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Water on Planets

  • James F Bell (a1)

Water is an abundant molecule in the Cosmos. It has exploitable and unique spectroscopic and physical properties and has been found to be ubiquitous in places that we would expect in the standard model of solar system formation and nebular condensation: beyond the snow line in outer solar system planets, moons, asteroids, and comets. However, water is also an important constituent of planetary bodies (dominating at least one of their surfaces) in the inner solar system, likely indicating significant mixing between inner and outer solar system reservoirs of water during planetary accretion and the early history of the solar system. Water has played a critical role in the differential evolution of the terrestrial planets Venus, Earth, and Mars, and the concept of the “habitable zone” where liquid water could be stable on an Earth-like planet provides a starting point for assessing the habitability of worlds in our solar system and beyond. Examples of potentially habitable environments outside this zone in our own solar system warn us that this concept should only be a guide, however-important exceptions will no doubt occur. Recent discoveries of past liquid water and abundant present subsurface ice on Mars, of water reservoirs in unexpected places like the poles of Mercury and the Moon and the subsurface of Enceladus, of water in circumstellar disks and in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, and the expectation of the discovery of water on Earth-like worlds in the habitable zones around other stars make this an exciting time in the study of water on planets both in our own solar system, and beyond.

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