The Rivers of Mars: How and Why?

My first self-published ebook was about how to form a theory. The origin of this has an interesting history: Elsevier asked me to write a book, and while I know what they thought they were going to get, I sent back a proposal that I thought they could never accept, largely to get them off my back. They accepted it, at that stage, so I had to write. The problem for me was, it took somewhat longer than I expected; the problem for them was the time taken, the length, and then, horrors, they found out I was not an academic with lots of students forced to buy the book. The book was orphaned, but I was so far on I thought I might as well self publish it. The advocated methodology is that of Aristotle, and oddly enough, most of his scientific bloopers arose because he ignored his own instructions! So, let me show what I made of it on one of my projects: how did Mars ever have flowing rivers? Why I chose that is a story best left for a later post.

The first step is to state clearly what you know. In this case, Mars has some quite long what seem like riverbeds, and they start sometimes from the coldest parts of Mars. The longest goes from highlands 60 degrees south and stops somewhere near the equator, and these can only reasonably be explained by fluid flow. Almost certainly water is the only fluid there in sufficient volume, so it had to be at least part of the flow. However, water freezes at 0 degrees Centigrade, the average temperature on Mars now is about minus 60 degrees C, and when the rivers were flowing the sun had only about 2/3 its current heat output.

The next step is to ask questions. To start, how did water flow, starting from high altitude high latitude sites, where the temperatures would be well below that of the rest of the planet? Could we dissolve something in the water to lower the freezing point? Dissolving salts in the water depresses the freezing point, but even the aggressive calcium chloride will not buy you more than forty degrees, so that is not adequate by itself. There are worse problems with this explanation: where did these salts come from, and how could salts get into snow on the southern highlands?

The standard explanation is that there must have been a greenhouse effect, and many have argued for a very significant carbon dioxide atmosphere. There are three problems with this explanation. The first is, it won’t work. Anything less than ten atmospheres pressure is inadequate, and at three atmospheres, the carbon dioxide liquefies. You cannot get sufficient pressure. The second is, the winters on Mars are very long, and carbon dioxide would snow out on the poles, thus reducing the pressure, and because of the albedo of the snow, not all of it would revolatalize, so as the years progressed, the planet would quickly become what it is like now. The third problem is, if there were that much carbon dioxide, where did it go? From isotope fractionation, it appears that about half of the original material that stayed in the atmosphere has been lost to space. Some more could well be frozen out on the poles. However, if there were enough to sustain liquid water for extended periods of time, there should be a lot of carbonates, and there are not. Now it is true we do not know how much could be buried, so maybe that argument is a bit on the weak side. On the other hand, there is plenty of other evidence that the atmosphere of Mars was always thin, although not as thin as now, as there had to be enough to keep water liquid. A number of estimates put it in the 100 millibar range. Further, if it lasted for periods of a few hundred thousand years it could not have been carbon dioxide, at least not initially as otherwise most would have snowed out. Of course it could have been continuously replenished by volcanic action, but if so, there must be very large deposits of carbon dioxide at the poles and that does not appear to be the case. So by asking such simple questions, we have made progress.

The next question is, how did the gases and water get to Mars? This is a rather convoluted question, but the simple answer is, the river flows lasted for only a few hundred thousand years and they started about 1.5 billion years after Mars formed. They also corresponded to significant periods of volcanic eruptions, so the most likely answer for the gases is they came from volcanic eruptions. Most of the water would have too, however it is possible that there were ice deposits near the surface following accretion. The next question is, how did the gases get below the surface of Mars to be erupted?

If we think about them being adsorbed during accretion, then, with the exception of water and ammonia, because the heats of adsorption are very similar for various gases, they would be adsorbed approximately proportional to their concentrations in the disk gases. That would mean, predominantly hydrogen and helium, although these would have been subsequently lost to space. However, neon would also be a very common gas, and to a lesser degree argon, but both neon and argon (apart from argon 40, which is a decay product of potassium 40) are very rare on Mars, so that was not the mechanism.

A commonly quoted mechanism is the volatiles arrived on the rocky planets through comets. That is not valid, at least for Earth, the reason being that the deuterium levels on comets are too high. Another suggestion is they arrived on carbonaceous chondrites. That too does not ring true, first because there would have had to be a huge number more of them, but not silicaceous asteroids, and second, the isotopes of some other elements rule that out. As far as Mars goes, there is the additional point that since it had no plate tectonics, and it had a rocky surface approximately three million years after formation, there is no mechanism to get the gases below the surface.

