An Astronomical Detective Tale and the Moon of 2007 OR10

It isn’t every day we get a new moon added to the list of solar system satellites. The combined observational power of three observatories—Kepler, Herschel and Hubble—led an astronomical detective tale to its climatic conclusion: distant Kuiper Belt Object 2007 OR10 has a tiny moon.

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A Bored New Horizons Spacecraft Takes Part Time Job To Fill The Time

The New Horizons probe made history in July of 2015, being the first mission to ever conduct a close flyby of Pluto. In so doing, the mission revealed some never-before-seen things about this distant world. This included information about its many surface features, it’s atmosphere, magnetic environment, and its system of moons. It also provided […]

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Astronomers Think They Know Where Rosetta’s Comet Came From

A new study reveals that Rosetta’s Comet likely spent billions of years chilling in the Kuiper Belt before chance interactions with Neptune and Jupiter wrangled it into the inner Solar System.

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Hubble Images Three Debris Disks Around G-type Stars

An image of the circum-stellar disk around HD 207129. The three circled objects are background objects and part of the disk. Image: Hubble Space Telescope, Glenn Schneider et al 2016.

A team using the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged circumstellar disk structures (CDSs) around three stars similar to our Sun. The stars are all G-type solar analogs, and the disks themselves share similarities with our Solar System’s own Kuiper Belt. Studying these CDSs will help us better understand their ring-like structure, and the formation of solar systems.

The team behind the study was led by Glenn Schneider of the Seward Observatory at the University of Arizona. They used the Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to capture the images. The stars in the study are HD 207917, HD 207129, and HD 202628.

Theoretical models of circumstellar disk dynamics suggest the presence of CDSs. Direct observation confirms their presence, though not many of these disks are within observational range. These new deep images of three solar analog CDSs are important. Studying the structure of these rings should lead to a better understanding of the formation of solar systems themselves.

Debris disks like these are separate from protoplanetary disks. Protoplanetary disks are a mixture of both gas and dust which exist around younger stars. They are the source material out of which planetesimals form. Those planetesimals then become planets.

Protoplanetary disks are much shorter-lived than CDSs. Whatever material is left over after planet formation is typically expelled from the host solar system by the star’s radiation pressure.

In circumstellar debris disks like the ones imaged in this study, the solar system is older, and the planets have already formed. CDSs like these have lasted this long by replenishing themselves. Collisions between larger bodies in the solar system create more debris. The resulting debris is continually ground down to smaller sizes by repeated collisions.

This process requires gravitational perturbation, either from planets in the system, or by binary stars. In fact, the presence of a CDSs is a strong hint that the solar system contains terrestrial planets.

The three disks in this study were viewed at intermediate inclinations. They scatter starlight, and are more easily observed than edge-on disks. Each of the three circumstellar disk structures possess “ring-like components that are more massive analogs of our solar system’s Edgeworth–Kuiper Belt,” according to the study.

The study authors expect that the images of these three disk structures will be studied in more detail, both by themselves and by others in future research. They also say that the James Webb Space Telescope will be a powerful tool for examining CDSs.

Read more: It’s Complicated: Hubble Survey Finds Unexpected Diversity in Dusty Discs Around Nearby Stars

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New Horizons Spies Pluto’s Neighbor Quaoar

Artist view of New Horizons passing Pluto and three of its moons.. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Now more than a year after its historic flyby of Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft continues to speed through the Kuiper Belt. It’s currently on a beeline towards its next target of exploration, a KBO called 2014 MU69. But during its travels, New Horizons spotted another KBO, one of Pluto’s pals, Quaoar.

When these images were taken (in July 2016), Quaoar was approximately 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from the Sun and 1.3 billion miles (2.1 billion kilometers) from New Horizons.

The animated sequence, above, (click the image if it isn’t animating in your browser) shows composite images taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at four different times over July 13-14: “A” on July 13 at 02:00 Universal Time; “B” on July 13 at 04:08 UT; “C” on July 14 at 00:06 UT; and “D” on July 14 at 02:18 UT. The New Horizons team explained that each composite includes 24 individual LORRI images, providing a total exposure time of 239 seconds and making the faint object easier to see.

