Six solar system oddities and why we must learn about them
Want some crazy space phenomena? You don't have to leave the neighborhood for it.
- The universe has a lot of weird stuff in it.
- You don't have to travel far to find it. Our solar system is filled with oddities and strangeness. Some that we can't figure out.
- Learning about these things isn't just fun, it can be applied to our lives and can alter our perspectives.
It has been said that the universe is "not only stranger than we imagine, but that it is stranger than we can imagine." John Haldane, the originator of that quote (slightly different wording according to some sources), might have been more correct than he knew. Since his death, we've discovered such exotic objects as pulsars and the cosmic background radiation. Even more out there, scientists have postulated the existence of stuff as bizarre as dark matter, dark energy, and the aptly named "strange matter."
One doesn't even need to leave the solar system to find oddities. Last week, we discussed Saturn's hexagonal storm; today, we'll look at six of the strangest things in our cosmic backyard and consider why time spent investigating them is not time wasted.
Mercury ain't what it used to be
False color image of Mercury (the yellow is water ice).
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
The smallest planet in the solar system constantly outdoes itself. Mercury is shrinking.
Unlike many other items on this list, this strange occurrence is likely caused by a fairly mundane mechanism. As the planet, which is made primarily of metal, has a high iron content, scientists speculate that the planet is shrinking as it continues to cool down from the high internal temperatures it had when it formed.
However, this isn't the end of things. Why Mercury has such a higher iron content remains a mystery. A leading hypothesis is that the planet used to be much larger, but that many of its non-metallic components were knocked away by an impact with a planetoid or that spikes in the sun's temperature caused much of the rocky crust of Mercury to vaporize and blow away, leaving an iron core.
You can spin faster than Venus, if you try.
As seen from Earth, the sun comes up in the east and sets in the west. On Venus, the opposite is true. This is unique among the planets of the Solar System. Even stranger, it would take 243 Earth days to be able to enjoy another sunrise if you could see it from Venus' surface. The planet only rotates at a leisurely 6.52 km/h (4.05 mph), compare that to Earth's 674.4 km/h (1,040.4 mph). For comparison, a Venusian year is only 225 Earth days, meaning a year there is shorter than a day!
The slow rotation speed causes side effects you might not have suspected. While the Earth's rotation causes the center to bulge out somewhat, Venus lacks this and is much closer to being spherical.
A variety of theories attempting to explain all this have been advanced. One argues that this results from the sun's tidal forces in battle with those created by the thick Venusian atmosphere, with the former slowing rotation and the later speeding it up. An amusing hypothesis argues that the whole planet was somehow flipped upside down, and it continues to spin in the same direction as it always has. Another suggests that a massive impact, early in the Solar System's history, knocked Venus so hard it started spinning backward.
This last theory has the bonus of explaining why Venus has no moons, as the resulting powerful tidal forces would have caused any moon there to fall into the planet.
Everything about Saturn’s moon Iapetus is odd
Images of Iapetus' mysterious ridge taken by Cassini.
For a ball of ice a little smaller than Australia, Iapetus manages to contain many odd features.
Discovered in 1671, it was immediately noticed that the moon was only visible for a few months out of the year. Astronomers at the time proposed, accurately, that the moon is tidally locked. So, only one side faces Saturn, and that one side is much, much brighter than the other. Modern discoveries show us that this is accurate, with the dark side being darker than charcoal and the light side shining like well-lit ice. It is believed that the original dark material originated from somewhere off of the moon, but that most of what we see today are lag deposits.
Over time, the heat differences (the dark side gets warmer) cause water ice to sublimate and shift location from the dark side to the light. Over vast amounts of time, this leaves one side shinning with ice and the other dark with the mineral residue the water leaves behind as it moves.
Iapetus also has the distinction of being the largest object in the solar system not in hydrostatic equilibrium, as its gravity is not strong enough to force it into a roughly spherical shape. Resultantly, it looks much more like a walnut than a ball.