The only way they could get there is to be accreted as solids. Water would bind chemically to silicates; carbon would probably be accreted as carbides, or as carbon; nitrogen would be accreted as nitrides. The gases are then formed by the reaction of water with the carbides or nitrides, so the amount of gas available depends on how many of these solids were formed, and how much water was accreted. The lower levels of these gases on Mars is due to the fact that the material in the Mars feeding zone never got as hot as around Earth during stellar accretion. The higher temperature in the Venusian accretion zone is why it also has about three times the nitrogen as Earth: nitrides were easier to form at higher temperatures. Water binding to silicates happened after the disk cooled, but before the dust accreted to planets, and Mars has less water because the better aluminosilicates never phase separated because the temperatures earlier were never hot enough. Venus got less water because the disk never got as cool as around Earth and the silicates could not absorb so much.

When water reacts with nitrides and carbides it makes ammonia and methane, and these are most stable under high pressure, which is easily obtained in the interior of planets. If so, this hypothesis predicts that the initial atmosphere would comprise ammonia and methane. This is usually considered to be wrong because ammonia in the atmosphere is quickly decomposed by UV radiation, however, the ammonia will not stay in the atmosphere. Ammonia is rapidly absorbed by water, and even snow, and it will liquefy ice even at minus 80 degrees C. That gets it out of the atmosphere quickly and now there is a simple mechanism why water would flow, and also why it would later stop flowing near the equator and form ice deposits: as it got warmer, the ammonia would evaporate off. The atmosphere would start as methane, but would gradually be oxidised to carbon dioxide, which is why the atmosphere had such a short life. The carbon dioxide would react with ammonia, and eventually the ammonium carbonate would be converted to urea and the water would stop flowing. Thus in this theory under the soil of Mars, provided it has not reacted further, there is just the fertilizer settlers would need.

Where to settle on Mars?

A few weeks ago I wrote an introductory post on Martian settlement issues ( ). I am now going to ask, where should such a settlement be? Obviously, this is a matter of opinion, but there are some facts to consider. The first is seasons. The northern hemisphere spring and summer is about 75 Martian days longer than the autumn and winter (and opposite for the southern hemisphere. This is a consequence of the elliptical orbit, but it also means that the longer seasons mean the planet is further from the sun (which is why it is going slower) and because of the axial tilt that generates the seasons as well as the elliptical orbit, most likely places can get up to 40% less sunlight in winter than in summer. Add to that that by being so much further from the sun, Mars never gets more than about half the Earth’s solar energy. So the southern hemisphere has a shorter but warmer pair of seasons, and a longer colder other pair. Temperatures in summer can get up to 20 degrees C in the day and in winter, fall to minus 120 degrees C during the night. No plant can survive that, so besides providing air, heat is also required.

There is a reasonably easy way to get around the heat problem. Assuming you have a nearby power plant, and as I shall show in other posts, if a settlement is to be viable, it will have a heavy demand for high quality energy, then there will inevitably be waste heat. Space mirrors can also supplement the heat and light. Heating the planet is not on (you would need mirrors of area greater than the Martian cross-sectional area) but heating a settlement is plausible.

The location could be decided on the basis of nearness to raw materials, but that leaves open the question of which ones? The obvious one is metal ores, but here we do not know where they are, of even if they are. Again this can be left for another post.

The next question is air. Air pressure depends on altitude, and much of the exploration so far has been around the zero of altitude, where we get pressures of around 6 -8 millibar, depending on the season. In the southern hemisphere summer, the pole shrinks and vaporizes a lot of carbon dioxide, thus increasing atmospheric pressure. In my novel Red Gold I put the initial settlement at the bottom of Hellas Planitia. That is in the southern hemisphere, and is a giant impact crater, the bottom of which is about nine kilometres deep. That gives more atmospheric pressure, but at the cost of a cold winter. The important point of Hellas Planitia is that at the bottom of the impact crater the pressure, is high enough to be the only place on Mars for liquid water to exist, particularly in summer. The reason this was important, at least in my novel, is that unless you find water, you will probably have to pump it from the atmosphere and condense it. Also, while you are pumping up domes, you will want to get the dust out of the air. The dust is extremely fine. That means very fine filters, which easily clog; electrostatic dust precipitators, which may be too slow for many uses; or a form of water filtration. In Red Gold, I opted for a water-ring type pump. Of course here you need a certain amount of water to get started, and that will not be a small amount. The water will still evaporate fairly quickly, hence the need to have plenty of water, but the evaporite will go into the dome, so it is recoverable or usable. It could also be frozen out before going in; whatever else is in short supply on Mars, cold is not one of them, although with the low atmospheric pressure, the heat capacity of air is fairly low.