Quaoar ( pronounced like “Kwa-war”) is about 690 miles or 1,100 kilometers in diameter, about half the size of Pluto. It was discovered on June 4, 2002 by astronomers Mike Brown and Chad Trujillo from Caltech, and at the time its discovery, it was the largest object found in the Solar System since the discovery of Pluto. Quaoar’s discovery was one of the things that spurred the discussion of whether Pluto should continue to be classified as a planet or not.

But Quaoar is an interesting object in its own right and the New Horizons team said the oblique views of it that New Horizons can see – where LORRI sees only a portion of Quaoar’s illuminated surface — is very different from the nearly fully illuminated view of it that is visible from Earth. Comparing Quaoar from the two very different perspectives gives mission scientists a valuable opportunity to study the light-scattering properties of Quaoar’s surface.

If you’re thinking, “Why don’t we send a mission to Quaoar, or Sedna or Eris?” you aren’t alone. New Horizons team member Alex Parker has obviously been thinking about it. Parker tweeted that for a New Horizons-like mission it would take about 13 and a half years to each Quaoar if it could be launched in December 2016. “Otherwise, we have to wait another 11 years for the next Jupiter assist window,” he said.

Um, NASA, can we put this on the schedule for 2027?

In the meantime, the images and data that New Horizons gathered during the Pluto flyby in July 2015 are still trickling back to Earth. The image below is a stunning view of Pluto’s methane snowcaps, visible at the terminator, showing the region north of Pluto’s dark equatorial band informally named Cthulhu Regio, and southwest of the vast nitrogen ice plains informally named Sputnik Planitia. This image was taken about 45 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

See all of the latest photos sent back from our robot in the outer reaches of our Solar System at the New Horizons website.

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NASA Approves New Horizons Extended KBO Mission, Keeps Dawn at Ceres

New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.

In an ‘Independence Day’ gift to a slew of US planetary research scientists, NASA has granted approval to nine ongoing missions to continue for another two years this holiday weekend.

The biggest news is that NASA green lighted a mission extension for the New Horizons probe to fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt and decided to keep the Dawn probe at Ceres forever, rather than dispatching it to a record breaking third main belt asteroid.

And the exciting extension news comes just as the agency’s Juno probe is about to ignite a July 4 fireworks display on July 4 to achieve orbit at Jupiter – detailed here.

“Mission approved!” the researchers gleefully reported on the probes Facebook and Twitter social media pages.

“Our extended mission into the #KuiperBelt has been approved. Thanks to everyone for following along & hopefully the best is yet to come.

The New Horizons spacecraft will now continue on course in the Kuiper Belt towards an small object known as 2014 MU69, to carry out the most distant close encounter with a celestial object in human history.

“Here’s to continued success!”

The spacecraft will rendezvous with the ancient rock on New Year’s Day 2019.

Researchers say that 2014 MU69 is considered as one of the early building blocks of the solar system and as such will be invaluable to scientists studying the origin of our solar system how it evolved.

It was almost exactly one year ago on July 14, 2015 that New Horizons conducted Earth’s first ever up close flyby and science reconnaissance of Pluto – the most distant planet in our solar system and the last of the nine planets to be explored.

The immense volume of data gathered continues to stream back to Earth every day.

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C.

“We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

While waiting for news on whether NASA would approve an extended mission, the New Horizons engineering and science team already ignited the main engine four times to carry out four course changes in October and November 2015, in order to preserve the option of the flyby past 2014 MU69 on Jan 1, 2019.

Green noted that mission extensions into fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are not final until Congress actually passes sufficient appropriation to fund NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

“Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.”

NASA’s Dawn asteroid orbiter just completed its primary mission at dwarf planet Ceres on June 30, just in time for the global celebration known as Asteroid Day.

“The mission exceeded all expectations originally set for its exploration of protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres,” said NASA officials.

The Dawn science team had recently submitted a proposal to break out of orbit around the middle of this month in order to this conduct a flyby of the main belt asteroid Adeona.

Green declined to approve the Dawn proposal, citing additional valuable science to be gathered at Ceres.

The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target where it conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.

The mission is expected to last until at least later into 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.

Dawn will remain at its current altitude at LAMO for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, even when no further communications are possible.

