Planetary geology

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Planetary geologist and NASA astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt collecting lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission
Surface of Mars as photographed by the Viking 2 lander December 9, 1977.

Planetary geology, alternatively known as astrogeology or exogeology, is a planetary science discipline concerned with the geology of the celestial bodies such as the planets and their moons, asteroids, comets, and meteorites.[1][2] Although the geo- prefix typically indicates topics of or relating to the Earth, planetary geology is named as such for historical and convenience reasons; applying geological science to other planetary bodies. Due to the types of investigations involved, it is also closely linked with Earth-based geology.

Planetary geology includes such topics as determining the internal structure of the terrestrial planets, and also looks at planetary volcanism and surface processes such as impact craters, fluvial and aeolian processes. The structures of the giant planets and their moons are also examined, as is the make-up of the minor bodies of the Solar System, such as asteroids, the Kuiper Belt, and comets.

History of planetary geology

Eugene Shoemaker is credited with bringing geologic principles to planetary mapping and creating the branch of planetary science in the early 1960s, the Astrogeology Research Program, within the United States Geological Survey. He made important contributions to the field and the study of impact craters, Selenography (study of the Moon), asteroids, and comets.[3]

Today many institutions are concerned with the study and communication of planetary sciences and planetary geology. The Visitor Center at Barringer Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona includes a Museum of planetary geology.[citation needed] The Geological Society of America's Planetary Geology Division has been growing and thriving since May 1981 and has two mottos: "One planet just isn't enough!" and "“The GSA Division with the biggest field area!"

Major centers for planetary science research include the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the Applied Physics Laboratory, the Planetary Science Institute, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute, and Johnson Space Center. Additionally, several universities conduct extensive planetary science research, including Montana State University, Brown University, the University of Arizona, Caltech, the University of Colorado, Western Michigan University, MIT, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Features and terms

Planetary geology uses a wide variety of standardised descriptor names for features.[4] All planetary feature names recognised by the International Astronomical Union combine one of these names with a more unique identifying name. The conventions which decide the more unique name are dependent on which planetary body the feature is on, but the standard descriptors are in general common to all astronomical planetary bodies. Some names have a long history of historical usage, but new must be recognised by the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature as features are mapped and described by new planetary missions.[5] This means that in some cases names may change as new imagery becomes available,[5] or in other cases widely adopted informal names changed in line with the rules.[6] The standard names are chosen to consciously avoid interpreting the underlying cause of the feature, but rather to describe only its appearance.[4]

