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Venus’ Water Has Been Electrified Away

ESA's Venus Express has detected a surprisingly strong electric field at Venus – the first time this has been measured at any planet. (ESA–C. Carreau)

Venus Express has detected a surprisingly strong electric field at Venus – the first time this has been measured at any planet. (ESA–C. Carreau)

Using data gathered by ESA’s Venus Express researchers have determined what likely happened to Venus’ water: it was “zapped” away by a surprisingly strong electric field generated by the planet’s atmosphere and the incoming solar wind. Without a protective magnetosphere like Earth has, Venus’ upper atmosphere directly interacts with energetic particles streaming out from the Sun. The result is an electric field that’s at least five times more powerful* than those that might exist on Earth or Mars, strong enough to strip away oxygen ions—one of the two key ingredients for water.

It’s truly an electrifying discovery. (When you’re done groaning, read on…)

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Planet Nine May Have Once Been an Exoplanet

Is there a "dark Neptune" lurking at the extreme edge of the Solar System?

“Planet Nine” could be an exoplanet in our own Solar System

It hasn’t even been found yet (they’re still working on that) but the recently-announced Planet Nine is already spurring discussion amongst the world’s astronomers. One of the recent topics surrounding this alleged new planet is (again, besides where it’s hiding) how it formed and how it got into the incredibly distant orbit it’s thought to be in. Estimated to be nearly as massive as Neptune, and possibly similarly gaseous as well, Planet Nine would be an anomaly among the small frozen balls of ice that typically haunt the outer Solar System. Recently, a team of scientists decided to investigate the possibility that Planet Nine did not originate in our Solar System at all but rather was captured from another star, back when the Sun’s stellar family was much closer together… and apparently much more trusting. (That’ll teach ’em.)

Read the full story in my article on Universe Today here.

Pluto’s Frozen Lake Hints at a Warmer Past

A possible frozen-nitrogen lake on Pluto (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

A possible frozen-nitrogen lake in Pluto’s mountains (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Hockey fans take note: future visitors to Pluto may want to bring along their sticks and skates—the distant planet may harbor some pristine ice in the form of frozen ponds and lakes! (NASA might have to work on a lightweight, collapsible Zamboni first though.)

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Pencil This In: Mercury’s Surface is Darkened by Graphite

Expanded-color image of Mercury's 52-km-wide Degas crater, surrounded by an abundance of curious dark stains. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Expanded-color image of Mercury’s 52-km-wide Degas crater, surrounded by an abundance of curious dark stains. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Monochromatic and covered in craters, Mercury may outwardly resemble our Moon but the similarities abruptly end there. Ever since the MESSENGER spacecraft entered orbit around Mercury in 2011, and indeed even since Mariner 10‘s flyby in 1974, peculiar “dark spots” observed on the planet’s surface have intrigued scientists as to their composition and origin. Now, thanks to high-resolution spectral data acquired by MESSENGER during the last few months of its mission, researchers have confirmed that Mercury’s dark spots contain a form of carbon called graphite, excavated by impacts from its ancient crust.

Read the rest of this article here.

Surprise! Pluto May have Clouds

Alleged clouds in Pluto's atmosphere imaged by New Horizons, highlighted by a Southwest Research Institute scientist (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Alleged clouds in Pluto’s atmosphere imaged by New Horizons, highlighted by a Southwest Research Institute scientist (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

We could be calling it Cloudgate—”leaked” information from internal emails identifying structures in Pluto’s already hazy atmosphere that could very well be clouds, based on a March 4 article in New Scientist.

The image above shows sections of a New Horizons image attached to an email sent by SwRI scientist John Spencer, in which he noted particularly bright areas in Pluto’s atmosphere. “In the first image an extremely bright low altitude limb haze above south-east Sputnik on the left, and a discrete fuzzy cloud seen against the sunlit surface above Krun Macula (I think) on the right,” he wrote.

Read my full story on Discovery News here.

 

There’s More Water Ice on Pluto Than First Thought

Initial scans of Pluto's water ice (left) and new interpretations taking into account other elements and compounds (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Initial scans of Pluto’s pure water ice (color data, left) and new interpretations taking into account other elements and compounds (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

When New Horizons made its close pass pf Pluto on July 14, 2015, it did much more than just take pretty pictures; it was also scanning the planet with a suite of science instruments designed to determine the nature of its surface, atmosphere, composition, and other key characteristics. One of these instruments was the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), an infrared scanner that can detect the unique molecular “fingerprints” of particular elements and compounds like methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide… and water (one of our favorites!)

At first the data returned from LEISA showed only a surprisingly small amount of water ice across Pluto’s surface. But that was water ice in its pure form; when researchers took into consideration ice containing a mixture of water and other materials they found a much more widespread distribution across the surface area visible to New Horizons.

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