Monday, September 26, 2022

When worlds collide: Study of impact craters to uncover secrets of the solar system

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While for humans the constants can be death and tax, for the planets the constants are gravity and collisions.

Brandon Johnson studies the latter, using information from impacts to understand the history and composition of planets, moons, asteroids and meteorites throughout the Solar System.

“Impact cratering is the most ubiquitous surface process shaping planetary bodies,” Johnson said. “Craters are found on almost every solid body we’ve ever seen. They are a major driver of change in planetary bodies. They drive the evolution of planetary crust. All planets and asteroids were created from a series of impacts.” Studying the effects can help us determine the composition and structure of the planets.”

As an associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University College of Science, Johnson has studied nearly every major planetary body in the Solar System. And the time scale of their research ranges from relatively recent impacts to roughly the beginning of the Solar System.

Collecting clues about the collisions helps Johnson reconstruct the environment in which the collision occurred, providing insight into how and when the bodies formed. His research is helping humans locate planetary bodies in the Solar System with only physics, mathematics, and a computer. Space missions and laboratories provide a continual supply of new data and questions to perform analysis work.

“Most meteorites have chondrules—small, previously molten, particles,” Johnson said. “Essentially, by studying the formation of chondrules by impacts, we can better understand what was going on in the nascent Solar System. For example, based on an impact, we were able to determine that Jupiter already formed about 5 million years later. The first solid solar system to change the timeline of our understanding of the Solar System.”

Johnson and his lab workers incorporate known factors about the structure and physics of planetary bodies into complex computer models, run the model through a range of conditions and compare the results to observed events. Analysis of movements and collisions can provide insight into the composition of asteroids and meteorites, helping scientists better understand how elements such as water and metals are distributed through the solar system. By studying impact craters and basins at places like Pluto, Venus and the icy moon, and studying the mechanics of other processes occurring on Europa and asteroids like Psyche, her team can understand more about their interiors; Whether they have molten cores and plate tectonics, for example, or whether they have liquid oceans.

His work doesn’t just extend to the Solar System. He also studies influences closer to home, including Earth’s own Moon and terrestrial influences, which may have influenced the way the Earth’s crust, atmosphere and biosphere evolved.

An online impact calculator tool developed by Johnson’s mentor and the late Jay Melosh, a former Distinguished Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, allows anyone to study the impacts of various rocks in Earth. Johnson and his team are rebuilding the instrument for a new generation of planet students.

Story Source:

material provided by Purdue University, Note: Content can be edited for style and length.

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