Think you know everything about the Solar System? While the geeks out there might be well familiar with most of these topics, here’s a list of few facts which might come as a surprise to the ignoramus like me!
Believed active tectonics unique to Earth? Think again!
In 2016, data from MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging spacecraft) revealed small cliff-like land forms on Mercury’s surface. These fault scarps prove that the planet is still shrinking 4.5 billion years after the formation of solar system thus shattering the belief that the Earth is the only tectonically active planet.
Venus has super-powerful winds
The extreme-temperature, high-pressure environment on Venus’s surface is capable of destroying heavily shielded spaceships within a matter of minutes post landing. The bizarre and unexplained observation is that upper winds on the planet flow 50 times faster than its rotation, and appeared to be getting stronger over time.
The closest is not the hottest!
Although it is fair to assume that Mercury being the closest to the Sun would also be the hottest planet, the absence of an atmosphere around it makes it impossible to trap the sun’s heat. Thus the award of the hottest planet in the Solar System goes to Venus which has an atmosphere about 90 times thicker than Earth whose major component is the famous greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide. Put together, they increase the temperature on Venus to about a constant temperature of 875 degrees F.
Earth’s Van Allen belts: distinct or one super-belt?
The Van Allen belts: a bands of radiation belts surrounding the Earth are quite bizarre in the fact that according to solar activity, sometimes these belts are very distinct, and sometimes they swell into one massive belt.
Almost everything on Earth is a rare element.
While we take the elements on Earth like iron, oxygen, silicon, magnesium, sulphur, nickel, calcium, sodium, and aluminium for granted, these are quite a rarity when you take into account the trace amounts they are present in in the rest of the universe. Mostly these elements are overshadowed by the abundant hydrogen and helium.
Where do we live? On the Earth, Inside the Sun.
The tear drop shaped outer solar atmosphere, called the “heliosphere” is thought to extend at least 10 billion miles with Auroras being observed even on the distant Neptune. No wonder we witness gusts of solar wind generating Northern and Southern lights.
Mars: a planet of extremes
Imagine this: a volcano whose height is three times the tallest mountain on Earth and a canyon running 5 times as long as the Grand Canyon. This fantasy is in fact the reality on Mars: Mount Olympus Mons, a shield volcano having a diameter of 388 miles, and Valles Marineris, a 2485 miles long Canyon system on Mars. While the immense sizes of the volcano can be attributed to the weak gravitational pull, the creation of these volcanoes and canyon remains an often baffling topic amongst scientists thanks to the debatable plate tectonics system on Mars.
The case of varying levels of methane
Methane, a gas produced either by microbes or by processes such as volcanic activities, is frequently found on Mars, but in widely varying levels. Whether the reason behind these variations is telescopic differences, or differences in the amount of methane coming from the surface, still remains a matter of debate among experts.
The hyper active moon of Jupiter
Io, Jupiter’s moon is considered the most active moon in the Solar System, thanks to hundreds of volcanoes, which erupt as its interiors tense up and relax according to proximity to the planet while orbiting. Scientists are still struggling to explain how heat spreads through Io’s interior to predict where the volcanoes exist using scientific models alone.
Uniqueness around Saturn
Saturn’s moon Iapetus is a source of bewilderment as it has two tones with one hemisphere extremely dark and the other very light. Some scientists believe that the dark patches are due to volcanic eruptions of hydrocarbons, others speculate that particles from Phoebe (another darker moon) may be the reason for its darkness. The ringed planet is also unique in having a raging hexagonal-shaped storm, which has been in existence since decades in its northern hemisphere. The shape is still an unexplained phenomenon.
Water ice and Rings no longer a rarity
Water ice, though once considered a rarity in space, is now known to be a common component of comets and asteroids. We have located them as ice at the poles of Mars, as well as in craters on Mercury and the moon. However we are unaware if there’s enough to support life in those areas. Similarly, rings which were earlier attributed only to Saturn, with the advent of powerful telescopes, are now known to belong to all planets in the outer solar system (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). Even so, Saturn’s rings which may have originated from a broken-up moon remain a unique spectacular sight.
Neptune’s policy: receive less, give away more
For long, Neptune has baffled scientists by giving off more heat than it receives. It’s bizarre considering that Neptune is 2.79 billion miles away from the sun. The blue planet has an unexplained temperature difference of minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit between the heat source and the cloud tops.
Mystery of the tilted Uranus
Uranus is quite unique amongst the other planets because it rotates on its side. While scientists are still trying to figure out the reason, the most likely explanation is that it underwent some sort of one or more titanic collisions in the ancient past.
Geologically active Pluto: icy mountains and bizarre atmosphere
With Pluto being so distant from the Sun, it was expected to have a fairly uniform environment. However the 11,000 ft high icy mountains indicate geological activity on Pluto, though its source of energy still remains unanswered. Scientists found about 20 layers in Pluto’s atmosphere that are both cooler and more compact than expected. This indicates loss of nitrogen to space, somehow Pluto replenishes this loss, supposedly through geological activity.
More heavy elements on Jupiter than the sun (proportionally)
It is believed that the sun and all planets formed from the same cloud of hydrogen and helium gas. According to this logic, Jupiter, the giant planet 317 times bigger than Earth pulled in a lot more gas than our own planet. How do we then, justify Jupiter having heavier, rocky elements than the sun? One theory suggests that the strong gravitational field pulls comets, asteroids and other small rocky bodies, thus enriching Jupiter’s atmosphere, but this hasn’t been ascertained for sure.
The exaggerated fear of hitting an asteroid
Unlike depictions in Sci-fi movies, asteroids pose little or no danger to the space crafts exploring the outer space. This is because the only asteroid belt we are aware of exists between Mars and Jupiter, and even though thousands of them exist, possibility of colliding with one is very low as they are widely spaced. In fact it takes a great deal of effort to get close enough to an asteroid for clicking its picture.
Pluto is the farthest end of the Solar System? Wrong.
Even though the mental picture of the solar system extends till the orbit of our dear dwarf planet Pluto, discovery of the “Trans-Neptunian Objects” (TNOs), or “Kuiper Belt Objects” (KBOs) prove that we couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, it has been found that the huge Oort comet cloud, may extend to 50,000 AU from the sun, which is more than a thousand times farther than Pluto. Shocking, isn’t it?
Speculations regarding Planet Nine
Since 2015, few astronomers based on mathematical calculations and years of research introduced to our world the possibility of Planet Nine, a giant planet orbiting far beyond Neptune. This super-Earth could have more than 10 times the mass of Pluto and a highly elliptical orbit with an orbital period close to 15,000 years.
Hope you had a good read. Do share with us any more super-cool facts in the comments section below.