So strictly speaking, based on heat and air, both have to be heavily supplemented, it does not matter where you go. However, I think there is another good reason for selecting Hellas Planitia as the site. It is generally considered that water, or at least a fluid, flowed on Mars. The lower parts of Hellas have signs that there was water there once, and to the east two great channels, the Dao and the Harmarkis, seemingly emptied themselves into the Hellas basin. Water will flow downhill, so a lot of it would have resided in depressions, and either evaporated, or solidified, or both. So, there is a good chance that there is water there, or anything that got dissolved in the water. The higher air pressure will also help reduce sublimation by a little bit, so perhaps there will be more there than most places.

The next issue is, you wish to grow food and have plants make oxygen. Obviously you will need some fairly sophisticated equipment to get the oxygen from the plants to wherever you are going to live, assuming you don’t live with the plants, but the plants have to grow first. For that you need soil, water and fertilizer. The soil is the first problem. It is highly oxidised, and chlorides have been oxidised to perchlorates. That is fine for making a little oxygen, but it has to be treated or it will kill plants. Apparently it is something as good as bleaching powder. Again, you will have to take the treatment chemicals with you; forget something critical or do not bring enough, and you will be dead. Mars is not a forgiving place.

That leaves fertilizer. Most rock has some potassium and phosphate in it, and if these have been washed out, their residues will be where the water ended, so that should be no problem if you go to the right place. Nitrogen is slightly different. The atmosphere has very little nitrogen. On Earth, plants get their nitrogen from nitrates washed down in rain, from decayed biomass, and from farmers applying it. None of that works there immediately. Legumes can “fix” nitrogen from the air, but there isn’t much there to fix and partial pressure is important. You can, of course, pump it up and get rid of carbon dioxide. A lot of these issues were in the background of my ebook novel Red Gold, ad there, I proposed that Mars originally had somewhat more nitrogen, but it ended up underground. The reason is for another post, but the reason I had then ended up as being the start of my theory regarding planetary formation. However, the possibility of what was leached out or condensed out being at the bottom of the crater is why I think Hellas Planitia is as good a place as any to start a settlement.

Quick Commercial: Red Gold will be discounted to 99 c for six days starting the 13th. It is basically about fraud, late 1980s style, but much of the details of settling Mars are there.

Star and Planetary Formation: Where and When?

Two posts ago, as a result of questions, I promised to write a post outlining the concept of planetary accretion, based on the current evidence. Before starting that, I should explain something about the terms used. When I say something is observed, I do not mean necessarily with direct eyesight. The large telescopes record the light signals electronically, similarly to how a digital camera works. An observation in physics means that a signal is received that can be interpreted in one only certain way, assuming the laws of physics hold. Thus in the famous two-slit experiment, if you fire one electron through the slits, you get one point impact, which is of too low an energy for the human eye to see. Photomultipliers, however, can record this as a pixel. We have to assume that the “observer” uses laws of physics competently.

The accretion of a star almost certainly starts with the collapse of a cloud of gas. What starts that is unknown, but it is probably some sort of shock wave, such as a cloud of debris from a nearby supernova. Another cause appears to be the collision of galaxies, since we can see the remains of such collisions that are accompanied by a large number of new stars forming. The gas then collapses and forms an accretion disk, and these have been observed many times. The gas has a centre of mass, and this acts as the centre of a gravitational field, and as such, the gas tries to circulate at an orbital velocity, which is where the rate of falling into the star is countered by the material moving sideways, at a rate that takes it away from the star so that the distance from the centre remains the same. If they do this, angular momentum is also conserved, which is a fundamental requirement of physics. (Conservation of angular momentum is why the ice skater spins slowly with arms outstretched; when she tucks her arms in, she spins faster.

