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Universe Today has examined the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, comets, and planetary atmospheres, and how these intriguing scientific disciplines can help scientists and the public better understand how we are pursuing life beyond Earth. Here, we will look inward and examine the role that planetary geophysics plays in helping scientists gain greater insight into our solar system and beyond, including the benefits and challenges, finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying planetary geophysics. So, what is planetary geophysics and why is it so important to study it?

“Planetary geophysics is the study of how planets and their contents behave and evolve over time,” Dr. Marshall Styczinski, who is an Affiliate Research Scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, tells Universe Today. “It is essentially the study of What Lies Below, focusing on what we can’t see and how it relates to what we can see and measure. Most of the planets (including Earth!) are hidden from view—geophysics is how we know everything about the Earth below the deepest we have dug down!”

As its name implies, geophysics is the study of understanding the physics behind geological processes, both on Earth and other planetary bodies, with an emphasis on interior geologic processes. This is specifically useful for planetary bodies that are differentiated, meaning they have several interior layers resulting from heavier elements sinking to the center while the lighter elements remain closer to the surface. 

The planet Earth, for example, is separated into the crust, mantle, and core, with each having its own sub-layers, and understanding these interior processes help scientists piece together what the Earth was like billions of years ago and even make predictions regarding the planet’s environment in the far future. These interior processes drive the surface processes, including volcanism and plate tectonics, both of which are responsible for maintaining the Earth’s temperature and recycling materials, respectively. So, what are some of the benefits and challenges of studying planetary geophysics?

Dr. Styczinski tells Universe Today, “Geophysics gives us the tools to determine what exists beneath the visible surface of planetary bodies (planets, moons, asteroids, etc.). It’s our only way to learn about what we can’t see! Finding out what is inside a planet, and under what conditions, like how much pressure and heat for each layer, helps us build a history for the planet and know how it will continue to change over time.”

In contrast, Dr. Styczinski also emphasizes to Universe Today the challenges, noting the difficulty in reproducing geologic conditions that occur over millions of years, even with the most sophisticated laboratories in the world, due to their slow movements over vast amounts of time. Additionally, he notes that particle accelerators are sometimes required to reproduce the extreme conditions within gas giants, which are also differentiated, though with gas and liquid layers, as opposed to rock. 

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Artist’s illustration of gas giant interiors. (Credit: NASA/Lunar And Planetary Institute)

But Earth is not the only rocky world in our solar system that exhibits differentiation, as all four rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) exhibit some form of interior layering that has occurred over billions of years, though at smaller scales due to their sizes. In addition to the planets, many rocky moons throughout the solar system also exhibit differentiation, including Jupiter’s Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, and several of Saturn’s moons, including Titan, Enceladus, and Mimas. Of those moons, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus are currently targets for astrobiologists, as Europa and Enceladus have been confirmed to possess interior liquid water oceans, with Titan presenting strong evidence, as well. Additionally, Titan is the only moon with a dense atmosphere, and like Earth, it likely has interior geophysics driving it. But what can planetary geophysics teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

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Artemis Astronauts Will Deploy New Seismometers on the Moon

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Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Apollo astronauts set up a collection of lunar seismometers to detect possible Moon quakes. These instruments monitored lunar activity for eight years and gave planetary scientists an indirect glimpse into the Moon’s interior. Now, researchers are developing new methods for lunar quake detection techniques and technologies. If all goes well, the Artemis astronauts will deploy them when they return to the Moon.

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Fiber optic cable is the heart of a seismology network to be deployed on the Moon by future Artemis astronauts.

The new approach, called distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), is the brainchild of CalTech geophysics professor Zhongwen Zhan. It sends laser beams through a fiber optic cable buried just below the surface. Instruments at either end measure how the laser light changes during the shake-induced tremors. Basically Zhan’s plan turns the cable into a sequence of hundreds of individual seismometers. That gives precise information about the strength and timing of the tremors. Amazingly, a 100-kilometer fiber optic cable would function as the equivalent of 10,000 seismometers. This cuts down on the number of individual seismic instruments astronauts would have to deploy. It probably also affords some cost savings as well.

A seismometer station deployed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Courtesy NASA.
A seismometer station deployed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Courtesy NASA.

DAS and Apollo on the Moon

Compare DAS the Apollo mission seismometer data and it becomes obvious very quickly that DAS is a vast improvement. In the Apollo days, the small collection of instruments left behind on the Moon provided information that was “noisy”. Essentially, when the seismic waves traveled through different parts of the lunar structure, they got scattered. This was particularly true when they encountered the dusty surface layer. The “noise” basically muddied up the signals.

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The layout for the Apollo Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment for the Apollo 17 mission. Courtesy Nunn, et al.

What DAS Does to Detect Quakes on the Moon

The DAS system stations laser emitters and data collectors at each end of a fiber optic cable. This allows for multiple widely spaced installations that measure light as it transits the network. The cable consists of glass strands, and each strand contains tiny imperfections. That sounds bad, but each imperfection provides a useful “waypoint” that reflects a little bit of the light back to the source. That information gets recorded as part of a larger data set. Setting up such a system of
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Ice Deposits on Ceres Might Only Be a Few Thousand Years Old

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The dwarf planet Ceres has some permanently dark craters that hold ice. Astronomers thought the ice was ancient when they were discovered, like in the moon’s permanently shadowed regions. But something was puzzling.

Why did some of these shadowed craters hold ice while others did not?

Ceres was first discovered in 1801 and was considered a planet. Later, it was thought to be the first asteroid ever discovered, since it’s in the main asteroid belt. Since then, our expanding knowledge has changed its definition: we now know it as a dwarf planet.