Adding to the madness is how it orbits Saturn. It has a severely inclined orbit and travels much further out than the other large moons. While astronomers have no idea why this is, it gives it the advantage of being the one large moon of Saturn where an observer could enjoy a good view of Saturn's ring system.
When the Cassini probe went out of its way to examine Iapetus, it discovered the moon's walnut shape is accentuated by a dark hemisphere-spanning ridge of peaks reaching up to 20 km (12 miles) high. The light side features no ridge but does have isolated mountains with similar mass. The ridge neatly follows the moons equator with uncanny perfection. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the ridge, but they fail to explain why it is only present on the dark side of the moon.
Uranus is a bit crooked
If you remember anything from grade school astronomy about Uranus, it's probably that it rolls along its side like a ball while the other planets spin like tops. Its poles each spend the solstice either in full sunlight or total darkness. It is only during the equinox, when the poles are oriented perpendicular to the sun, that the entire planet has a day and night cycle similar to the other planets.
Why it rolls like this is unknown. The current leading theory involves what seems to be the favorite explanation of astronomers, a large object knocking into the planet in the early days of the solar system. As you might expect, this orientation means that Uranus's poles get more sunlight and heat than the equator does. Despite this, the equator is still warmer than the poles are. The cause of this is currently also unknown.
Neptune radiates heat. Like, a lot of heat.
A slightly retouched image of Neptune's south pole as seen by Voyager 2.
By Kevin Gill from Los Angeles, CA, United States - Neptune - August 25 1989, CC BY-SA 2.0,
The most distant known planet from the sun (sorry Pluto), Neptune gets a tiny fraction of the heat and light that other planets enjoy. It gets less than half as much sunlight as its neighbor, Uranus. As they say, though, it's what's on the inside that counts. Neptune radiates a substantial amount of heat, 2.6 times as much as it gets from the Sun, compared to Uranus' 1.1 times as much.
This internal heating provides the energy needed for Neptune to have the fastest winds in the solar system, with gusts of up to 2,100 km/h (1,300 mph) observed.
Some scientists propose the heat is just leftover from the planet's formation. Others suggest that the ice giants' internal heating might be cyclical, with Neptune and Uranus being out of sync with each other. It is also possible to view Uranus as the strange one, arguing that its internal heating is much lower than it should be. Theories that go this way often suggest that whatever knocked Uranus over took a fair amount of heat with it. The trouble with any hypothesis advanced is that it has to deal with Neptune and Uranus' apparent similarities while also allowing for this single, tremendous difference.
There is a Planet Nine, probably, maybe.
Neptune was discovered after Uranus' orbit was observed to differ from predictions in a way that suggested a large object was influencing it. Neptune was discovered orbiting almost exactly where such a large object was expected to be. Today, a similar problem exists with some objects in the Kuiper belt, leading some scientists to argue for the existence of a "Planet Nine," exerting an influence on their orbits.
Some Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) have clustered orbits. Seen from above, the long ellipses that track their orbits tend to nest inside one another, with their vertexes all pointing in the same direction. Typically, we would expect these orbits to be distributed more randomly. The odds that they would be in the configuration we see them in due to chance are extremely low.
However, a planet around ten times the Earth's size in an extremely eccentric, far-flung orbit would exert a gravitational pull just strong enough to cause this and other strange phenomena observed in the Kuiper Belt.
Alternative explanations for the observed data exist. They range from the mundane proposal that what we see is coincidentally similar to what a planet would cause, to the exotic notion that we should be looking for small black holes rather than a planet. No Planet Nine has been spotted, but various studies have not yet ruled out the possibility of its existence.
Why is any of this important?
Understanding how these odd phenomena came into existence can give us a better understanding of the formation of the solar system in general and the planets in particular. Having a good idea of where something is coming from is very helpful in science, as it can make it easier to estimate where it is going.