The closer to the centre, the strnger gravity requires faster orbital velocity. Thus a stream of gas is moving faster than the stream just further from the centre, and slower than the stream just closer. That leads to turbulence and friction. Friction slows the gas, meaning it starts to fall starwards, while the friction converts kinetic energy to heat. Thus gas drifts towards the centre, getting hotter and hotter, where it forms a star. This has been observed many times, and the rate of stellar accretion is such that a star takes about a million years to form. When it has finished growing, there remains a dust-filled gas cloud of much lower gas density around it that is circulating in roughly orbital velocities. Gas still falls into the star, but the rate of gas falling into the star is at least a thousand times less than during primary stellar accretion. This stage lasts between 1 to 30 million years, at which point the star sends out extreme solar winds, which blow the gas and dust away.

However, the new star cannot spin fast enough to conserve angular momentum. The usual explanation is that gas is thrown out from near the centre, and there is evidence in favour of this in that comets appear to have small grains of silicates that could only be formed in very hot regions. The stellar outburst noted above will also take away some of the star’s angular momentum. However, in our system, the bulk of the angular momentum actually resides in the planets, while the bulk of the mass is in the star. It would seem that somehow, some angular momentum must have been transferred from the gas to the planets.

Planets are usually considered to form by what is called oligarchic growth, which occurs after primary stellar accretion. This involves the dust aggregating into lumps that stick together by some undisclosed mechanism, to make first, stone-sized objects, then these collide to form larger masses, until eventually you get planetesimals (asteroid-sized objects) that are spread throughout the solar system. These then collide to form larger bodies, and so on, at each stage collisions getting bigger until eventually Mars-sized bodies collide to form planets. If the planet gets big enough, it then starts accreting gas from the disk, and provided the heat can be taken away, if left long enough you get a gas giant.

In my opinion, there are a number of things wrong with this. The first is, the angular momentum of the planets should correspond roughly to the angular momentum of the dust, which had velocity of the gas around it, but there is at least a hundred thousand times more gas than dust, so why did the planets end up with so much more angular momentum than the star? Then there is timing. Calculations indicate that to get the core of Jupiter, it would take something approaching 10 million years, and that assumes a fairly generous amount of solids, bearing in mind the solid to gas ratio. At that point, it probably accretes gas very quickly. Get twice as far away from the star, and collisions are much slower. Now obviously this depends on how many planetesimals there are, but on any reasonable estimate, something like Neptune should not have formed. Within current theory, this is answered by having Neptune and Uranus being formed somewhere near Saturn, and then moved out. To do that, while conserving angular momentum, they had to throw similar masses back towards the star. I suppose it is possible, but where are the signs of the residues? Further, if every planet is made from the same material, the same sort of planet should have the same composition, but they don’t. The Neptune is about the same size as Uranus, but it is about 70% denser. Of the rocky planets, Earth alone has massive granitic/feldsic continents.

Stronger evidence comes from the star called LkCa 15 that apparently has a gas giant forming that is already about five times bigger than Jupiter and about three times further away. The star is only 3 million years old. There is no time for that to have formed by this current theory, particularly since any solid body forming during the primary stellar accretion is supposed to be swept into the star very quickly.

Is there any way around this? In my opinion, yes. I shall put up my answer in a later post, although for those who cannot wait, it is there in my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”.

Martian Fluvial Flows, Placid and Catastrophic


Despite the fact that, apart localized dust surfaces in summer, the surface of Mars has had average temperatures that never exceeded about minus 50 degrees C over its lifetime, it also has had some quite unexpected fluid systems. One of the longest river systems starts in several places at approximately 60 degrees south in the highlands, nominally one of the coldest spots on Mars, and drains into Argyre, thence to the Holden and Ladon Valles, then stops and apparently dropped massive amounts of ice in the Margaritifer Valles, which are at considerably lower altitude and just north of the equator. Why does a river start at one of the coldest places on Mars, and freeze out at one of the warmest? There is evidence of ice having been in the fluid, which means the fluid must have been water. (Water is extremely unusual in that the solid, ice, floats in the liquid.) These fluid systems flowed, although not necessarily continuously, for a period of about 300 million years, then stopped entirely, although there are other regions where fluid flows probably occurred later. To the northeast of Hellas (the deepest impact crater on Mars) the Dao and Harmakhis Valles change from prominent and sharp channels to diminished and muted flows at –5.8 k altitude that resemble terrestrial marine channels beyond river mouths.

So, how did the water melt? For the Dao and Harmakhis, the Hadriaca Patera (volcano) was active at the time, so some volcanic heat was probably available, but that would not apply to the systems starting in the southern highlands.