Feature Pronunciation[7] Description Designation
Albedo feature /ælˈbd/ An area which shows a contrast in brightness or darkness (albedo) with adjacent areas. This term is implicit. AL
Arcus, arcūs /ˈɑːrkəs/ Arc: curved feature AR
Astrum, astra /ˈæstrəm/, /ˈæstrə/ Radial-patterned features on Venus AS
Catena, catenae /kəˈtnə/, /kəˈtn/ A chain of craters e.g. Enki Catena. CA
Cavus, cavi /ˈkvəs/, /ˈkv/ Hollows, irregular steep-sided depressions usually in arrays or clusters CB
Chaos /ˈk.ɒs/ A distinctive area of broken or jumbled terrain e.g. Iani Chaos. CH
Chasma, chasmata /ˈkæzmə/, /ˈkæzmətə/ Deep, elongated, steep-sided depression e.g. Eos Chasma. CM
Colles /ˈkɒlz/ A collection of small hills or knobs. CO
Corona, coronae /kɒˈrnə/, /kɒˈrn/ An oval feature. Used only on Venus and Miranda. CR
Crater, craters /ˈkrtər/ A circular depression likely created by impact event. This term is implicit. AA
Dorsum, dorsa /ˈdɔːrsəm/, /ˈdɔːrsə/ Ridge, sometimes called a wrinkle ridge e.g. Dorsum Buckland. DO
Eruptive center An active volcano on Io. This term is implicit. ER
Facula, faculae /ˈfækjʊlə/, /ˈfækjʊl/ Bright spot FA
Farrum, farra /ˈfærəm/, /ˈfærə/ Pancake-like structure, or a row of such structures. Used only on Venus. FR
Flexus, flexūs /ˈflɛksəs/ Very low curvilinear ridge with a scalloped pattern FE
Fluctus, fluctūs /ˈflʌktəs/ Terrain covered by outflow of liquid. Used on Venus, Io and Titan. FL
Flumen, flumina /ˈflmn/, /ˈflmnə/ Channel on Titan that might carry liquid FM
Fossa, fossae /ˈfɒsə/, /ˈfɒs/ Long, narrow, shallow depression FO
Fretum, freta /ˈfrtəm/, /ˈfrtə/ Strait of liquid connecting two larger areas of liquid. Used only on Titan. FT
Insula, insulae /ˈɪnsjlə/, /ˈɪnsjl/ Island (islands), an isolated land area (or group of such areas) surrounded by, or nearly surrounded by, a liquid area (sea or lake). Used only on Titan. IN
Labes, labes /ˈlbz/ Landslide debris. Used only on Mars. LA
Labyrinthus, labyrinthi /læbˈrɪnθəs/, /læbˈrɪnθ/ Complex of intersecting valleys or ridges. LB
Lacuna, lacunae /ləˈkjuːnə/, /ləˈkjuːn/ Irregularly shaped depression having the appearance of a dry lake bed. Used only on Titan. LU
Lacus, lacūs /ˈlkəs/ A "lake" or small plain on Moon and Mars; on Titan, a "lake" or small, dark plain with discrete, sharp boundaries. LC
Landing site name Lunar features at or near Apollo landing sites LF
Large ringed feature Cryptic ringed features LG
Lenticula, lenticulae /lɛnˈtɪkjʊlə/, /lɛnˈtɪkjʊl/ Small dark spots on Europa LE
Linea, lineae /ˈlɪnə/, /ˈlɪn./ Dark or bright elongate marking, may be curved or straight LI
Macula, maculae /ˈmækjʊlə/, /ˈmækjʊl/ Dark spot, may be irregular MA
Mare, maria /ˈmɑːr/ ~ /ˈmɑːr/, /ˈmɑːriə/ A "sea" or large circular plain on Moon and Mars, e.g. Mare Erythraeum; on Titan, large expanses of dark materials thought to be liquid hydrocarbons, e.g. Ligeia Mare. ME
Mensa, mensae /ˈmɛnsə/, /ˈmɛns/ A flat-topped prominence with cliff-like edges, i.e. a mesa. MN
Mons, montes /ˈmɒnz/, /ˈmɒntz/ Mons refers to a mountain. Montes refers to a mountain range. MO
Oceanus /ʃˈnəs/ Very large dark area. The only feature with this designation is Oceanus Procellarum. OC
Palus, paludes /ˈpləs/, /pəˈlʲdz/ "Swamp"; small plain. Used on the Moon and Mars. PA
Patera, paterae /ˈpætərə/, /ˈpætər/ Irregular crater, or a complex one with scalloped edges e.g. Ah Peku Patera. Usually refers to the dish-shaped depression atop a volcano. PE
Planitia, planitiae /pləˈnɪʃə/, /pləˈnɪʃ/ Low plain e.g. Amazonis Planitia. PL
Planum, plana /ˈplnəm/, /ˈplnə/ A plateau or high plain e.g. Planum Boreum. PM
Plume A cryovolcanic feature on Triton. This term is currently unused. PU
Promontorium, promontoria /prɒmənˈtɔəriəm/, /prɒmənˈtɔəriə/ "Cape"; headland. Used only on the Moon. PR
Regio, regiones /ˈr/ ~ /ˈrɛ/, /rɛiˈnz/ Large area marked by reflectivity or color distinctions from adjacent areas, or a broad geographic region RE
Reticulum, reticula /rˈtɪkjʊləm/, /rˈtɪkjʊlə/ reticular (netlike) pattern on Venus RT
Rima, rimae /ˈrmə/, /ˈrm/ Fissure. Used only on the Moon. RI
Rupes, rupes /ˈrpz/ Scarp RU
Satellite feature A feature that shares the name of an associated feature, for example Hertzsprung D. SF
Scopulus, scopuli /ˈskɒpjʊlə/, /ˈskɒpjʊl/ Lobate or irregular scarp SC
Serpens, serpentes /ˈsɜːrpɛnz/, /sərˈpɛntz/ Sinuous feature with segments of positive and negative relief along its length SE
Sinus /ˈsnəs/ "Bay"; small plain on Moon or Mars, e.g. Sinus Meridiani; On Titan, bay within bodies of liquid. SI
Sulcus, sulci /ˈsʌlkəs/, /ˈsʌls/ Subparallel furrows and ridges SU
Terra, terrae /ˈtɛrə/, /ˈtɛr/ Extensive land mass e.g. Arabia Terra, Aphrodite Terra. TA
Tessera, tesserae /ˈtɛsərə/, /ˈtɛsər/ An area of tile-like, polygonal terrain. This term is used only on Venus. TE
Tholus, tholi /ˈθləs/, /ˈθl/ Small domical mountain or hill e.g. Hecates Tholus. TH
Undae /ˈʌnd/ A field of dunes. Used on Venus, Mars and Titan. UN
Vallis, valles /ˈvæls/, /ˈvælz/ A valley e.g. Valles Marineris. VA
Vastitas, vastitates /ˈvæsttəs/, /væstˈttz/ An extensive plain. The only feature with this designation is Vastitas Borealis. VS
Virga, virgae /ˈvɜːrɡə/, /ˈvɜːr/ A streak or stripe of color. This term is currently used only on Titan. VI

By planet


  1. "What is planetary geology?". James F. Bell III (Cornell University), Bruce A. Campbell (Smithsonian Institution), Mark S. Robinson (U.S. Geological Survey). Retrieved 6 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "GEOL212: Planetary Geology Fall 2015". University of Maryland Department of Geology. Retrieved 6 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Chapman, Mary G. "Gene Shoemaker - Founder of Astrogeology". USGS. Retrieved 21 May 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1
  5. 5.0 5.1 Morton, Oliver. Mapping Mars: science, imagination, and the birth of a world. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.
  7. Listed pronunciations are conventional or follow the traditional English pronunciation of Latin words. However, some speakers use different (often variable) pronunciations that are closer to the Latin or Greek.

Additional Reading