Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I'm Sorry I'm Confused...

Well, hello!

Sorry about the lack of a post two weeks ago...I wrote one, but for some reason Blogger never posted it.  I've gotten so used to this thing working so well, I never thought to check to see if the scheduled post properly popped up!  I'll have to be more diligent with this thing in future.

I am smack dab in the middle of summer camps this week.  I'm currently teaching rising first and second graders about the planets - and it's TONS of fun!  I love working with kids...they always seem to know way more than I think they will.  It's awesome.

Anyway, since I've got planets on the brain, I thought I'd share a few tidbits about planets that my kids know...but maybe some of our grownups out there don't!  Enjoy!

Did you know...

...Mercury has a thin "borrowed" atmosphere of solar wind surrounding it.  The gases streaming away from the Sun will wrap around Mercury for a little while before continuing their journey through space.  It's not a very nice hug, however...the impact of the gaseous material can blast sodium ions off the surface of the planet!

...Venus rotates backward.  Something quite traumatic must have happened to our neighbor in its early history, as the planet appears to have been tipped completely over by a massive impact.  This same event massively slowed Venus' rotation as well, leaving it with a day which is longer than its year!

...Earth has been visited by spacecraft more times than any other planet.  Indeed, the majority of the spacecraft launched by the various space agencies around the world have been placed in orbit around our home planet for a wide variety of purposes, including scientific study.

...Mars is only half the diameter of Earth.  The much-maligned Red Planet - long considered the home of aliens bent on taking over the Earth to gain its vast supply of precious water - actually boasts several geologic superlatives despite its small size.  Mars is home to one of the largest canyons in the solar system (the Valles Marineris - large enough to stretch from New York City to Los Angeles if placed here on Earth!) as well as the largest volcano in the solar system (Olympus Mons - standing two and a half times the height of Mt. Everest and with a base as large as the state of Virginia!).

...Jupiter has the longest-lived cyclonic storm ever seen.  The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is actually a storm that has been raging in the atmosphere of the giant planet for more than 400 years - at a minimum!  Galileo Galilei first noted the presence of the storm in 1609 when he observed the giant planet through his simple telescope...but of course, since he was the first person ever to see Jupiter in that way, we have no idea how long the storm had been there before he saw it.  The Great Red Spot continues to fascinate amateur and professional astronomers alike to this day.

...Saturn has such a low density that you could float it in a bathtub...if you could find one big enough!  Though the second largest planet in the solar system, Saturn is less dense than water.  So if we could get enough water together, Saturn could float in it.

...Uranus rotates on its side!  Like Venus, it appears this planet also suffered a major whack early on...resulting in an orbital tilt of 98 degrees.  So the moons and rings of Uranus appear vertically around the planet, rather than the horizontal aspect we might expect.

Uranus - the Sideways Planet!  Courtesy NASA.

...Neptune used to have an enormous hurricane too...but now it's gone!  When seen by the Voyager spacecraft in 1989, Neptune boasted the Great Dark Spot, an atmospheric storm of some kind that appeared as a darker blue splotch on the planet.  In 1995, Hubble was aimed at the 8th planet, hoping to get a another look at the dark spot - but it was nowhere to be seen.  Unlike Jupiter, Neptune's storms seem to be short-lived things.

And we really can't finish out a post about planets without mentioning the dwarf planets!  There are officially five dwarf planets in the solar system these days - Ceres, the largest of the asteroids, and 4 Kuiper Belt objects - Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

Pluto now boasts five moons of its own - and they all finally have official names!  Recently, the International Astronomical Union officially named the two moons discovered in 2011 and Pluto is now attended by Charon, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx.  Not bad for the premiere dwarf planet of the solar system!

Pluto, now a virtual mini solar system of its own.  Courtesy NASA.

Well, that's about all I have time for just now.  Hope you discovered a little something new about the solar system in which you live!  See you in two weeks...assuming Blogger doesn't go crazy on me again.

Until then...Carpe Noctem!