Call of Cthulhu — Can we uncover the secret of Pluto’s red spots?

Featuring image: Pluto is an icy object in the outer solar system. Its surface it not only covered by ice, but also by an unidentified red material. The largest of these red areas is the Cthulhu region in the southern hemisphere. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI, public domain (CC0)

Paper: Testing tholins as analogues of the dark reddish material covering Pluto’s Cthulhu region

Authors: M. Fayolle, E. Quirico, B. Schmitt, L. Jovanovic, T. Gautier, N. Carrasco, W. Grundy, V. Vuitton, O. Poch, S. Protopapa, L. Young, D. Cruikshank, C. Dalle Ore, T. Bertrand, A. Stern

Pluto is an icy object beyond Neptune. Its surface is not only covered by innocent pale ice, but also by mysterious dark-red fields. What lurks in these hellish regions and where do they come from?

Far behind Neptune’s orbit, the icy body Pluto orbits our Sun. Pluto got a lot of attention in 2006, when it lost its status as a planet. Since then, it remained as a trans neptunian objects (TNO) of major interest. In 2015, Pluto presented itself in high resolution pictures for the first time in history, when NASA’s space probe New Horizons explored the outer regions of our solar system. What the pictures showed, was not the expected icy desert, but multiple areas of deep red all over Pluto’s surface. The largest of them is located on the southern hemisphere. As a homage to the master of subtle horror, H. P. Lovecraft, the area is called Cthulhu region, because some of the most mysterious and powerful beings in Lovecraft’s world originate from Pluto (in Lovecraft’s stories called Yuggoth). Fayolle and co-workers tried to better understand the origin of these red materials by using laboratory experiments and numerical modelling in comparison with the data recorded by the New Horizons space probe.

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Mineralogy on other worlds

Featuring image: Titan seen in infrared light. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona, public domain (CC0)

Paper: Titan in a Test Tube: Organic Co-crystals and Implications for Titan Mineralogy

Authors: M. L. Cable, T. Runčevski, H. E. Maynard-Casely, T. H. Vu and R. Hodyss

Titan, Saturn largest moon, is a strange world. Its surface is covered by ice, dunes and haze of organic molecules and lakes of liquid methane. It even rains. The diversity of surface features may remind us of our own home planet, but the chemistry between these two celestial bodies lies worlds apart.

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One of the Moon’s most prominent features is older than we thought

Featured image: the Moon by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

Paper: Černok, A., White, L.F., Anand, M. et al. Lunar samples record an impact 4.2 billion years ago that may have formed the Serenitatis Basin. Commun Earth Environ 2, 120 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-021-00181-z

About 4 billion years ago, the inner Solar System fell prey to an apocalyptic assault by asteroids. These asteroids slammed into the terrestrial planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars—and the Moon, leaving behind the scars and basins that make up the planets’ landscapes today. This attack, called the Large Heavy Bombardment, helps explain the genesis of a majority of the formations decorating the inner planets of the Solar System. Previous dating of Moon rocks helped pindown the occurrence of the Bombardment somewhere around 3.8 billion years ago. While this window of time is widely accepted in the planetary science community, one of the Moon’s most iconic features, the Serinatits Basin, might poke a hole in it.

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Tiny Crystals, Big Story: Time capsules from the Early Mars

Featured Image: Zircon grain under the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Image used with permission from Wikipedia (Emmanuel Roquette).

Article: The internal structure and geodynamics of Mars inferred from a 4.2-Gyr zircon record.

Authors: Maria M. Costa, Ninna K. Jensen, Laura C. Bouvier, James N. Connelly, Takashi Mikouchi, Matthew S. A. Horstwood, Jussi-Petteri Suuronen, Frédéric Moynier, Zhengbin Deng, Arnaud Agranier, Laure A. J. Martin, Tim E. Johnson, Alexander A. Nemchin, and Martin Bizzarro

While sitting in Geology 101 studying the geological time scale, most of us have gone through this experience where we imagined ourselves going back in time; visualizing mammoths passing by, dinosaurs hunting and fighting. But all these pictures start to become hazy and unclear when we reach close to 4 billion years. It is the time for which we have no rock records, and this is where zircons or what I would like to call “tiny survivors” comes in.

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Cave formations show link between ice ages and the tilt of Earth’s axis

Paper: Persistent influence of obliquity on ice age terminations since the Middle Pleistocene transition

Featured image: Stalagmites captured by mareke on Pixabay

Authors: Petra Bajo, Russell N. Drysdale, Jon D. Woodhead, John C. Hellstrom, David Hodell, Patrizia Ferretti, Antje H.L. Voelker, Giovanni Zanchetta, Teresa Rodrigues, Eric Wolff, Jonathan Tyler, Silvia Frisia, Christoph Spötl, Anthony E. Fallick

Our planet has been circling and spinning in a wobbly dance around the Sun for billions of years. The exact motions of this dance- governed by Earth’s near-circular orbit (eccentricity), the tilt of its axis, and the orientation of the tilted axis in space (precession) fluctuate predictably. Variations in this planetary dance have changed the amount and distribution of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface through time, and have determined when the planet experienced long periods of cold temperatures and growth of massive ice caps on the continents (ice ages). However, scientists have not been so sure about which planetary motion is the most important for the timing of ice ages. New research uses climate information stored in caves to precisely link these motions to ice ages, showing that axis tilt may be the most important position in the dance when it comes to pulling Earth’s climate out of those frigid times.  

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