That can be very nice to have when you're talking about the rock with odd fitting continents, exploding mountains, and an ever-evolving atmosphere floating in space you're sitting on. Beyond that, many people hope that humans will travel to other bodies in the solar system someday. It might be nice to know a bit about the strange places we might end up traveling to or some of the things we might encounter before heading out.
Even if we don't ever get to Neptune or Planet Nine, studying the odd parts of the solar system can serve as a reminder of how big and how strange the universe we live in really is. Our changing understanding of the universe has impacted how we live our lives before, and more than a few great thinkers pointed to changes in our understanding of astronomy to justify and explain their thinking in other fields.
Plus, given how many of these oddities seem related to things getting hit with giant rocks, these discoveries might help us finally get around to deciding what to do if an asteroid comes our way.
- How fast is Earth moving through space? That depends. - Big Think ›
- An Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone of a nearby star ›
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Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.
- Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
- The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
- The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.
- Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
- These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
- The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
What are they?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDA0NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTM1ODc0Mn0.NH33LuauIo__sUBi4tvhwxDcsvhflDFD-Nhx9FjlSNk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=148%2C0%2C149%2C0&height=700" id="cec96" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="acb78abe2ab46a17e419ad30906751d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Artist's impression of the Kordylewski cloud in the night sky (with its brightness greatly enhanced) at the time of the observations.
G. Horváth<p>The<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kordylewski_cloud" target="_blank"> Kordylewski clouds</a> are two dust clouds first observed by Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski in 1961. They are situated at two of the <a href="https://www.space.com/30302-lagrange-points.html" target="_blank">Lagrange points</a> in Earth's orbit. These points are locations where the gravity of two objects, such as the Earth and the Moon or a planet and the Sun, equals the centripetal required to orbit the objects while staying in the same relative position. There are five of these spots between the Earth and Moon. The clouds rest at what are called points four and five, forming a triangle with the clouds and the Earth at the three corners.</p><p>The clouds are enormous, taking up the same space in the night sky as twenty lunar discs; covering an area of 45,000 miles. They are roughly 250,000 miles away, about the same distance from us as the Moon. They are entirely comprised of specks of dust which reflect the light of the sun so faintly most astronomers that looked for them were unable to see them at all. </p><p>The clouds themselves are probably ancient, but the model that the scientists created to learn about them suggests that the individual dust particles that comprise them can be blown away by solar wind and replaced by the dust from other cosmic sources like comet tails. This means that the clouds hardly move but are <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/11/news-earth-moon-dust-clouds-satellites-planets-space/" target="_blank">eternally changing</a>. </p>
How did they discover this?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Nzc4MjQ4MX0.7uU9OqmQcWw5Ll1UXAav0PCu4nTg-GdJdAWADHanC7c/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="952fb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a778280a20f1c54cd2c14c8313224be2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"In this picture the central region of the Kordylewski dust cloud is visible (bright red pixels). The straight tilted lines are traces of satellites."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>In their study published in the <a href="https://academic.oup.com/mnras" target="_blank">Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society</a>, Hungarian astronomers Judit Slíz-Balogh, András Barta, and Gábor Horváth described how they were able to find the dust clouds using polarized lenses.</p><p>Since the clouds were expected to polarize the light that bounces off of them, by configuring the telescopes to look for this kind of light the clouds were much easier to spot. What the scientists observed, polarized light in patterns that extended outside the view of the telescope lens, was in line with the predictions of their mathematical model and ruled out other possible sources. </p>