Green based his decision on the mission extensions on the biannual peer review scientific assessment by the Senior Review Panel.

The other mission extension – contingent on available resources – are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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New Horizons Sends Back First Science On Distant Kuiper Belt Object

This artist's impression shows the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)

Even the most curmudgeonly anti-space troll has to admit that the New Horizons mission to Pluto has been an overwhelming success.

It’s not like New Horizons discovered life or anything, but it did bring an otherwise cold, distant lump to life for humanity. Vivid images and detailed scientific data revealed Pluto as a dynamic, changing world, with an active surface and an atmosphere. And we haven’t even received all of the data from New Horizons’ mission to Pluto yet.

Fresh off its historic visit to Pluto, New Horizons is headed for the Kuiper Belt, and just sent back its first science on one of the denizens of the distant belt of objects. The target in this case is 1994 JR1, a 145 km (90 mi.) wide Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). that orbits the Sun at a distance greater than 5 billion km. (3 billion mi.) New Horizons has now observed 1994 JR1 twice, and the team behind the mission has garnered new insights into this KBO based on these observations.

The spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) captured images of 1994 JR1 on April 7th-8th from a distance of 111 million km. (69 million mi.). That’s far closer than the images New Horizons captured in November 2015 from a distance of 280 million km (170 million miles).

New Horizons science team member Simon Porter, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder Colorado, commented on the importance of these images. “Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO,” Porter said.

Porter added that this accurate measurement of the KBO’s orbit allows New Horizons science team members to quash the idea that JR1 is a quasi-satellite of Pluto.

The team was also able to determine, by measuring the light reflected from the surface, that JR1’s rotational period is only 5.4 hours. That’s fast for a KBO. John Spencer, another New Horizons science team member from SwRI, said “This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.”

KBOs are ancient remnants of the early days of the Solar System. Whereas the inner regions of the Solar System were largely swept clean as the planets formed, the Kuiper Belt remained mostly as it is, untouched by the gravity of the planets.

There are trillions of objects in this cold, distant part of the Solar System. The Kuiper Belt itself spans a distance that is 30 to 50 times greater than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. It’s similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but Kuiper Belt objects are icy, whereas asteroid belt objects are rocky, for the most part.

The New Horizons team has requested a mission extension, and if that extension is approved, the target is already chosen. In August 2015, NASA selected the KBO 2014 MU69, which resides in an orbit almost a billion miles beyond Pluto. There were two potential destinations for the spacecraft after it departed Pluto, and 2014 MU69 was recommended by the New Horizons team, and chosen by NASA.

Choosing New Horizons’ next target early was important for fuel use. Fuel conservation allows the spacecraft to perform the maneuvers necessary to reach 2014 MU69. If all goes well, New Horizons should reach its next target by January 2019.

According to Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, there are good reasons to visit 2014 MU69. “2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” he said. “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”

The Decadal Survey in 2003 strongly recommended that flybys of Pluto and small KBOs should be conducted. The KBO is an unexplored region, and these flybys will allow us to sample the diversity of objects in the belt.

If New Horizons makes it to its next target, 2014 MU69, and delivers the types of results it has so far in its journey, it will be an unprecedented success. The kind of success that will make it harder and harder to be a curmudgeonly anti-space troll.

Wait. Who am I kidding.

Haters gonna hate.

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How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?

Surface features of the four members at different levels of zoom in each row

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.

As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.

The Jovian Moons:

Within the Jupiter system, there are 67 confirmed moons of varying size, shape and composition. In honor of Jupiter’s namesake, they are sometimes collectively referred to as the Jovians. Of these, the four largest – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are known as the Galileans (in honor of their founder, Galileo Galilei). These four moons are among the largest in the Solar System, with Ganymede being the largest of them all, and even larger than the planet Mercury.

In addition, three of these moons – Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are all believed or known to have interior oceans at or near their core-mantle boundary. The presence of warm water oceans is not only considered an indication of potential life on these moons, but is also cited as a reason for possible human habitation.

Of the Galilean Moons, Io, Europa and Ganymede are all in orbital resonance with each other. Io has a 2:1 mean-motion orbital resonance with Europa and a 4:1 resonance with Ganymede, which means that it completes two orbits of Jupiter for every one orbit of Europa, and four orbits for every orbit Ganymede. This resonance helps maintain these moons’ orbital eccentricities, which in turn triggers tidal flexing their interiors.

