Tag Archives: solar system

E Is for Europa

Even though the A to Z Challenge is over, and I took a huge break, I’m going to finish it. A lot has happened over the last couple months, but it’s back! Today is the letter E, and I’m talking about Jupiter’s moon Europa! Did you learn anything new?

  1. Europa is the fourth largest natural satellite of Jupiter.
  2. It was discovered in 1610 by Galileo Galilei, along with the other three Galilean satellites.
  3. The surface of Europa is the smoothest surface of any world in the Solar System, consisting of water ice.
  4. Europa orbits Jupiter in just 3.55 days, with one side always facing Jupiter, as it’s tidally locked.
  5. Beneath the ice crust is an estimated 100 km deep ocean of salt water. But it isn’t clear if the ice is thick or thin. However, the amount of water on Europa is about two to three times the volume of Earth’s oceans.
  6. Europa has a weak magnetic field, best explained by Europa’s salt water ocean.
  7. Tidal heating from the interactions of Europa with Jupiter and the other Galilean satellites warms the interior of the moon, possibly resulting in hydrothermal vents at the floor of the ocean. This has led scientists to suggest that life may exist in Europa’s ocean.
  8. Europa most likely has an iron core and a rocky mantle.
  9. Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope provide further evidence of subsurface oceans, as plumes of water have been seen erupting to 200 km above the surface.
  10. Europa has an oxygen atmosphere. But it’s very thin, providing a surface pressure of only 0.1 micropascals.

Let me know what you learned in the comments section below!

Plumes Spotted on Europa

Take a look at this image.

Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Just what is this? Well, it’s Europa superimposed on an image of Europa taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. See that white stuff coming from the bottom left? That seems so similar to what we’ve seen from Enceladus. That’s a possible water plume!

So, what does this mean? It means that water is making it to the surface of Europa. This also means that we may have a much easier time accessing the water than we thought. We already have an extremely good idea about the internal structure of Europa, which likely includes a very deep liquid water ocean. Europa is one of the best candidates for life in the solar system, and with upcoming missions to Europa and the other icy moons of Jupiter coming soon, we’ll have an excellent opportunity to know what the composition of this water is. It’s suspected to be salty, but how salty is it? And does it support life?

This is very exciting. What do you think?

Evidence Grows for a New Ninth Planet

Astronomers at Caltech have announced that evidence for an undiscovered ninth planet in the Solar System is mounting. It would be larger than the Earth, but smaller than Neptune. It could be a Super-Earth or a Mini-Neptune. But it’s orbiting so far away, it would take 20,000 years for it to orbit the Sun. It’s ten times the distance from the Sun as Neptune.

So, why do they think there’s another planet out there? All of the larger bodies, such as Sedna, that are orbiting beyond Pluto seem to all stay together on one side of the Solar System. This is strange, because it is far more likely that they’d be more evenly spread around the Solar System. The most likely explanation is a large planet orbiting at an even larger distance with its aphelion at the opposite side of the Solar System as these other large objects. Watch this video for an explanation by the two astronomers who have been studying this.

This is actually a very serious study going on, and it’s being reported by many reputable science and news agencies. If this planet is real, they have a rough estimate of its location, so they can search for it. But with its great distance, it’s not quite like searching for a needle in a haystack, it’s more like searching for a grain of sand in a farmer’s field.

Personally, I’m hoping something is found. This would be a very exciting discovery. What do you think? Are they on to something? Let me know in the comments below.

A Must See Planetary Alignment

Back in May 2002, I was treated to an amazing planetary alignment. Just after sunset, I could see all of the naked eye planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn all lined up in the sky. You can read about it on the American Association of Amateur Astronomers website, which shows how websites looked back in 2002.

That was the first time I’d ever been able to see Mercury.  But to see all of the naked eye planets was incredible.  It happened again in 2005, but I didn’t see that. However, for the next month, you can see it in the morning just before dawn. So, you have to get up early to see this! It’ll be visible in the east, so you’ll need a good spot to view it from and clear skies. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it means braving the cold. It begins January 20th and ends on February 20th.

This video does a good job at illustrating what you’ll see.

Are you going to get up early to see this alignment?

Top Ten Largest Moons

This is the newest series to come to I Read Encyclopedias for Fun, the weekly Top Ten. I will be publishing top ten lists of various topics scientific, geographic, and anything related to books, TV shows, and movies. They are not merely lists, however. They also include some interesting information. Some of the lists will be purely factual, while others will be my opinion. So, let’s get started.