Why are we just learning this now?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjUyNDMyMH0.Zl8GmQ_rJHiL4b7hN0r_YBmgb6_ZqIRvqOVuko2ubpw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C141%2C0%2C185&height=700" id="87afe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd4c0b5088e601d7279cc5eb226f8b7b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"Mosaic pattern of the angle of polarization around the L5 point (white dot) of the Earth-Moon system. The five rectangular windows correspond to the imaging telescope with which the patterns of the Kordylewski cloud were measured."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>The objects, being dust clouds, are very faint and hard to see. While Kordylewski observed them in 1961, other astronomers have looked there and given mixed reports over the following decades. This discouraged many astronomers from joining the search, as study co-author Judit Slíz-Balogh <a href="https://ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/research-highlights/earths-dust-cloud-satellites-confirmed" target="_blank">explained</a>, <em>"The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy. It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor."</em></p>
Will this have any impact on space travel?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c3d797fff5430c64afcb5a49bddc3616"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ou8N3v9SFPE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Lagrange points have been put forward as excellent locations for a space station or satellites like the <a href="https://jwst.nasa.gov/about.html" target="_blank">James Webb Telescope</a> to be put into orbit, as they would require little fuel to stay in place. Knowing about a massive dust cloud that could damage sensitive equipment already being there could save money and lives in the future. While we only know about the clouds at Lagrange points four and five right now, the study's authors suggest there could be more at the other points.</p><p>While the discovery of a couple of dust clouds might not seem all that impressive, it is the result of a half-century of astronomical and mathematical work and reminds us that wonders are still hidden in our cosmic backyard. While you might never need to worry about these clouds again, there is nothing wrong with looking at the sky with wonder at the strange and fantastic things we can discover. </p>
New cancer-scanning technology reveals a previously unknown detail of human anatomy.
- Scientists using new scanning technology and hunting for prostate tumors get a surprise.
- Behind the nasopharynx is a set of salivary glands that no one knew about.
- Finding the glands may allow for more complication-free radiation therapies.
PSMA PET/CT technology<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="676e611b970c9b516cace0870447b325"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/RHAyoQF09X4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>PSMA PET/CT is a new combination of <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/pet-scan/about/pac-20385078" target="_blank">PET scans</a> and <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/ct-scan/about/pac-20393675" target="_blank">CT scans</a> that is believed to offer a more reliable means of locating prostate cancer metastasis. A <a href="https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2020/prostate-cancer-psma-pet-ct-metastasis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> published last spring suggests it may be the most accurate way to diagnose prostate cancer metastasis than any method previously available.</p><p>Prior to PSMA PET/CT, the primary way to look for metastatic prostate cancer was to image the body using x-ray-based CT scans and to perform bone scans, since bone is where prostate cancer often spreads. CT scans, however, often miss small tumors, and bone scans can generate false positives as a result of other damage or abnormalities that have nothing to do with prostate cancer.</p><p>PSMA PET/CT scans track the travels of an intravenously administered radioactive glucose tracer throughout the body. For hunting down prostate cancer, this tracer contains a molecule that binds to the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472940/" target="_blank">PSMA</a> protein that's present in large amounts in prostate tumors. The molecule is linked to a radioisotope, <a href="https://netrf.org/2018/11/13/gallium-68-scan-for-neuroendocrine-tumors/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">gallium-68</a> (Ga-68).</p><p>In last spring's research, PSAM PET/CT was shown to be 27 percent more accurate than previous methods at finding metastases (92 percent accuracy as opposed to 65 percent). In addition, it was found to be much less likely to produce false positives, and it was particularly good at detecting tumors far removed from the prostate.</p>
A good kind of avoidance behavior<p>"Radiation therapy can damage the salivary glands," says Vogel, "which may lead to complications. Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden."</p><p>The researchers looked back through the cases of 723 patients who had undergone radiation treatment, interested in seeing if inadvertent radiation of the tubarial glands was associated with the complications experienced by the patients. It turned out that this <em>was</em> the case: In cases where more radiation had been delivered to this area, patients did indeed report more in the way of complications of the type one would expect when salivary glands are radiated.</p><p>Now that we know the tubarial salivary glands exist, therapists can stay out of their way. Vogel says, "For most patients, it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way we try to spare known glands."</p><p>He's hopeful that that things may be about to get at least a bit better for cancer patients: "Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands and in which patients. If we can do this, patients may experience less side effects which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment."</p>
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