Naturally, each moon presents its own share of advantages and disadvantages when it comes to exploration, settlement, and terraforming. Ultimately, these come down to the particular moon’s structure and composition, its proximity to Jupiter, the availability of water, and whether or not the moon in question is dominated by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

Possible Methods:

The process of converting Jupiter’s Galilean moons is really quite simple. Basically, its all about leveraging the indigenous resources and the moons’ own interactions with Jupiter’s magnetic field to create a breathable atmosphere. The process would begin by heating the surface in order to sublimate the ice, a process which could involve orbital mirrors to focus sunlight onto the surface, nuclear detonators, or crashing comets/meteors into the surface.

Once the surface ice begins to melt, it would form dense clouds of water vapor and gaseous volatiles (such as carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia). These would in turn create a greenhouse effect, warming the surface even more, and triggering a process known as radiolysis (the dissociation of molecules through exposure to nuclear radiation).

Basically, the exposure of water vapor to Jupiter’s radiation would result in the creation of hydrogen and oxygen gas, the former of which would escape into space while the latter remained closer to the surface. This process already takes place around Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, and is responsible for their tenuous atmospheres (which contain oxygen gas).

And since ammonia is predominantly composed of nitrogen, it could be converted into nitrogen gas (N²) through the introduction of certain strains of bacteria. These would include members of the Nitrosomonas, Pseudomonas and Clostridium species, which would convert ammonia gas into nitrites (NO²-), and then nitrites into nitrogen gas. With nitrogen acting as a buffer gas, a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere with sufficient air pressure to sustain humans could be created.

Another option falls under the heading of “paraterraforming” – a process where a world is enclosed (in whole or in part) in an artificial shell in order to transform its environment. In the case of the Jovians, this would involve building large “Shell Worlds” to encase them, keeping the atmospheres inside long enough to effect long-term changes.

Within this shell, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto could have their temperatures slowly raised, the water-vapor atmospheres could be exposed to ultra-violet radiation from internal UV lights, bacteria could then be introduced, and other elements added as needed. Such a shell would ensure that the process of creating of an atmosphere could be carefully controlled and none would be lost before the process was complete.


With a mean radius of 1821.6 ± 0.5 km, and an average distance (semi-major axis) of 421,700 km from Jupiter, Io is the innermost of the Galileans. Because of this, Io is completely enveloped by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, which also the surface is exposed to significant amounts of harmful radiation. In fact, Io receives an estimated 3,600 rem (36 Sv) of ionizing radiation per day, whereas living organisms here on Earth experience an average of 24 rem per year!

The moon has the shortest orbital period of any of the Galileans, taking roughly 42.5 hours to complete a single orbit around the gas giant. The moon’s 2:1 and 4:1 orbital resonance with Europa and Ganymede (see below) also contributes to its orbital eccentricity of 0.0041, which is the primary reason for Io’s geologic activity.

With a mean density of 3.528 ± 0.006 g/cm3, Io has the highest density of any moon in the Solar System, and is significantly denser than the other Galilean Moons. Composed primarily of silicate rock and iron, it is closer in bulk composition to the terrestrial planets than to other satellites in the outer Solar System, which are mostly composed of a mix of water ice and silicates.

Unlike its Jovian cousins, Io has no warm-water ocean beneath its surface. In fact, based on magnetic measurements and heat-flow observations, a magma ocean is believed to exist some 50 km below the surface, which itself is about 50 km thick and makes up 10% of the mantle.  It is estimated that the temperature in the magma ocean reaches 1473 K (1200 °C/2192 °F).

The main source of internal heat that allows for this comes from tidal flexing, which is the result of Io’s orbital resonance with Europa and Ganymede. The friction or dissipation produced in Io’s interior due to this varying tidal pull creates significant tidal heating within Io’s interior, melting a significant amount of Io’s mantle and core.