After a prolonged period in which nothing much happened, there were catastrophic flows that continued for up to 2000 km forming channels up to 200 km wide, which would require flows of approximately 100,000,000 cubic meters/sec. For most of those flows, there is no obvious source of heat. Only ice could provide the volume, but how could so much ice melt with no significant heat source, be held without re-freezing, then be released suddenly and explosively? There is no sign of significant volcanic activity, although minor activity would not be seen. Where would the water come from? Many of the catastrophic flows start from the Margaritifer Chaos, so the source of the water could reasonably be the earlier river flows.

There was plenty of volcanic activity about four billion years ago. Water and gases would be thrown into the atmosphere, and the water would ice/snow out predominantly in the coldest regions. That gets water to the southern highlands, and to the highlands east of Hellas. There may also be geologic deposits of water. The key now is the atmosphere. What was it? Most people say it was carbon dioxide and water, because that is what modern volcanoes on Earth give off, but the mechanism I suggested in my “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” was the gases originally would be reduced, that is mainly methane and ammonia. The methane would provide some sort of greenhouse effect, but ammonia on contact with ice at minus 80 degrees C or above, dissolves in the ice and makes an ammonia/water solution. This, I propose, was the fluid. As the fluid goes north, winds and warmer temperatures would drive off some of the ammonia so oddly enough, as the fluid gets warmer, ice starts to freeze. Ammonia in the air will go and melt more snow. (This is not all that happens, but it should happen.)  Eventually, the ammonia has gone, and the water sinks into the ground where it freezes out into a massive buried ice sheet.

If so, we can now see where the catastrophic flows come from. We have the ice deposits where required. We now require at least fumaroles to be generated underneath the ice. The Margaritifer Chaos is within plausible distance of major volcanism, and of tectonic activity (near the mouth of the Valles Marineris system). Now, let us suppose the gases emerge. Methane immediately forms clathrates with the ice (enters the ice structure and sits there), because of the pressure. The ammonia dissolves ice and forms a small puddle below. This keeps going over time, but as it does, the amount of water increases and the amount of ice decreases. Eventually, there comes a point where there is insufficient ice to hold the methane, and pressure builds up until the whole system ruptures and the mass of fluid pours out. With the pressure gone, the remaining ice clathrates start breaking up explosively. Erosion is caused not only by the fluid, but by exploding ice.

The point then is, is there any evidence for this? The answer is, so far, no. However, if this mechanism is correct, there is more to the story. The methane will be oxidised in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide by solar radiation and water. Ammonia and carbon dioxide will combine and form ammonium carbonate, then urea. So if this is true, we expect to find buried where there had been water, deposits of urea, or whatever it converted to over three billion years. (Very slow chemical reactions are essentially unknown – chemists do not have the patience to do experiments over millions of years, let alone billions!) There is one further possibility. Certain metal ions complex with ammonia to form ammines, which dissolve in water or ammonia fluid. These would sink underground, and if the metal ions were there, so might be the remains of the ammines now. So we have to go to Mars and dig.






Evidence that the Standard Theory of Planetary Formation is Wrong.

Every now and again, something happens that makes you feel both good and depressed at the same time. For me it was last week, when I looked up the then latest edition of Nature. There were two papers (Nature, vol 541 (Dauphas, pp 521 – 524; Fischer-Gödde and Kleine, pp 525 – 527) that falsified two of the most important propositions in the standard theory of planetary formation. What we actually know is that stars accrete from a disk of gas and dust, the disk lingers on for between a million years and 30 million years, depending on the star, then the star’s solar winds clear out the dust and gas. Somewhere in there, planets form. We can see evidence of gas giants growing, where the gas is falling into the giant planet, but the process by which smaller planets or the cores of giants form is unobservable because the bodies are too small, and the dust too opaque. Accordingly, we can only form theories to fill in the intermediate process. The standard theory, also called oligarchic growth, explains planetary formation in terms of dust accreting to planetesimals by some unknown mechanism, then these collide to form embryos, which in turn formed oligarchs or protoplanets (Mars sized objects) and these collided to form planets. If this happened, they would do a lot of bouncing around and everything would get well-mixed. Standard computer simulations argue that Earth would have formed from a distribution of matter from further out than Mars to inside Mercury’s orbit. Earth the gets its water from a “late veneer” from carbonaceous chondrites from the far side of the asteroid belt.

