Red, purple and green streamers of the aurora borealis dazzled viewers in North America on Friday and were seen much farther south than normal, with people in California, Arizona and Texas reporting they could see it, according to AccuWeather, Inc. Typically, the spectacular display is only visible in northern locales like Alaska, North Dakota, Canada and Iceland.
Equatorial Relict Glacier Uncovered on Mars
The preservation of water ice at shallow depths and low latitudes on Mars would have significant implications for both scientific research and human exploration.
During the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference that took place in The Woodlands, Texas, scientists announced a groundbreaking discovery of a relict glacier located near the equator of <span class=”glossaryLink” aria-describedby=”tt” data-cmtooltip=”
” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”]”>Mars. This glacier is located in Eastern Noctis Labyrinthus at coordinates 7° 33′ S, 93° 14′ W, and its discovery is a significant indication of the presence of surface water ice on Mars in recent history, even close to the equator. This finding also suggests the potential existence of ice at shallow depths in the region, which could have crucial implications for future human exploration.
The surface feature identified as a “relict glacier” is one of many light-toned deposits (LTDs) found in the region. Typically, LTDs consist mainly of light-colored sulfate salts, but this deposit also shows many of the features of a glacier, including crevasse fields and moraine bands. The glacier is estimated to be 6 kilometers long and up to 4 kilometers wide, with a surface elevation ranging from +1.3 to +1.7 kilometers. This discovery suggests that Mars’ recent history may have been more watery than previously thought, which could have implications for understanding the planet’s habitability.
“What we’ve found is not ice, but a salt deposit with the detailed morphologic features of a glacier. What we think happened here is that salt formed on top of a glacier while preserving the shape of the ice below, down to details like crevasse fields and moraine bands,” said Dr. Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute, and the lead author of the study.
The presence of volcanic materials blanketing the region hints of how the sulfate salts might have formed and preserved a glacier’s imprint underneath. When freshly erupted pyroclastic materials (mixtures of volcanic ash, pumice, and hot lava blocks) come in contact with water ice, sulfate salts like the ones commonly making up Mars’ light-toned deposits may form and build up into a hardened, crusty salt layer.
“This region of Mars has a history of volcanic activity. And where some of the volcanic materials came in contact with glacier ice, chemical reactions would have taken place at the boundary between the two to form a hardened layer of sulfate salts,” explains Sourabh Shubham, a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology, and a co-author of the study. “This is the most likely explanation for the hydrated and hydroxylated sulfates we observe in this light-toned deposit.”
Over time, with erosion removing the blanketing volcanic materials, a crusty layer of sulfates mirroring the glacier ice underneath became exposed, which would explain how a salt deposit is now visible, presenting features unique to glaciers such as crevasses and moraine bands.
“Glaciers often present distinctive types of features, including marginal, splaying, and tic-tac-toe crevasse fields, and also thrust moraine bands and foliation. We are seeing analogous features in this light-toned deposit, in form, location, and scale. It’s very intriguing,” said John Schutt, a geologist at the Mars Institute, experienced icefield guide in the Arctic and Antarctica, and a co-author of this study.
The glacier’s fine-scale features, its associated sulfate salts deposit, and the overlying volcanic materials are all very sparsely cratered by impacts and must be geologically young, likely Amazonian in age, the latest geologic period which includes modern Mars. “We’ve known about glacial activity on Mars at many locations, including near the equator in the more distant past. And we’ve known about recent glacial activity on Mars, but so far, only at higher latitudes. A relatively young relict glacier in this location tells us that Mars experienced surface ice in recent times, even near the equator, which is new,” said Lee.
It remains to be seen whether water ice might still be preserved underneath the light-toned deposit or if it has disappeared entirely. “Water ice is, at present, not stable at the very surface of Mars near the equator at these elevations. So, it’s not surprising that we’re not detecting any water ice at the surface. It is possible that all the glacier’s water ice has sublimated away by now. But there’s also a chance that some of it might still be protected at shallow depth under the sulfate salts.”
The study draws an analogy with the ancient ice islands on salt lakebeds, or salars, of the Altiplano in South America. There, old glacier ice has remained protected from melting, evaporation, and sublimation underneath blankets of bright salts. Lee and his co-authors hypothesize a similar situation to explain how sulfate salts on Mars might be able to offer protection to otherwise sublimation-vulnerable ice at low latitudes on the planet.
