Planetary Science - Real-life applications
G RAVITY , THE S UN , AND E ARTH
A fourth key figure in the Scientific Revolution was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), whose laws of planetary motion directly influenced Newton's laws of gravitation and motion. Thanks to Kepler, we know that planets do not make circular orbits around the Sun; rather, those orbits are elliptical. As Newton later showed, the reason for this is the gravitational pull exerted by the Sun.
Gravitational force explains why Earth, the Sun, and all celestial bodies larger than asteroids are round—but also why they cannot be perfectly round. As to the latter issue—the fact that Earth bulges near the equator—it is a consequence of its motion around its axis. Because it is spinning rapidly, the mass of the planet's interior responds to the centripetal (inward) force of its motion, producing a centrifugal, or outward, component. If Earth were standing still, it would be much nearer to the shape of a sphere.
MASS AND SPHERICITY.
Now to the larger question: Why is Earth round? The answer is that the gravitational pull of its interior forces a planetary body to assume a more or less uniform shape. Furthermore, the larger the mass of an object, the greater its tendency toward roundness. Earth's surface has a relatively small vertical differential: between the lowest point and the highest point is just 12.28 mi. (19.6 km), which is not a great distance, considering that Earth's radius is about 4,000 mi. (6,400 km).
An object of less mass is more likely to retain a shape that is less than spherical. This can be shown by reference to the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, both of which are oblong, and both of which are tiny, in terms of size and mass, compared with Earth's Moon. Mars itself has a radius half that of Earth, yet its mass is only about 10% of Earth's, and therefore it is capable of retaining a less perfectly spherical shape.
There is also the possibility of more pronounced differences in elevation, and thus it should not be surprising to learn that Mars is also home to the tallest mountain in the solar system. Standing 15 mi. (24 km) high, the volcano Olympus Mons is not only much taller than Earth's tallest peak, Mount Everest (29,028 ft., or 8,848 m), it is also 22% taller than the distance from the top of Mount Everest to the lowest spot on Earth, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean (-36,198 ft., or-10,911 m).
W HY E ARTH I S S PECIAL
With regard to gravitation, a spherical object behaves as though its mass were concentrated near its center. Indeed, 33% of Earth's mass is at is core (as opposed to the crust or mantle), even though the core accounts for only about 20% of the planet's volume. Geologists believe that the composition of Earth's core must be molten iron, which creates the planet's vast electromagnetic field.
Certain particulars of Earth's core lead us to answering another great question about our home planet: Why is it alone capable of sustaining life—as far as we can tell—while the other planets of our solar system are either hellish worlds of fire or frigid, forbidding realms of ice crystals and liquefied gas?
DENSITY OF EARTH'S INTERIOR.
At first glance, Earth seems to have few distinctions other than its ability to support life: it is neither the largest nor the smallest planet in the solar system, positions held by Jupiter and Pluto, respectively. (Earth ranks fifth.) Earth has a moon, but that is hardly a distinction: Saturn has 18 moons. And not only does Olympus Mons tower over Everest, but the gaseous oceans of Jupiter also are much deeper than the Mariana Trench. In the lists of planetary superlatives, Earth has only one: it is the most dense.
The only bodies that come close are Mercury and Venus, which along with Earth and Mars are designated as terrestrial planets. (Earth's Moon often is considered along with the terrestrial planets because its composition is similar to them and because it is a relatively large satellite.) The terrestrial planets are small, rocky, and dense; have relatively small amounts of gaseous elements; and are composed primarily of metals and silicates. This is in contrast to the Jovian planets, which are large, low in density, and composed primarily of gases. (The Jovian planets usually are designated as the four giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Pluto, the smallest of all nine planets, has a density higher than any Jovian planet.)
Density is simply the ratio of mass to volume, meaning that Earth packs more mass into a given volume than any other body in the solar system. Saturn, least dense among the planets, has a mass 95.16 times as great as that of Earth, yet its volume is 764 times greater, meaning that its density is only about 12% of Earth's. But whereas Saturn and other Jovian planets are composed primarily of gases surrounding small, dense cores, Earth—beneath its atmospheric layer and it waters—is a hard little ball. Its core, composed of iron, nickel, and traces of other elements, including uranium, is relatively heavy.