This heat is also responsible for Io’s volcanic activity and its observed heat flow, and periodically causes lava to erupt up to 500 km (300 mi) into space. Consistently, the surface of is covered in smooth plains dotted with tall mountains, pits of various shapes and sizes, and volcanic lava flows. It’s colorful appearance (a combination of orange, yellow, green, white/grey, etc.) is also indicative of volcanic activity which has covered the surface in sulfuric and silicate compounds and leads to surface renewal.

Io contains little to no water, though small pockets of water ice or hydrated minerals have been tentatively identified, most notably on the northwest flank of the mountain Gish Bar Mons. In fact, Io has the least amount of water of any known body in the Solar System, which is likely due to Jupiter being hot enough early in the evolution of the Solar System to drive volatile materials like water off its surface.

Taken together, all of this adds up to Io being a total non-starter when it comes to terraforming or settlement. The planet is far too hostile, far too dry, and far too volcanically active to ever be turned into something habitable!


Europa, by contrast, has a lot of appeal for proponents of terraforming. If Io could be characterized as hellish, lava-spewing place (and it certainly can!), then Europa would be calm, icy and watery by comparison. With a mean radius of about 1560 km and a mass of 4.7998 ×1022 kg, Europa is also slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon, which makes it the sixth-largest moon and fifteenth largest object in the Solar System.

It’s orbit is nearly circular, with a eccentricity of 0.09, and lies at an average distance of 670 900 km from Jupiter. The moon takes 3.55 Earth days to complete a single orbit around Jupiter, and is tidally locked with the planet (though some theories say that this may not be absolute). At this distance from Jupiter, Europa still experiences quite a bit of radiation, averaging about 540 rem per day.

Europa is significantly more dense than the other Galilean Moons (except for Io), which indicates that its interior is differentiated between a rock interior composed of silicate rock and a possible iron core. Above this rocky interior is layer of water ice that is estimated to be around 100 km (62 mi) thick, likely differentiated between a frozen upper crust and  a liquid water ocean beneath.

If present, this ocean is likely a warm-water, salty ocean that contains organic molecules, is oxygenated, and heated by Europa’s geologically-active core. Given the combination of these factors, it is considered a strong possibility that organic life also exists in this ocean, possibly in microbial or even multi-celled form, most likely in environments similar to Earth’s deep-ocean hydrothermal vents.

Because of its abundant water, which comes in both liquid and solid form, Europa is a popular candidate for proponents of colonization and terraforming. Using nuclear devices, cometary impacts, or some other means to increase the surface temperature, Europa’s surface ice could be sublimated and form a massive atmosphere of water vapor.

This vapor would then undergo radiolysis due to exposure to Jupiter’s magnetic field, converting it into oxygen gas (which would stay close to the planet) and hydrogen that would escape into space. The resulting planet would be an ocean world, where floating settlements could be built that floated across the surface (due to oceans depths of ~100 km, they could not be anchored). Because Europa is tidally-locked, these colonies could move from the day-side to the night-side in order to create the illusion of a diurnal cycle.


Ganymede’s is the third most distant moon from Jupiter, and orbits at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,070,400 km – varying from 1,069,200 km at periapsis to at 1,071,600 km apoapsis. At this distance, it takes seven days and three hours to completes a single revolution. Like most known moons, Ganymede is tidally locked, with one side always facing toward the planet.

With a mean radius of 2634.1 ± 0.3 kilometers (the equivalent of 0.413 Earths), Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System, even larger than the planet Mercury. However, with a mass of 1.4819 x 10²³ kg (the equivalent of 0.025 Earths), it is only half as massive, which is due to its composition, which consists of water ice and silicate rock.

Ganymede is considered another possible candidate for human settlement – and even terraforming – for several reasons. For one, as Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede has a gravitational force of 1.428 m/s2 (the equivalent of 0.146 g) which is comparable to Earth’s Moon. Sufficient enough to limit the effects of muscle and bone degeneration, this lower gravity also means that the moon has a lower escape velocity – which means it would take considerably less fuel for rockets to take off from the surface.

What’s more, the presence of a magnetosphere means that colonists would be better shielded from cosmic radiation than on other bodies, and more shielded from Jupiter’s radiation than Europa or Io. All told, Ganymede receives about 8 rem of radiation per day – a significant reduction from Europa and Io, but still well above human tolerances.