It is also well known that certain elements in bodies in the solar system have isotopes that vary their ratio depending on the distance from the star. Thus meteorites from Mars have different isotope ratios from meteorites from the asteroid belt, and again both are different from rocks from Earth and Moon. The cause of this isotope difference is unclear, but it is an established fact. This is where those two papers come in.

Dauphas showed that Earth accreted from a reasonably narrow zone throughout its entire accretion time. Furthermore, that zone was the same as that which formed enstatite chondrites, which appear to have originated from a region that was much hotter than the material that, say, formed Mars. Thus enstatite chondrites are reduced. What that means is that their chemistry was such that there was less oxygen. Mars has only a small iron core, and most of its iron is as iron oxide. Enstatite chondrites have free iron as iron, and, of course, Earth has a very large iron core. Enstatite chondrites also contain silicates with less magnesium, which will occur when the temperatures were too hot to crystallize out forsterite. (Forsterite melts at 1890 degrees C, but it will also dissolve to some extent in silica melts at lower temperatures.) Enstatite chondrites also are amongst the driest, so they did not provide Earth’s water.

Fischer-Gödde and Kleine showed that most of Earth’s water did not come from carbonaceous chondrites, the reason being, if it did, the non-water part would have added about 5% to the mass of Earth, and the last 5% is supposed to be from where the bulk of elements that dissolve in hot iron would have come from. The amounts arriving earlier would have dissolved in the iron and gone to the core. One of those elements is ruthenium, and the isotope ratios of Earth’s ruthenium rule out an origin from the asteroid belt.

Accordingly, this evidence rules out oligarchic growth. There used to be an alternative theory of planetary accretion called monarchic growth, but this was soon abandoned because it cannot explain first why we have the number of planets we have where they are, and second where our water came from. Calculations show it is possible to have three to five planets in stable orbit between Earth and Mars, assuming none are larger than Earth, and more out to the asteroid belt. But they are not there, so the question is, if planets only grow from a narrow zone, why are these zones empty?

This is where I felt good. A few years ago I published an ebook called “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” and it required monarchic growth. It also required the planets in our solar system to be roughly where they are, at least until they get big enough to play gravitational billiards. The mechanism is that the planets accreted in zones where the chemistry of the matter permitted accretion, and that in turn was temperature dependent, so specific sorts of planets form in zones at specific distances from the star. Earth formed by accretion of rocks formed during the hot stage, and being in a zone near that which formed enstatite chondrites, the iron was present as a metal, which is why Earth has an iron core. The reason Earth has so much water is that accretion occurred from rocks that had been heat treated to about 1550 degrees Centigrade, in which case certain aluminosilicates phase separated out. These, when they take up water, form cement that binds other rocks to form a concrete. As far as I am aware, my theory is the only current one that requires these results.

So, why do I feel depressed? My ebook contained a review of over 600 references from journals until a few months before the ebook was published. The problem is, these references, if properly analysed, provided papers with plenty of evidence that these two standard theories were wrong, but each of the papers’ conclusions were ignored. In particular, there was a more convincing paper back in 2002 (Drake and Righter, Nature 416: 39-44) that came to exactly the same conclusions. As an example, to eliminate carbonaceous chondrites as the source of water, instead of ruthenium isotopes, it used osmium isotopes and other compositional data, but you see the point. So why was this earlier work ignored? I firmly believe that scientists prefer to ignore evidence that falsifies their cherished beliefs rather than change their minds. What I find worse is that neither of these papers cited the Drake and Righter paper. Either they did not want to admit they were confirming a previous conclusion, or they were not interested in looking thoroughly at past work other than that which supported their procedures.

So, I doubt these two papers will change much either. I might be wrong, but I am not holding my breath waiting for someone with enough prestige to come out and say enough to change the paradigm.

Why is the Moon so dry?

The Planetary Society puts out a magazine called The Planetary Report, and in the September issue, they pose an issue: why is there more water ice on Mercury than the Moon? This is an interesting question because it goes to the heart of data analysis and how to form theories. First we check our data, and while there is a degree of uncertainty, from neutron scattering as measured from orbiting satellites, Mercury has about 350 times the water than the Moon, not counting whatever is in the deep interior. Further, some of that on the Moon will not be water in the sense we think of water. The neutron scattering picks out hydrogen, and that can also come from materials such as hydroxyapatite, which is present in some lunar rocks. The ice sits in cold traps; parts of the body where the temperature is always below -175 oC. For the Moon, there are (according to the article) about 26,000 km2 cold enough, while Mercury has only 7,000 km2. So, why is the Moon so dry?