If there is still water ice preserved at shallow depths at a low latitude on Mars, there would be implications for science and human exploration. “The desire to land humans at a location where they might be able to extract water ice from the ground has been pushing mission planners to consider higher latitude sites. But the latter environments are typically colder and more challenging for humans and robots. If there were equatorial locations where ice might be found at shallow depth, then we’d have the best of both environments: warmer conditions for human exploration and still access to ice,” said Lee.
But Lee cautions that more work still needs to be done: “We now have to determine if, and how much, water ice might actually be present in this relict glacier, and whether other light-toned deposits might also have, or have had, ice-rich substrates.”
Reference: “A Relict Glacier Near Mars’ Equator: Evidence for Recent Glaciation and Volcanism in Eastern Noctis Labyrinthus” by Pascal Lee, Sourabh Shubham and John W. Schutt, 2023, 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
Solar Storm That Caused Dazzling Auroral Display Could Linger
A coronal mass ejection, an explosion of magnetic fields and plasma from the sun’s atmosphere, hit Earth early Friday with more force than initially forecast. These events can disrupt Earth’s magnetic field causing auroral displays, as well as disrupting satellites, communication and electric grids.
Read more: A Swedish Resort Lets You See the Northern Lights From Your Room
The US Space Weather Prediction Center had originally expected a G2 level storm Friday on its five-step scale, the event measured in at G4, one of the strongest triggered on Earth since 2017.
The impacts from the coronal mass ejection have trailed off, but energy coming from what scientists call a “coronal hole” will continue at least through Saturday and that could mean the aurora could be seen by viewers across Europe, Asia and North America through Sunday, the UK Met Office said on its website.
There are currently eight sunspot clusters visible on the side of the sun facing Earth, however another coronal mass ejection blasting toward us isn’t forecast, the UK Met Office said.
An airplane-sized asteroid will pass between the Earth and moon’s orbits Saturday
An asteroid dubbed “city killer” for its size will pass harmlessly between the moon and the Earth Saturday evening.
The asteroid 2023 DZ2 will pass at a distance of over 100,000 miles, less than half the distance between the Earth and the moon. It’s about 160 feet long — about the size of an airliner. An asteroid that size could cause significant damage if it hit a populated area, hence its nickname.
“While close approaches are a regular occurrence, one by an asteroid of this size (140-310 ft) happens only about once per decade, providing a unique opportunity for science,” NASA Asteroid Watch tweeted.
Astronomers from the International Asteroid Warning Network, established about 10 years ago to coordinate international responses to potential near-Earth object impact threats, will be monitoring and learning from this asteroid.
NASA Asteroid Watch called the opportunity “good practice” in case “a potential asteroid threat were ever discovered.”
Near-Earth objects are asteroids or comets that pass close to the Earth’s orbit, and they generally come from objects that are affected by other planets’ gravity, moving them into orbits that push them close to Earth, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
The European Space Agency maintains a risk list of 1,460 objects, which catalogs every object with a non-zero chance of hitting Earth over the next 100 years. Asteroid 2023 DZ2, which is in orbit around the sun, is not on the risk list.
Large asteroid to zoom between Earth and Moon
On Saturday, the 2023DZ2 will come within a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
A large asteroid will safely zoom between Earth and the Moon on Saturday, a once-in-a-decade event that will be used as a training exercise for planetary defence efforts, according to the European Space Agency.
The asteroid, named 2023 DZ2, is estimated to be 40 to 70 metres (130 to 230 feet) wide, roughly the size of the Parthenon, and big enough to wipe out a large city if it hit our planet.
At 19:49 GMT on Saturday, it will come within a third of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, said Richard Moissl, the head of the ESA’s planetary defence office.
Though that is “very close”, there is nothing to worry about, he told AFP news agency.
Small asteroids fly past every day, but one of this size coming so close to Earth only happens about once every 10 years, he added.
The asteroid will pass 175,000km (109,000 miles) from Earth at a speed of 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,400 miles per hour). The Moon is roughly 385,000km (239,228 miles) away.
An observatory in La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, first spotted the asteroid on February 27.
Last week, the United Nations-endorsed International Asteroid Warning Network decided it would take advantage of the close look, carrying out a “rapid characterisation” of 2023 DZ2, Moissl said. That means astronomers around the world will analyse the asteroid with a range of instruments such as spectrometers and radars.
The goal is to find out just how much we can learn about such an asteroid in only a week, Moissl said. It will also serve as training for how the network “would react to a threat” possibly heading our way in the future, he added.
The asteroid will again swing past Earth in 2026, but poses no threat of impact for at least the next 100 years – which is how far out its trajectory has been calculated.
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