, the presence first of water and then of life led to a very different kind of atmosphere. The CO2 was removed and deposited in marine sediment. The proliferation of life forms that could photosynthesize eventually led to the release of more oxygen than natural chemical reactions can remove from the atmosphere. As a result, thanks to the life on its surface, Earth finds itself with a great deficiency of CO2, with nitrogen as the most abundant gas, and the only planetary atmosphere that contains free oxygen.

In the outer solar system, Titan is the only moon with a substantial atmosphere. This object must have contained sufficient volatiles—such as ammonia, methane, and nitrogen—to form an atmosphere. Thus, today Titan’s atmosphere consists primarily of nitrogen. Compared with those on the inner planets, temperatures on Titan are too low for either carbon dioxide or water to be in vapor form. With these two common volatiles frozen solid, it is perhaps not too surprising that nitrogen has ended up as the primary atmospheric constituent.

We see that nature, starting with one set of chemical constituents, can fashion a wide range of final atmospheres appropriate to the conditions and history of each world. The atmosphere we have on Earth is the result of many eons of evolution and adaptation. And, as we saw, it can be changed by the actions of the life forms that inhabit the planet.

One of the motivations for exploration of our planetary system is the search for life, beginning with a survey for potentially habitable environments. Mercury, Venus, and the Moon are not suitable; neither are most of the moons in the outer solar system. The giant planets, which do not have solid surfaces, also fail the test for habitability.

So far, the search for habitable environments has focused on the presence of liquid water. Earth and Europa both have large oceans, although Europa’s ocean is covered with a thick crust of ice. Mars has a long history of liquid water on its surface, although the surface today is mostly dry and cold. However, there is strong evidence for subsurface water on Mars, and even today water flows briefly on the surface under the right conditions. Enceladus may have the most accessible liquid water, which is squirting into space by means of the geysers observed with our Cassini spacecraft. Titan is in many ways the most interesting world we have explored. It is far too cold for liquid water, but with its thick atmosphere and hydrocarbon lakes, it may be the best place to search for “life as we don’t know it.”

We now come to the end of our study of the planetary system. Although we have learned a great deal about the other planets during the past few decades of spacecraft exploration, much remains unknown. Discoveries in recent years of geological activity on Titan and Enceladus were unexpected, as was the complex surface of Pluto revealed by New Horizons. The study of exoplanetary systems provides a new perspective, teaching us that there is much more variety among planetary systems than scientists had imagined a few decades ago. The exploration of the solar system is one of the greatest human adventures, and, in many ways, it has just begun.

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