Before going any further, it might help some understand what follows if they understand what isotopes are, and what effects they have. The nature of an element is defined by the number of electrons, which also equals the number of protons. For any given number of protons, there may be a variation in the number of neutrons. Thus all chlorine atoms (found in common salt) have 17 protons, and either 18 or 20 neutrons. The two different types of atoms are called isotopes. Of particular interest, hydrogen has two such isotopes: ordinary hydrogen and deuterium with 0 and 1 neutron respectively. This has two effects. The first is the heavier one usually boils or sublimes at a slightly higher temperature and in a gravitational field, is more likely to be at the top, hence ice that spends a lot of time in space tends to be richer in deuterium. The second effect is the chemical bond is stronger for the heavier isotope.

So where do volatiles (water and gases) on the rocky planets come from? I raised some of the issues on where it did not come from earlier: To summarize, the first option is the accretion disk. That is where Jupiter’s came from. If the body is big enough before the gases are removed, they will remain as an atmosphere. We can reject that. The planets will have had such atmospheres, but soon after formation of the star, it starts spitting out extreme UV/Xray radiation, and intense solar winds, and these strip the volatiles. The evidence that this removed most of the atmosphere from Earth is that some very heavy inert gases, such as krypton and xenon, have heavy isotope enhancements suggesting they have been fractionally distilled, and some of the heavier isotopes were enhanced. These gases are extremely rare, but they also cannot be accreted by any mechanism other than gravity and adsorption, and unless they were so stripped, there would be huge amounts of neon here because physical mechanisms of accretion apply equally to all the so-called rare gases, and neon is very abundant in the accretion disk. However the krypton was accreted, very large amounts of neon would also be accreted. Neon is rare, so most gases that arrived with the krypton would have been similarly removed. As would be water. So after a few hundred million years, the rocky planets were essentially rocks, with only very thin atmospheres. That, of course, is assuming our star behaved the same way as other similar stars, and that the effects of the high energy radiation are correctly assessed.

So, where did our atmosphere and oceans come from? There are only two possibilities: from above and from below. Above means comets and asteroid-type bodies colliding with Earth. Below means the elements were accreted with the solids, and emitted through volcanoes. Which one? This is where the Mercury/Moon data becomes significant. However, as often is the case, there is a catch. Mathematical modeling suggests that the Moon might have changed its obliquity, and once upon a time it was almost lying on its side. If so, and if this occurred for long enough, there would have been no permanently cold points, and the Moon would have lost its ice. It did not, but the questions then are, did this actually happen, did that period last long enough, or did the water arrive on the surface after this tilting?

Back to Earth’s atmosphere. The idea that Earth was struck by comets has been just about falsified. The problem lies in the fact that the comets have enriched deuterium, and there is too much for Earth’s water to have come from there, other than in minor amounts. A similar argument holds for chondrites. It is not the water that is the problem, but rather the solid rock. The isotope ratios of the chondrite rocks do not match Terran rocks. The same applies for the Moon, because the isotope ratios of the surface of the moon are essentially the same as on Earth, and the Moon has not has resurfacing. That essentially requires the water on Earth to have come from below, volcanically. I gave an account of that at

And now we see why the extreme dryness of the Moon is so important: it shows that very little water did land on the Moon from comets and chondrites. Yes, that was shown from isotopes, but it is very desirable that all information is consistent. When you have a set of different sorts of information that lead to the same place, we can have more confidence in that place being right.

The reason why the Moon is so dry is now simple if we accept the usual explanation for how it was formed. The Moon formed from silicates blasted out of the Earth when Theia collided with it. Exactly where Theia came from is another issue, but the net result was a huge amount of silicates were thrown into orbit, and these stuck together to form the Moon. We now come to a problem that annoys me. I saw a review where it said these silicates were at a temperature approaching 1100 oC At that temperature, zinc oxide will start top boil off in a vacuum, and the lunar rocks are depleted in zinc. According to the review, published in October, it could not have been hotter because the Moon is not significantly depleted in potassium. However, in the latest edition of Nature (at the time of writing this) an article argued there was a depletion of potassium. Who is right, and how does whoever it is know? Potasium is a particularly bad element to choose because it separates out and gets concentrated in certain rocks, and we do not have that many samples. However, for water it is clear: the silicates were very hot, and the water was largely boiled off.