Top Ten Largest Moons

10. Oberon

Voyager_2_picture_of_OberonWith a mean radius of 761.4 km, Uranus’ moon Oberon is the tenth largest moon in the Solar System. It has a mass of (3.014±0.075)×1021 kg , and a mean density of 1.63±0.05 g/cm³. It’s the second largest moon of Uranus, and was discovered by William Herschel in 1787. It’s estimated to be about 50% water ice, and differentiated into a rocky core and icy mantle. The surface is slightly reddish and is covered with craters and chasmata. It has only been visited once, by Voyager 2, which mapped 40% of its surface.

9. Rhea

PIA07763_Rhea_full_globe5With a mean radius of 763.8 km, Rhea is the ninth largest satellite in the Solar System. It has a mass of (2.306518±0.000353)×1021 kg, and a mean density of 1.236±0.005 g/cm³. It’s the second largest moon of Saturn, and was discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1672. Due to its low density, it’s estimated to be about 75% water ice, and only about 25% rock. It appears it has a homogeneous interior, meaning there is no core. It is heavily cratered and has only a few chasmata or fractures on the trailing hemisphere. It’s been extensively photographed and mapped by the Cassini orbiter currently at Saturn.

8. Titania

Titania_(moon)_color_croppedWith a mean radius of 788.4±0.6 km, Titania is the eighth largest moon in the Solar System, and Uranus’ largest. It has a mass of (3.527±0.09)×1021 kg, and a mean density of 1.711±0.005 g/cm³. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1787. It’s estimated to be around 50% water ice, and may have a rocky core. The surface is cratered fairly heavily, but not as much as other large Uranian moons, meaning it has a younger surface. It features several large chasmata and scarps, pointing towards tectonic activities in its past. It may have a tenuous carbon dioxide atmosphere. About 40% of the surface has been photographed by Voyager 2.

7. Triton

480px-Triton_moon_mosaic_Voyager_2_(large)With a mean radius of 1353.4±0.9 km, Triton is the seventh largest moon in the Solar System, and Neptune’s largest. It has a mass of 2.14×1022 kg, and a mean density of 2.061 g/cm3. it was discovered by William Lassell in 1846. Triton is unique in that it’s the only large moon that orbits its planet in a retrograde direction. Because of this, the tidal forces from Neptune will cause its orbit to degrade and crash into the planet or create a new ring system in about 3.6 billion years. Triton is also very active geologically. It has several nitrogen geysers that have been observed to be erupting. The surface is relatively young, having been resurfaced in the past, leaving it smoother and more reflective. It’s likely to be differentiated, having a core, mantle, and crust. It’s guessed it may have a liquid water ocean beneath the surface. The core likely generates heat to help keep the water liquid. The atmosphere is a thin nitrogen atmosphere, and clouds have been observed. It’s theorised that Triton is a captured moon, likely a Kuiper Belt object.

6. Europa

Europa-moonWith a mean radius of 1560.8±0.5 km, Europa is the sixth largest moon, and the fourth largest of Jupiter’s Galilean satellites. It has a mass of (4.799844±0.000013)×1022 kg and a mean density of 3.013±0.005 g/cm3. It was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Europa is one of the most exciting satellites in the Solar System for one major reason, it has a large subsurface ocean of liquid water. It’s so large that it has more water than Earth. Because of tidal heating, it is quite possible that it has hydrothermal vents, which are teeming with life in Earth’s oceans. The surface is incredibly smooth and made of water ice. It has features similar to the Arctic polar ice cap and very few craters. The surface is young and constantly being resurfaced. Beneath about 10-30 km of ice, there’s a thick ocean of liquid water, around 100 km thick. And then beneath that is a rocky interior and a metallic core. One of the most prominent features is the lineae, or the extensive lines that cover the surface. These are cracks where fresh water may be coming to the surface, and plates of icy crust move against each other.

5. Moon

LRO_WAC_Nearside_MosaicWith a mean radius of 1737.1 km, the Earth’s Moon is the fifth largest moon in the Solar System. Its mass is 7.342×1022 kg and mean density is 3.344 g/cm3. It’s the second densest moon in the Solar System. It’s the most familiar moon, as we can see it very easily from Earth. Its discovery is prehistoric, since we’ve always known it’s there. The surface is heavily cratered, except in the Maria, which are basins flooded with lava. There are also volcanoes, some of which are relatively young. This suggests a warmer interior than previously thought. The interior is differentiated, with distinct crust, mantle, and core. The surface is dominated by silica, alumina, lime, and iron oxide. It’s tidally locked, so we only see one side of the Moon. The far side is very different, lacking the maria we see on the near side. It’s also the only moon that has been landed on by humans, and one of only two moons that has been landed on by robotic probes.