That gives it a strong gravitational pull and, in combination with the comparatively high speed of the planet's rotation, causes Earth to have a powerful magnetic field. It is also important to note the significance of planetary mass in making possible the formation of an atmosphere. Because of their mass, larger planetary bodies exert enough gravitational pull to retain gases around their surfaces; by contrast, the Moon and Mercury are too small and have no atmosphere. Of course, Earth is the only planet whose atmosphere is capable of sustaining life as we know it, and this is a result of activity beneath the planet's surface.
A VOLATILE PLANET.
Earth is the only terrestrial planet on which the processes of plate tectonics, or the shifting of plates beneath the planetary surface, take place. The other terrestrial planets have crusts of fairly uniform thickness, suggesting that they have never experienced the internal shifting that has helped give our planet its unique topography. Earth also has a relatively thin lithosphere—the upper layer of the planetary surface, including the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle—which helps make it a particularly volatile body.
Of the terrestrial planets, the only ones still given to volcanic activity are Earth and Venus. Mars seems to have experienced volcanic activity at some point in the past billion years, while Mercury and the Moon have not had volcanoes for several billion years. This is also an important factor in determining Earth's capacity to support living things, because volcanoes—which transport gases from the planet's interior to its atmosphere—have been crucial to the creation of the conditions necessary for sustaining life.
The heat generated by internal volatility is also a component influencing the sustainability of life on Earth. At the time Earth and other planets were formed, some 4.5 billion years ago, the planets experienced such heat that they melted, causing a separation of chemical compounds. The heavier compounds, mostly containing iron, sank to the core of the planet, where they remain today, while the lighter ones rose to the surface. Included in these lighter substances were oxygen and other elements essential to the sustenance of life. Even now Earth and Venus, because of their volcanic activity, are cooling at rates slower than
THE CREATION AND SUSTENANCE OF LIFE.
Aside from the distinctive features of its core, Earth's position relative to the Sun has helped make it possible for life to take root on this planet. For decades scientists believed that Earth is unique in possessing that life-sustaining compound of hydrogen and oxygen, H 2 O or water; but now we know that even Jupiter—not to mention Venus and Mars—have water on their surfaces. The problem is that Venus's water is too hot, existing as vapor in the upper atmosphere, while the water on Mars and Jupiter takes the form of ice crystals. Earth is uniquely placed to sustain liquid water.
The existence of liquid water made it possible for the first microorganisms to form on Earth, leading over hundreds of millions of years to the development of the complex biosphere known today. The existence of life in simple forms promoted the development of the atmosphere and geosphere, because these life-forms took in carbon dioxide and water, processed them, and returned them to the environment as oxygen and organic materials.
T HE S OLAR S YSTEM AND B EYOND
The reader may have noticed that earlier in this essay, we ceased discussing progress in cosmology after about 1650. This is not because nothing happened after that time; on the contrary, the centuries that have elapsed since then have seen the greatest progress in astronomical study since the dawn of civilization. To give this topic the coverage it warrants, however, would require a lengthy discussion—one that would take us away from the earth sciences and toward the sister science of astronomy.
Up until the Scientific Revolution, the earth sciences hardly existed, except inasmuch as various people over the millennia had recorded data concerning Earth and made sometimes unscientific speculations regarding its origin and composition. As the oldest of the physical sciences, astronomy was much more mature, but even it could progress only so far under the restrictions of the Ptolemaic system. Unfettered, it began to progress rapidly, and the result has been an unfolding vision of the universe that is at once more clear and more complex.
THE SIZE OF THE UNIVERSE.
One of the dominant themes in astronomy from Galileo's time to the present day is astronomers' quite literally expanding vision of the universe. Up until 1781, when the German-born English astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) discovered Uranus, scientists had known only of the five other planets visible to the naked eye, all of which had been discovered in prehistoric times. (Neptune was discovered in 1846 and Pluto not until 1930.)
