The year 2005 marks the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, probably the most successful failure in the history of manned spaceflight. Naturally, Apollo 13's scientific payload is far less known than the spectacular accident and subsequent rescue of its crew. Among other instruments, it carried the first instrument designed to measure the flux of heat on a planetary body other than Earth. The year 2005 also should have marked the launch of the Japanese LUNAR-A mission, and ESA's Rosetta mission is slowly approaching comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Both missions carry penetrators to study the heat flow from their target bodies. What is so interesting about planetary heat flow? What can we learn from it and how do we measure it?
Not only the Sun, but all planets in the Solar System are essentially heat engines. Various heat sources or heat reservoirs drive intrinsic and surface processes, causing ‘dead balls of rock, ice or gas’ to evolve dynamically over time, driving convection that powers tectonic processes and spawns magnetic fields. The heat flow constrains models of the thermal evolution of a planet and also its composition because it provides an upper limit for the bulk abundance of radioactive elements. On Earth, the global variation of heat flow also reflects the tectonic activity: heat flow increases towards the young ocean ridges, whereas it is rather low on the old continental shields.
It is not surprising that surface heat flow measurements, or even estimates, where performed, contributed greatly to our understanding of what happens inside the planets. In this article, I will review the results and the methods used in past heat flow measurements and speculate on the targets and design of future experiments.
One contribution of 17 to a Triennial Issue ‘Astronomy and earth science’.
↵To be precise, asteroids are neither spherical nor are they strictly ‘dead’ in a thermal sense. Radioactive decay leads to endogenic heat production and asteroids can occasionally be rather active in terms of gas emission (Luu & Jewitt 1990).
↵The more common term heat flow is used as a synonym of ‘heat flux density’ in this article.
- © 2005 The Royal Society