So, we have a conclusion. I suppose we cannot know for sure that it is absolutely right because we cannot know there is not some other theory that might explain these facts, but at least this explanation is consistent with what we know.

To conclude, some personal stuff. There will be no post from me next week; I am having hip replacement surgery. Hopefully, back again in a fortnight. Second, for those interested in my economic thoughts, my newest novel, ‘Bot War, will be available from December 2, but it is available for preorder soon.

The last we see of comet 67P

This week marked the end of the Rosetta spacecraft, sent by the European Space Agency (ESA) to uncover what it could of a comet, specifically 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta’s purpose was to orbit the comet, send back information from the Philae lander, take images, and analyze the gases in the tail of the comet. Now it was time to die, and ESA crashed it into the comet. The reason: Rosetta’s activities were powered by electricity from solar panels, but now the comet was getting sufficiently far from the sun that solar power would not suffice much longer, so if there was anything left to do, now was the time to do it. As a consequence of this visit to the comet, it sent back a huge amount of information, allegedly enough that it would take decades to analyze it all.

So, what have we learned so far? First, this may not be an “average” comet, because apparently it originated from the region around Jupiter, as opposed to much further out. Second, we got some idea of how a comet gets its tail. One characteristic of the comet was that it is covered with pits. What appears to happen is that gases below the surface get heated by the sun, the pressure breaks the surface and the gases are ejected. Pits in the same region tend to be the same size, mainly because the size depends on the strength of the surface covering and about a million tonnes of matter come from each pit for this comet. In some ways, this suggests the volatile material is not uniformly distributed, but during comet formation, some sort of separation of volatiles from solids such as silicates went on.

One fact that I found interesting was that the emitted gases were mainly water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The comet apparently had very little nitrogen or other volatiles in it. To me, that is important, because in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I pointed out that if my mechanism of the accretion of bodies was correct, in the Jupiter region there should be very little nitrogen, or ammonia, because it is too close to the star, and hence too warm, for them to accrete as such. That is one of the reasons why I assert there can be no life on Europa. In that context, in the very wispy atmosphere of Europa more sodium has been detected than nitrogen. There are very small amounts of nitrogenous material, such as isocyanates in the comet, though. On the other hand, I would not have expected carbon monoxide either, unless carbon dioxide could have been reduced subsequent to cometary formation.

There were also significant amounts of silicates, mainly as finely divided material. This is consistent with the concept that the original dust in the accretion disk contained such finely divided silicates, and in all probability, the dust acted as nuclei for ice condensation. Generally speaking, when something crystallizes out from another phase, it needs something in the other phase to get started. It is sometimes quite easy to make supersaturated solutions of something, and these solutions refuse to crystallize, and then when a suitable piece of dust or seed is added, it all simply crashes out of solution.

One of the other things I found to be of great interest was the shape of the nucleus of the comet, because it shows (as far as I am concerned) how accretion might have progressed. In my ebook, I proposed that what happened was that small particles would impact on the surface of a growing body, and one of two things would happen. The first was that nothing would happen, and gas would eventually abrade the surface and it would fly off (at least until the object became big enough that gravity would be strong enough to hold it.)

The second option was that at a certain temperature, an ice within the object would absorb the energy of impact, melt, then cool and re-freeze, thus melt welding the two bodies together. That seemingly may well have happened on a somewhat larger scale with this comet, as it has the appearance of two large bodies seemingly having collided and stuck together. (There are further smaller examples of seeming attached roundish objects, not visible in the given image.)


Comet 67P – image supplied by ESA

As an aside, that would be a mechanism by which volatiles might separate and concentrate in the small areas that would later generate the pits. For a collision to result in no subsequent separation, the collision had to be inelastic. To be inelastic, all the kinetic energy of the collision has to be absorbed by the objects as heat, and to keep the bodies together, rather than have them fly off again through centrifugal force as the body rotates, something has to hold them together. Ice melting and re-freezing looks a good option to me, but then I am biased. It is also interesting that there are no pits on the face facing the junction. Localised heat may have blown such gas away at the time of collision.

In my opinion, this was a great technical achievement, and ESA should be complimented. This was a truly complicated procedure to get the vehicle to orbit the comet, because the gravitational field of the comet is not exactly strong. Everything had to be done exactly right, and it was. We must now await further results.