Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Facts About Space to Make You Feel Better About Doomsday, pt 1

Our Solar System

In light of all this “Doomsday” talk that has been building up to today, I thought it’d be nice to show that space isn’t all bad and scary—there are some pretty fascinating things about it too.

So here you go, just a small collection of random facts about space that are some of my personal favorites. This time around (yes, there will be a “next time around”), I’m going to focus just on things within our own solar system:

Our solar system has 13 planets.
You were probably always taught that we had 9 planets. Then you heard Pluto was downgraded to a “dwarf planet.” Because of this, some people like to say our solar system now has 8 planets (poor Pluto—he’s still a planet, even if just a runt of one). But Pluto is not the only dwarf planet. There are four others aside from it: Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris (in fact, it was the discovery of Eris that prompted astronomers to redefine the term “planet,” ultimately downgrading Pluto). And no, I didn’t make up those names. They really are just that odd.

Ceres is located between Mars and Jupiter.
All of the dwarf planets are located at the far end of our solar system except for Ceres, which exists in the asteroid belt separating the first four planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) from the outer planets (Jupiter and beyond). In fact, Ceres was originally considered an asteroid until the term “dwarf planet” was invented and its status was upgraded. Congratulations, Ceres!

“Earth” isn’t actually the name of our planet.
Well, okay, I guess that depends on how you look at it. Really though, “Earth” is an astronomy term that really just means “planet.” We call our planet “Earth” because—well, let’s face it: who has the right to name a planet that 7 billion people share?

…in fact, the Sun’s “name” works the same way.
“Sun” is just a term for a star that sits in the middle of a solar system (keep in mind some stars don’t have solar systems—so those stars are not suns). That’s why people call it the Sun instead of just Sun (without the in front of it)—because it’s a title, not a name. If you’re ever faced with the Sun though, try to refer to it as respectfully as possible. He’s very big and fiery.

…and the same with the Moon.
A moon is something that orbits a planet, and I guess the early astronomers were just lazy about naming our moon. Many planets have moons (some even have several moons)—most of which have cool names instead of just titles. Our poor little satellite.

400 is an important number for the Sun and the Moon.
You already know that the Sun is much larger than the Moon. But you wouldn’t guess that just by looking at the sky with your naked eye. This is because, though the Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon, the Moon is about 400 times closer to the Earth than is the Sun—making them appear to be the same size. What a happy coincidence.

The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth.
This means that the way the moon’s gravity and the earth’s gravity interact causes the moon to remain stationary in relation to the earth. In other words, every time you look up at the moon, you’re looking at the same side of it—no matter what time of day or night it is, or where in the world you are. This is where the phrase “dark side of the moon” comes from: because we never see the other side of the moon from the Earth. Maybe Pink Floyd was on to something…

Jupiter has 67 moons.
That pretty much sums it up. Just…wow.

One of Jupiter’s moons is likely covered in a giant ocean.
The surface of Europa is covered in a thick layer of water ice. Beneath this icy exterior is an ocean that goes about 62 miles deep (in contrast, the deepest part of Earth’s ocean only goes about 7 miles deep). All that to say, Europa is certainly not a place you’d want to go swimming. Brr…

That big red spot you see on Jupiter is actually a storm.
Think of it like the most insane hurricane you can imagine. In fact, the red storm—which is Jupiter’s most identifiable feature—is so large that you could fit two or three of our home Earths in it. Batten down the hatches.

If the Earth was not tilted on its axis, we would have no seasons.
If the earth was situated straight up and down (with the north pole sitting at the very top and the south pole at the very bottom), the entire face of the earth would likely have a tropical climate all year long. So next time someone tells you that Jesus is the reason for the season, tell them that, actually, the fact that the Earth is tilted about 45 degrees on its axis is the reason for the season.

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So there you have it! Interesting stuff. J Tune in next time for some cool facts about deep space…


Michelle Dyer Peterson said...

I think we need to go star gazing one of these nights with one of those really awesome telescopes. Science for the win!

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