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Astronomy

7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces

Astronomy7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
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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:

  • Explain how astronomers can tell whether a planetary surface is geologically young or old
  • Describe different methods for dating planets

How do we know the age of the surfaces we see on planets and moons? If a world has a surface (as opposed to being mostly gas and liquid), astronomers have developed some techniques for estimating how long ago that surface solidified. Note that the age of these surfaces is not necessarily the age of the planet as a whole. On geologically active objects (including Earth), vast outpourings of molten rock or the erosive effects of water and ice, which we call planet weathering, have erased evidence of earlier epochs and present us with only a relatively young surface for investigation.

Counting the Craters

One way to estimate the age of a surface is by counting the number of impact craters. This technique works because the rate at which impacts have occurred in the solar system has been roughly constant for several billion years. Thus, in the absence of forces to eliminate craters, the number of craters is simply proportional to the length of time the surface has been exposed. This technique has been applied successfully to many solid planets and moons (Figure 7.15).

Image of the Moon taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. This composite image shows the Lunar surface not seen from Earth. This region is so heavily cratered that most overlap. Only one small mare (Lunar “sea”) is seen at upper left.
Figure 7.15 Our Cratered Moon. This composite image of the Moon’s surface was made from many smaller images taken between November 2009 and February 2011 by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and shows craters of many different sizes. (credit: modification of work by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Bear in mind that crater counts can tell us only the time since the surface experienced a major change that could modify or erase preexisting craters. Estimating ages from crater counts is a little like walking along a sidewalk in a snowstorm after the snow has been falling steadily for a day or more. You may notice that in front of one house the snow is deep, while next door the sidewalk may be almost clear. Do you conclude that less snow has fallen in front of Ms. Jones’ house than Mr. Smith’s? More likely, you conclude that Jones has recently swept the walk clean and Smith has not. Similarly, the numbers of craters indicate how long it has been since a planetary surface was last “swept clean” by ongoing lava flows or by molten materials ejected when a large impact happened nearby.

Still, astronomers can use the numbers of craters on different parts of the same world to provide important clues about how regions on that world evolved. On a given planet or moon, the more heavily cratered terrain will generally be older (that is, more time will have elapsed there since something swept the region clean).

Radioactive Rocks

Another way to trace the history of a solid world is to measure the age of individual rocks. After samples were brought back from the Moon by Apollo astronauts, the techniques that had been developed to date rocks on Earth were applied to rock samples from the Moon to establish a geological chronology for the Moon. Furthermore, a few samples of material from the Moon, Mars, and the large asteroid Vesta have fallen to Earth as meteorites and can be examined directly (see the chapter on Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System).

Scientists measure the age of rocks using the properties of natural radioactivity. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, physicists began to understand that some atomic nuclei are not stable but can split apart (decay) spontaneously into smaller nuclei. The process of radioactive decay involves the emission of particles such as electrons, or of radiation in the form of gamma rays (see the chapter on Radiation and Spectra).

For any one radioactive nucleus, it is not possible to predict when the decay process will happen. Such decay is random in nature, like the throw of dice: as gamblers have found all too often, it is impossible to say just when the dice will come up 7 or 11. But, for a very large number of dice tosses, we can calculate the odds that 7 or 11 will come up. Similarly, if we have a very large number of radioactive atoms of one type (say, uranium), there is a specific time period, called its half-life, during which the chances are fifty-fifty that decay will occur for any of the nuclei.

A particular nucleus may last a shorter or longer time than its half-life, but in a large sample, almost exactly half of the nuclei will have decayed after a time equal to one half-life. Half of the remaining nuclei will have decayed after two half-lives pass, leaving only one half of a half—or one quarter—of the original sample (Figure 7.16).