In the seventeenth century, astronomers still regarded what we call the solar system as the entire universe, but Herschel was instrumental in ascertaining that Earth is part of a bright band ofstars called the Milky Way. Just as Earth once hadbeen believed to be the center of the "universe," or solar system, astronomers then came tobelieve it was at the center of the Milky Way. Onlysince 1920 has it been known that our solar system is, in fact, somewhere between the center and the edge of the vast galaxy. Even the Milky Way, composed of several hundred billion stars and about 120,000 light-years in diameter, is not the entire universe; it is only one of many hundreds of galaxies or "island universes."
As discussed at the beginning of this essay, such a scale is almost too much for the human mind to comprehend, particularly inasmuch as Earth is the only planet known to sustain intelligent life. As the British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (1917-) has observed, either there are other intelligent life-forms out there in the universe, or there are not—and either possibility is mind-boggling.
THE BIG BANG AND THE SOLAR SYSTEM.
Not only has astronomers' understanding of the universe expanded, along with their idea of its size; it also appears that the universe itself is expanding. Today the most widely accepted model regarding the formation of the universe is the big bang theory, first put forward by the Belgian astrophysicist Georges Édouard Lemaître (1894-1966) in 1927. According to this theory, an explosion 10-20 billion years ago resulted in the rapid creation of all matter in the universe, and that matter is continuing to move outward, expanding the frontiers of the universe.
Our own solar system appears to be about five billion years old, meaning that the Sun is a relatively young star. It seems that the future solar system was just one of many great balls of gas, rotating as they moved outward, that were scattered around the universe as a result of the big bang. Just as these balls of gas exploded from the center, the material of the various stars emerged from the center of the ball that became our solar system.
FORMATION OF THE PLANETS.
The proto-solar system we have described here was a great rotating cloud, and though it has long since ceased to be a cloud, it continues to rotate—only now it is in the form of planets turning around a sun at the center. The hottest portion of the cloud, at the center, became the Sun, while cooler portions at the fringes became planets. The Sun itself is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, the two most plentiful elements in the universe. In the extraordinarily high temperatures on the Sun, atoms of hydrogen (which has one proton in its nucleus) experience nuclear fusion, becoming atoms of helium, which has two protons. It appears that continued fusion resulted in the creation of the heavier elements (for instance, nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and silicon) of which the planets—in particular, our own—are composed.
Earth's elemental makeup is discussed elsewhere in this book, as is the structure of its interior. So, too, is the Sun's effect on Earth. These matters are not unrelated. In studying the solar system and the planets that make it up, one is confronted again and again with the fact that a planet's destiny is governed by its position relative to the Sun. Ultimately, the planets in our solar system are ruled by the same principle that drives the sale of real estate: location, location, location!
This is true not only of the atmosphere and temperature of planets but also of their relative density. It is no mistake that the terrestrial planets are closer to the Sun: their internal composition is as it is because these bodies became the destination of most of the heavier elements that emanated from it. Many of the lighter elements continued to move outward, where they gathered around rocky centers to become the mostly gaseous Jovian planets.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
Astronomy and Cosmology (Web site). <http://www.netlabs.net/hp/tremor/> .
Beatty, J. Kelly. The New Solar System. New York: Sky, 1999.
Cambridge Cosmology (Web site). <http://www.damtp.cam.ac.uk/user/gr/public/cos_home.html e; .
Canup, Robin M., and Kevin Righter. Origin of the Earth and Moon. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000.
The Cosmology: Explore the Largest Mystery (Web site). <http://library.thinkquest.org/28181/> .
Gallant, Roy A. Earth's Place in Space. New York: Benchmark Books, 1999.
Lambert, David, and Martin Redfern. The Kingfisher Book of the Universe. New York: Kingfisher, 2001.
Llamas Ruiz, Andrés. The Origin of the Universe. Illus. Luis Rizo. New York: Sterling Publishers, 1997.
Ned Wright's Cosmology Tutorial (Web site). <http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~wright/cosmolog.htm> .
Skinner, Brian J., Stephen C. Porter, and Daniel B. Botkin. The Blue Planet: An Introduction to Earth System Science. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1999.