4. Io

Io_highest_resolution_true_colorWith a mean radius of 1821.6±0.5 km, Io is the fourth largest satellite, and the third largest of Jupiter’s Galilean satellites. It has a mass of (8.931938±0.000018)×1022 kg and a mean density of 3.528±0.006 g/cm3. It is the most dense natural satellite in the solar system, and is also the most geologically active. It has more than 400 active volcanoes, which makes it the most active object in the Solar System, more than Earth. It was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. When Io was first viewed up close, it was a surprise. The surface is a very colourful mixture of red, orange, yellow, white, and black. Several volcanoes can be erupting at the same time, and lava lakes have been observed. The surface composition is mostly silicates, sulfur, and sulfur dioxide. Due to tidal interactions with Jupiter, the interior is constantly being flexed. With an internal structure more similar to terrestrial planets than other moons, it has almost no water ice. It has a crust, mantle, and hot core.

3. Callisto

CallistoWith a mean radius of 2410.3±1.5 km, we’re moving into the top three, and the true heavyweights of the Solar System’s moons. It’s the third largest in the Solar System, and the second largest of Jupiter’s moons. It has a mass of (1.075938±0.000137)×1023 kg and a mean density of 1.8344±0.0034 g/cm3. With a relatively low density, it is about half ice and half rock. It was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. The outermost Galilean satellite, it has far less tidal influence from Jupiter, and therefore has an old, relatively inactive surface. It is covered by craters, and is considered the oldest surface in the Solar System. Unlike other large moons, it’s not very differentiated, and is mostly a mixture of rock and ice covered by a possible liquid water ocean and an icy crust. It has a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere.

2. Titan

Titan_in_true_colorWith a mean radius of 2575.5±2.0 km, Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System, and Saturn’s largest. It’s even larger than Mercury, but has a smaller mass. It has a mass of (1.3452±0.0002)×1023 kg and a mean density of 1.8798±0.0044 g/cm3. It was discovered by Christiaan Huygens in 1655. It is the only satellite outside the Earth-Moon system that has been landed on by a space probe, the Huygens lander. It has a very thick atmosphere, thicker than Earth’s and with a 45% higher air pressure at the surface than Earth’s. The composition is mostly nitrogen with some methane and hydrogen. What makes Titan incredibly interesting is the surface. It is very Earth-like, with mountains, rivers, and lakes. However, the lakes are not water, but liquid hydrocarbons, mainly ethane and methane. There are some craters, but the surface appears to be quite young, with possible cryovolcanism. Basically, the surface is like Earth’s but ice replaces rock and hydrocarbons replace water. It’s a differentiated body with a silicate core, an ice layer, then a possible liquid water ocean, and the ice crust.

1. Ganymede

Ganymede_g1_true-edit1With a mean radius of 2634.1±0.3 km, Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System, and Jupiter’s largest. It has a mass of 1.4819×1023 kg and a mean density of 1.936 g/cm3. It was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. The surface is quite complex with older cratered regions and a younger grooved terrain. It’s mainly water ice with some carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Some salts hint at a salty ocean beneath the surface. It’s fully differentiated with a hot iron-nickel core and silicate mantle. It’s believed there’s a thick liquid water ocean between two layers of ice. There’s an extremely tenuous oxygen atmosphere. Ganymede has its own magnetic field, and has even been observed to have aurorae. This also helps strengthen the theory that there’s a salty ocean. Tidal stresses from Jupiter aid in heating the interior, which makes Ganymede another possible candidate for life.

If you have any questions about these or any other moons of the Solar System, I’ll do my best to answer them. As this was one of my biggest interests in university, I’ve been paying attention to news related to the Solar System and its moons. Ask your questions or leave comments in the comments section below.

2015’s Biggest Science Story

What do you think is the biggest science story of the year? 2015 isn’t over yet, but I think it’s safe to say that we have a very good candidate already.

My choice is New Horizons at the Pluto system. Pluto was expected to be a certain way, somewhat like Triton, but it turned out to be completely unique. It was unexpected. It’s likely to still be active, since there’s a huge area covered by ices, there are tall mountains, and the colouration is providing a lot of questions. One of the more recent pictures showed the atmosphere over a horizon that was lit by the sun, and the surface shows mountains. This is that image:

nh-apluto-wide-9-17-15-final_0Click the image to see a larger version. Or go here to see the full sized image.

There are still many months of images to download from New Horizons, so we’ll get to see many more surprises over the next year or so.

So, what’s your choice for biggest science news of 2015?