The prevalence of water ice means that colonists could also produce breathable oxygen, their own drinking water, and would be able to synthesize rocket fuel. Like Europa, this could be done by heating up the surface through various means, sublimating the water ice, and allowing radiolysis to convert it into oxygen. Again, the result would be an ocean world, but one with significantly deeper oceans (~800 km).

And then there is the distinct possibility that Ganymede, like Europa, has an interior ocean due to the heat created by tidal flexing in its mantle. This heat could be transferred into the water via hydrothermal vents, which could provide the necessary heat and energy to sustain life. Combined with oxygenated water, life forms could exist at the core-mantle boundary in the form of extremophiles, much like on Europa.


Callisto is the outermost of the Galileans, orbiting Jupiter at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,882,700 km. With a mean radius of 2410.3 ± 1.5 km (0.378 Earths) and a mass of 1.0759 × 1023 kg (0.018 Earths), Callisto is the second largest of  Jupiter’s moons (after Ganymede) and the third largest satellite in the solar system. It is similarly comparable in size to Mercury – being 99% as large – but due to its mixed composition, it has less than one-third of Mercury mass.

Compared to the other Galileans, Callisto presents numerous advantages as far as colonization is concerned. Much like the others, the moon has an abundant supply of water in the form of surface ice (but also possibly liquid water beneath the surface). But unlike the others, Callisto’s distance from Jupiter means that colonists would have far less to worry about in terms of radiation. In fact, with a surface exposure of about  0.01 rem a day, Callisto is well within human tolerances.

Much like Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s moons of Enceladus, Mimas, Dione, Titan, the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Callisto has led many scientists to speculate about the possibility of life. This is particularly likely if the interior ocean is made up of salt-water, since halophiles (which thrive in high salt concentrations) could live there.

However, the environmental conditions necessary for life to appear (which include the presence of sufficient heat due to tidal flexing) are more likely on Europa and Ganymede. The main difference is the lack of contact between the rocky material and the interior ocean, as well as the lower heat flux in Callisto’s interior. In essence, while Callisto possesses the necessary pre-biotic chemistry to host life, it lacks the necessary energy.

Like Europa and Ganymede, the process of terraforming Callisto would involve heating up the surface in order to sublimate the surface ice and create an atmosphere, one which produces oxygen through radiolysis. The resulting world would be an ocean planet, but with oceans that reached to depths of between 130 and 350 km.

Potential Challenges:

Okay, we’ve covered the potential methods and targets, which means its time for the bad news. To break it down, converting one or more of the Galileans into something habitable to humans presents many difficulties, some of which may prove to be insurmountable. These include, but are are not limited to:

  1. Distance
  2. Resources/Infrastructure
  3. Natural Hazards
  4. Sustainability
  5. Ethical Considerations

Basically, the Jovian system is pretty far from Earth. On average, the distance between Jupiter and Earth is 628,411,977 million km (4.2 AU), roughly four times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. To put that into perspective, it took the Voyager probes between 18 months and two years to reach Jupiter from Earth. Ships designed to haul human passengers (with enough supplies and equipment to sustain them) would be much larger and heavier, which would make the travel time even longer.

In addition, depending on the method used, transforming the surfaces of Europa, Ganymede, and/or Callisto could require harvesting comets and iceteroids from the edge of the Solar System, which is significantly farther. To put that in perspective, it took the New Horizons mission over eight years to reach Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. And since any mission to this region of space would need to haul back several tons of icy cargo, the wait time involved would be on the order of decades.

Ergo, any vessels transporting human crews to the Jovian system would likely have to rely on cryogenics or hibernation-related technology in order to be smaller, faster and more cost-effective. While this sort of technology is being investigated for crewed missions to Mars, it is still very much in the research and development phase.

As for transport missions to and from the Kuiper Belt, these ships could be automated, but would have to come equipped with advanced propulsion systems in order to make the trips in a decent amount of time. This could take the form of Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion (NTP), Fusion-drive systems, or some other advanced concept. So far, no such drive systems exist, with some being decades or more away from feasibility.

An alternative to this last item could be to harvest asteroids from near Earth, the Asteroid Belt, or Jupiter’s Trojans. However, this brings up the second aspect of this challenge, which is the problem of infrastructure. In order to mount multiple crewed missions to the Jovian system, as well as asteroid/iceteroid retrieval missions, a considerable amount of infrastructure would be needed that either does not exist or is severely lacking.