Even though it was discovered over 200 years ago, it’s only in the last couple of decades that we’ve gotten good looks at its surface features. NASA’s Dawn mission is responsible for most of our knowledge of Ceres’ surface, and it found what appeared to be ice in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs.)

New research shows that these PSRs are not actually permanent and that the ice they hold is not ancient. Instead, it’s only a few thousand years old.

The new research is titled “History of Ceres’s Cold Traps Based on Refined Shape Models,” published in The Planetary Science Journal. The lead author is Norbert Schorghofer, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

“The results suggest all of these ice deposits must have accumulated within the last 6,000 years or less.”

Norbert Schorghofer, senior scientist, Planetary Science Institute.

Dawn captured its first images of Ceres while approaching the dwarf planet in January 2015. At that time, it was close enough to capture images as good as Hubble’s. Those images showed craters and a high-albedo site on the surface. Once captured by Ceres, Dawn followed a polar orbit with decreasing altitude. It eventually reached 375 km (233 mi) above the surface, allowing it to see the poles and surface in greater detail.

“For Ceres, the story started in 2016, when the Dawn spacecraft, which orbited around Ceres at the time, glimpsed into these permanently dark craters and saw bright ice deposits in some of them,” Schorghofer said. “The discovery back in 2016 posed a riddle: Many craters in the polar regions of Ceres remain shadowed all year – which on Ceres lasts 4.6 Earth years – and therefore remain frigidly cold, but only a few of them harbor ice deposits.”

As scientists continued to study Ceres, they made another discovery: its massive Solar System neighbours make it wobble.

“Soon, another discovery provided a clue why: The rotation axis of Ceres oscillates back and forth every 24,000 years due to tides from the Sun and Jupiter. When the axis tilt is high and the seasons strong, only a few craters remain shadowed all year, and these are the craters that contain bright ice deposits,” said lead author Schorghofer.

This figure from the research shows how Ceres' obliquity has changed over the last 25,000 years. As the obliquity varies, sunlight reaches some crater floors that were thought to be PSRs. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.
This figure from the research shows how Ceres’ obliquity has changed over the last 25,000 years. As the obliquity varies, sunlight reaches some crater floors that were thought to be PSRs. Image Credit: Schorghofer et al. 2023.

Researchers constructed digital elevation maps (DEMs) of the craters to uncover these facts. They wanted to find out how large and deep the shadows in the craters were, not just now but thousands of years ago. But that’s difficult to do since portions of these craters were in deep shadow when Dawn visited. That made it difficult to see how deep the craters were.

Robert Gaskell, also from the Planetary Science Institute, took on the task. He developed a new technique to create more accurate maps of the craters with data from Dawn’s sensitive Framing Cameras, contributed to the mission by Germany. With improved accuracy, these maps of the crater floors could be used in ray tracing to show sunlight penetrated the shadows as Ceres wobbled over thousands of years.

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Amazing Amateur Images of April 8th’s Total Solar Eclipse

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The last total solar eclipse across the Mexico, the U.S. and Canada for a generation wows observers.

Did you see it? Last week’s total solar eclipse did not disappoint, as viewers from the Pacific coast of Mexico, across the U.S. from Texas to Maine and through the Canadian Maritime provinces were treated to an unforgettable show. The weather threw us all a curve-ball one week out, as favored sites in Texas and Mexico fought to see the event through broken clouds, while areas along the northeastern track from New Hampshire and Maine onward were actually treated to clear skies.

Many eclipse chasers scrambled to reposition themselves at the last minute as totality approached. In northern Maine, it was amusing to see tiny Houlton, Maine become the epicenter of all things eclipse-based.

Tales of a Total Solar Eclipse

We were also treated to some amazing images of the eclipse from Earth and space. NASA also had several efforts underway to chase the eclipse. Even now, we’re still processing the experience. It takes time (and patience!) for astro-photos to make their way through the workflow. Here are some of the best images we’ve seen from the path of totality:

Tony Dunn had an amazing experience, watching the eclipse from Mazatlan, Mexico. “When totality hit, it didn’t look real,” Dunn told Universe Today. “It looked staged, like a movie studio. the lighting is something that can’t be experienced outside a total solar eclipse.”

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Totality on April 8th, with prominences. Credit: Tony Dunn.

Dunn also caught an amazing sight, as the shadow of the Moon moved across the low cloud cover:

#Eclipse2024 #Mazatlan The shadow of the Moon crosses the sky. pic.twitter.com/9FEf4TTK8r

— Tony Dunn (@tony873004) April 14, 2024

Black Hole Sun

Peter Forister caught the eclipse from central Indiana. “It was my second totality (after 2017 in South Carolina), so I knew what was coming,” Forister told Universe Today. “But it was still as incredible and beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen in nature. The Sun and Moon seemed huge in my view—a massive black hole (like someone took a hole punch to the sky) surrounded by white and blue flames streaking out. Plus, there was great visibility of the planets and a few stars. The memory has been playing over and over in my head since it happened—and it’s combined with feelings of awe and wonder at how beautiful our Universe and planet really are. The best kind of memory!”

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Totality over Texas. Credit: Eliot Herman

Like many observers, Eliot Herman battled to see the eclipse through clouds. “As you know, we had really frustrating clouds,” Herman told Universe Today. “I shot a few photos (in) which you can see the eclipse embedded in the clouds and then uncovered to show the best part. For me it almost seemed like a cosmic mocking, showing me what a great eclipse it was, and lifting the veil only at the end of the eclipse to show me what I missed…”

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Totality and solar

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