10 Solar System Mysteries That Baffle Our Best Scientists

Mercury Just Doesn’t Make Sense

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For four years, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft orbited Mercury, sending us pictures of cliffs (aka “fault scarps”) that looked like enormous stair steps. The biggest ones were over 1,000 kilometers (600 mi) long and over 3,000 meters (10,000 ft) high.

Fault scarps are created when rocks are pushed into these patterns along fractures in the crust of a planet. For Mercury, many scientists believe the scarps are surface “wrinkles” that were created when the planet shrank by up to 14 kilometers (9 mi) in diameter as its core transformed from molten to solid. Still, the scarps don’t look right. If they formed due to shrinkage, they should be uniform across Mercury’s surface. Instead, the majority of scarps run along two wide strips from north to south on either side of the planet. Also, there are only half as many scarps in the northern hemisphere as in the southern hemisphere.

But that’s not the only strange thing about Mercury. It’s also too far from the Sun.

As scientists have studied data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, they’ve noticed that only one other solar system looks like ours. In fact, many stars are surrounded by Systems of Tightly packed Inner Planets (STIPs). Over time, collisions between these inner planets leave only a few survivors. If scientists are modeling this correctly, our solar system had up to four more planets orbiting inside of Venus in earlier times. When all the collisions were over, Mercury was the sole survivor.

That may explain why Mercury contains too many heavier elements and not enough lighter elements. Maybe collisions with other space objects ripped away the planet’s lighter crust, exposing a denser layer. It might also account for why models of our solar system show that we had too much material orbiting the Sun to form only one planet as close as Mercury.  space travel space science earth science space station science space travel space science earth science space station

“If every star once had a system of STIPs, then it would mean that the modelers have been missing the boat on planetary formation for a long time,” said scientist Kevin Walsh. “We have always been trying to build models just to get our four rocky planets, whereas if this idea is right, then we have long ignored the possibility of also forming three to five planets as big as or even much bigger than Earth inside the orbit of Mercury. This would be extremely cool!”

Mysterious Cloud-Like Plumes Over Mars

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In early 2012, amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke spotted a strange cloud over Mars. Unlike the thin, wispy clouds that normally form over the planet, these monster flares erupting from the surface topped out at an altitude of 240 kilometers (150 mi), appearing to be over twice as high as any previous cloud. They were also extremely wide at 500–1,000 kilometers (300–600 mi) across.

The first plumes lasted a little over a week in March 2012. Similar plumes appeared briefly in April 2012. Even after consulting other amateur astronomers, Jaeschke couldn’t account for what he saw. So he brought his findings to the pros, but they were stumped, too.

After checking historical data, professional astronomers found Hubble Space Telescope images from 1997 that showed a similar cloud on Mars. The pros concluded that the odd plumes weren’t made of ice crystals because the atmosphere on Mars is too warm for that. It was also unlikely that the plumes were an aurora, similar to the northern lights on our planet. The type of solar activity needed to create an aurora was absent on the days the Martian plumes appeared. Still, they were 1,000 times more luminous than anything ever observed on Earth.

Not all planetary scientists believe these plumes are real. But the rest argue that 19 different observers recorded the odd eruptions. space travel space science earth science space station science space travel space science earth science space station

In a separate finding from NASA’s Mars orbiter, scientists have spotted evidence of “impact glass” in some craters on Mars. Dark in color like newly cooled lava, impact glass forms when a comet or asteroid smashes into a planetary surface and melts a large area of rock and soil that quickly hardens.

This material can preserve traces of life that survived before and after impact, almost like a time capsule. Impact glass can also trap atmospheric gases existing when the crash occurred. So if we can find a way to examine it, impact glass may solve some ancient mysteries about the Red Planet.

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