This includes having lots of spaceships, which would also need advanced propulsion systems. Just as important is the need for refueling and supply stations between Earth and the Jovian System – like an outpost on the Moon, a permanent base on Mars, and bases on Ceres and in the Asteroid Belt. Harvesting resources from the Kuiper Belt would require more outposts between Jupiter and most likely Pluto.

Where “Shell Worlds” are concerned, the challenge remains the same. Building an enveloping structure big enough for an entire moon – which range from 3121.6 km to 5262.4 km in diameter – would require massive amounts of material. While these could be harvested from the nearby Asteroid Belt, it would require thousands of ships and robot workers to mine, haul, and assemble the minerals into large enough shells.

Third, radiation would be a significant issue for humans living on Europa or Ganymede. As noted already, Earth organisms are exposed to an average of 24 rem per year, which works out to 0.0657 rem per day. An exposure of approximately 75 rems over a period of a few days is enough to cause radiation poisoning, while about 500 rems over a few days would be fatal. Of all the Galileans, only Callisto falls beneath this terminal limit.

As a result, any settlements established on Europa or Ganymede would require radiation shielding, even after the creation of viable atmospheres. This in turn would require large shields to be built in orbit of the moons (requiring another massive investment in resources), or would dictate that all settlements built on the surfaces include heavy radiation shielding.

On top of that, as the surfaces of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (especially Callisto!) will attest, the Jovian system is frequented by space rocks. In fact, most of Jupiter’s satellites are asteroids it picked up as they sailed through the system. These satellites are lost on a regular basis, and new ones are added all the time. So colonists would naturally have to worry about space rocks slamming into their ocean world, causing massive waves and blotting out the sky with thick clouds of water vapor.

Fourth, the issue of sustainability, has to do with the fact that all of the Jovian moons either do not have a magnetosphere or, in the case of Ganymede, are not powerful enough to block the effects of Jupiter’s magnetic field. Because of this, any atmosphere created would be slowly stripped away, much as Mars’ atmosphere was slowly stripped away after it lost its magnetosphere about 4.3 billion years ago. In order to maintain the effects of terraforming, colonists would need to replenish the atmosphere over time.

Another aspect of sustainability, one which is often overlooked, has to do with the kinds of planets that would result from terraforming. While estimates vary, transforming Europa, Ganymede and Callisto would result in oceans that varied in depth – from 100 km (in the cae of Europa) to extreme depths of up to 800 km (in the case of Ganymede). In contrast, the greatest depth ever measured here on Earth was only about 10 km (6 miles) deep, in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench.

With oceans this deep, all settlements would have to take the form of floating cities that could not be anchored to solid ground. And in the case of Ganymede, the oceans would account for a considerable portion of the planet. What the physicals effects of this would be are hard to imagine. But it is a safe bet that they would result in tremendously high tides (at best) to water being lost to space.

And finally, there is the issue of the ethics of terraforming. If, as scientists currently suspect, there is in fact indigenous life on one or more of the Jovian moons, then the effects of terraforming could have severe consequences or them. For instance, if bacterial life forms exist on the underside of Europa’s icy surface, then melting it would mean death for these organisms, since it would remove their only source of protection from radiation.

Life forms that exist close to the core-mantle boundary, most likely around hydrothermal vents, would be less effected by the presence of humans on the surface. However, any changes to the ec0logical balance could lead to a chain reaction that would destroy the natural life cycle. And the presence of organisms introduced by humans (i.e. germs), could have a similarly devastating effect.

So basically, if we choose to alter the natural environment of one or more of the Jovian moons, we will effectively be risking the annihilation of any indigenous life forms. Such an act would be tantamount to genocide (or xenocide, as the case may be), and exposure to alien organisms would surely pose health risks for human colonists as well.


All in all, it appears that terraforming the outer Solar System might be a bit of a non-starter. While the prospect of doing it is certainly exciting, and presents many interesting opportunities, the challenges involved do seem to add up. For starters, it doesn’t seem likely or practical for us to contemplate doing this until we’ve established a presence on the Moon, Mars, and in the Asteroid Belt.

