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Planetary Science

Planetary science underlies much of the research at the Geophysical Laboratory. We study the structure and composition of matter over a wide range of temperatures and pressures appropriate to planetary materials. Our goal is to understand the physical and chemical structures of planets to depths as far as our laboratory pressure capability can take us. We study the transformation of surface, mantle and core materials in dynamic processes that create structural and geochemical change during the evolution of planets.

We also study extraterrestrial materials that may have come from planets or planetary building blocks early in the solar system, such as meteorites and comets, in order to deduce the nature of the original material that made up the solar system and the evolution of this material, physically and chemically, during and after the formation of the solar system. We apply unique laboratory instrumentation and an array of expertise from mineral physics to geochemistry to organic chemistry to microbiology in this work. A particular focus is on insoluble organics in these samples and on what these materials can tell us about the evolution of organic chemistry in the solar system. The Laboratory is active in analyzing samples returned from space such as from the recent Stardust mission that returned samples of Comet Wild2.

Finally we work on finding measurements and instrumental techniques for identifying evidence of fossil life in geological materials. This evidence could consist of a particular distribution of minerals, elements or isotopes in a rock sample, or perhaps even morphologic evidence of fossil microbes and their chemical remains. We conduct field expeditions in Mars analog sites on earth to test these techniques and instruments, and staff members participate on flight instrument investigations to other planets to search for organic material and signs of past or current life. We have a fundamental interest in the evolution of complex chemistry on young planets and the how the transition takes place from chemistry to biology early in planetary history.

Planetary Science News


Washington, D.C., 15 June 2015— New work from the Geophysical Laboratory's Stewart McWilliams and Alexander Goncharov used laboratory techniques to mimic stellar and planetary conditions, and observe how noble gases behave under these conditions, in order to better understand the atmospheric and internal chemistry of these celestial objects.

Washington, D.C., 14 April 2015— The cores of terrestrial planets and satellite bodies, including the Moon, all contain large quantities of iron.  New work from the Geophysical Laboratory's Yingwei Fei provides new measurements of iron at lunar core conditions that will help build a direct compositional and velocity model of the Moon’s core in conjunction with limited lunar seismic data.

Washington, D.C., 27 October 2014—In a new paper in Nature Geoscience, the Geophysical Laboratory’s Sami Mikhail and Dimitri Sverjensky outline a compelling model for nitrogen accumulation in Earth’s atmosphere, suggesting subduction, and subsequent degassing at arc volcanoes, is key.

Pasadena, C.A., 19 February 2014–The international consortium of the Giant Magellan Telescope project has passed two major reviews and is positioned to enter the construction phase. Scientists will explore distant and potentially habitable planets around other stars, the universe after the Big Bang, and the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy and massive black holes.

The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet, written by the Geophysical Laboratory's Bob Hazen, is now in the running for both the Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Prize and the Royal Society Science Book Prize.