Graph Illustrating the Concept of Radioactive Decay. The vertical scale is labeled “Fraction of Original Sample Remaining”, and increases from 0 to 1.0 in increments of 0.1. The horizontal scale is labeled “Number of Half-lives”, and increases to the right from 0 to 5 in increments of 1. A curve is drawn from (0, 1.0) at upper left down to (5, 0) at lower right. A dashed line is drawn vertically upward from 1 to intersect the curve at 0.5 on the vertical scale. At this point on the curve 1/2 of the original material remains. Next, another dashed line is drawn vertically upward from 2 to intersect the curve at 0.25, where 1/4 of the original sample remains. Another dashed line is drawn upward from 3 to intersect the curve at 0.125, where 1/8 of the sample remains. Again, a dashed line is drawn upward from 4 to intersect the curve at 0.06, where 1/16 of the sample remains. Finally, the dashed line from 5 intersects the curve at 0.03, where 1/32 of the original sample remains. Above the curve are drawn six “blobs” of material, one for each data point. The blob is pink at the top of the curve representing the full radioactive sample. The blob at (1, 0.5) is about 1/2 pink and 1/2 grey representing the fact that 1/2 of the original sample remains. This illustration continues for the remaining data points so that by (5, 0.03) the blob is nearly all grey indicating that only 1/32 of the original sample remains.
Figure 7.16 Radioactive Decay. This graph shows (in pink) the amount of a radioactive sample that remains after several half-lives have passed. After one half-life, half the sample is left; after two half-lives, one half of the remainder (or one quarter) is left; and after three half-lives, one half of that (or one eighth) is left. Note that, in reality, the decay of radioactive elements in a rock sample would not cause any visible change in the appearance of the rock; the splashes of color are shown here for conceptual purposes only.

If you had 1 gram of pure radioactive nuclei with a half-life of 100 years, then after 100 years you would have
1/2 gram; after 200 years, 1/4 gram; after 300 years, only 1/8 gram; and so forth. However, the material does not disappear. Instead, the radioactive atoms are replaced with their decay products. Sometimes the radioactive atoms are called parents and the decay products are called daughter elements.

In this way, radioactive elements with half-lives we have determined can provide accurate nuclear clocks. By comparing how much of a radioactive parent element is left in a rock to how much of its daughter products have accumulated, we can learn how long the decay process has been going on and hence how long ago the rock formed. Table 7.3 summarizes the decay reactions used most often to date lunar and terrestrial rocks.

Radioactive Decay Reaction Used to Date Rocks4
Parent Daughter Half-Life (billions of years)
Samarium-147 Neodymium-143 106
Rubidium-87 Strontium-87 48.8
Thorium-232 Lead-208 14.0
Uranium-238 Lead-206 4.47
Potassium-40 Argon-40 1.31
Table 7.3

When astronauts first flew to the Moon, one of their most important tasks was to bring back lunar rocks for radioactive age-dating. Until then, astronomers and geologists had no reliable way to measure the age of the lunar surface. Counting craters had let us calculate relative ages (for example, the heavily cratered lunar highlands were older than the dark lava plains), but scientists could not measure the actual age in years. Some thought that the ages were as young as those of Earth’s surface, which has been resurfaced by many geological events. For the Moon’s surface to be so young would imply active geology on our satellite. Only in 1969, when the first Apollo samples were dated, did we learn that the Moon is an ancient, geologically dead world. Using such dating techniques, we have been able to determine the ages of both Earth and the Moon: each was formed about 4.5 billion years ago (although, as we shall see, Earth probably formed earlier).

We should also note that the decay of radioactive nuclei generally releases energy in the form of heat. Although the energy from a single nucleus is not very large (in human terms), the enormous numbers of radioactive nuclei in a planet or moon (especially early in its existence) can be a significant source of internal energy for that world. Geologists estimate that about half of Earth’s current internal heat budget comes from the decay of radioactive isotopes in its interior.

Footnotes

  • 4 The number after each element is its atomic weight, equal to the number of protons plus neutrons in its nucleus. This specifies the isotope of the element; different isotopes of the same element differ in the number of neutrons.
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