Second, terraforming any of Jupiter’s moons would involve a considerable amount of time, energy and resources. And given that a lot of these moon’s resources could be harvested for terraforming other worlds (such as Mars and Venus), would it not make sense to terraform these worlds first and circle back to the outer Solar System later?

Third, a terraformed Europa, Ganymede and Callisto would all be water worlds with extremely deep oceans. Would it even be possible to build floating cities on such a world? Or would they be swallowed up by massive tidal waves; or worse, swept off into space by waves so high, they slipped the bonds of the planet’s gravity? And how often would the atmosphere need to be replenished in order to ensure it didn’t get stripped away?

And last, but not least, any act of terraforming these moons would invariably threaten any life that already exists there. And the threat caused by exposure wouldn’t exactly be one-way. Under all of these circumstances, would it not be better to simply establish outposts on the surface, or perhaps within or directly underneath the ice?

All valid questions, and ones which we will no doubt begin to explore once we start mounting research missions to Europa and the other Jovian moons in the future. And depending on what we find there, we might just choose to put down some roots. And in time, we might even begin thinking about renovating the places so more of our kin can drop by. Before we do any of that, we had better make sure we know what we’re doing, and be sure we aren’t doing any harm in the process!

We have written many interesting articles about Jupiter’s Moons here at Universe Today. Here’s What Are Jupiter’s Moons?, Io, Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon, Jupiter’s Moon Europa, Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede, and Jupiter’s Moon Callisto.

To learn more about terraforming, check out The Definitive Guide To Terraforming, How Do We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, and How Do We Terraform the Moon? and Could We Terraform Jupiter?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Jupiter’s Moons.

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Mysterious Pull On Cassini Probe May Help Find Planet Nine

Artist's impression of Planet Nine, blocking out the Milky Way. The Sun is in the distance, with the orbit of Neptune shown as a ring. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

Finding a ninth planet in our Solar System this late in the game would be fascinating. It would also be somewhat of a surprise, considering our observational capabilities. But new evidence, in the form of small perturbations in the orbit of the Cassini probe, points to the existence of an as-yet undetected planet in our solar system.

Back in January, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence supporting the existence of a ninth planet. Their paper showed that some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) display unexpected behaviour. It appears that 6 KBOs are affected by their relationship to a large object, but the KBOs in question are too distant from the known gas giants for them to be responsible. They think that a large, distant planet, in the distant reaches of our Solar System, could be responsible for the unexpected orbital clustering of these KBOs.

Now, the Ninth Planet idea is gaining steam, and another team of researchers have presented evidence that small perturbations in the orbit of the Cassini spacecraft are caused by the new planet. Agnès Fienga at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France, and her colleagues, have been working on a detailed model of the Solar System for over a decade. They plugged the hypothetical orbit and size of Planet Nine into their model, to see if it fit.

Planet Nine is calculated to be about 4 times as large as Earth, and 10 times as massive. It’s orbit takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years. A planet that large can only be hiding in so many places, and those places are a long way from Earth. Fienga found a potential home for Planet Nine, some 600 astronomical units (AU) from here. That much mass at that location could account for the perturbations in Cassini’s orbit.

There’s more good news when it comes to Planet Nine. By happy accident, it’s predicted location in the sky is towards the constellation Cetus, in the southern hemisphere. This means that it is in the view of the Dark Energy Survey, a southern hemisphere project that is studying the acceleration of the universe. The Dark Energy Survey is not designed to search for planetary objects, but it has successfully found at least one icy object.

There are other ways that the existence of Planet Nine could be confirmed. If it’s as large as thought, then it will radiate enough internal heat to be detected by instruments designed to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). There is also an enormous amount of data from multiple experiments and observations done over the years that might contain an inadvertent clue. But looking through it is an enormous task.

As for Brown and Batygin, who initially proposed the existence of Planet Nine based on the behaviour of KBOs, they are already proposing a more specific hunt for the elusive planet. They have asked for a substantial amount of observing time at the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, in order to examine closely the location that Fienga’s solar system model predicts Planet Nine to be at.

For a more detailed look at Batygin’s and Brown’s work analyzing KBOs, read Matt Williams’ article here.

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