We Earthlings think that we are oh-so-special. The abundance of oxygen in our atmosphere and the presence of liquid water on the surface of our planet make our “pale blue dot” stand out unlike other planets in the solar system – a unique and delicate home for life.
But for all biological activities on our homework, we are not the only interesting planets orbiting the Sun. There are some other equally amazing places in the solar system. Here is just a sample.
Who asked for Venus?
Of all the rocky worlds of the solar system, Venus takes the cake – and then something else. Its environment is toxic by suffocating. On the surface, the air is about a hundred times denser than the Earth, creating a “sea floor” on Venus that creates a pressure equal to an ear piece 3,000 feet (900 m) below the water.
Mile upon mile of tireless air above Venus trap heat, a fugitive greenhouse effect in a full greenhouse. This makes the surface so hot that it is warmer there than Mercury, despite that the planet is sitting close to the Sun.
Want to melt some leadership? Just drop a lead bar sitting around on the surface of Venus, and wait. The rest of the work environment will do.
related: Living on the planet Venus: why it would be difficult (infographic)
To make this hellish nightmare of a planet even worse (because why not), Venus’ atmosphere hosts substantial amounts of sulfuric acid. The acid forms clouds in the upper atmosphere, and beneath it a pea-soup mist mist, before producing acid precipitation.
But that acid rain does not even form on the surface: temperature and pressure evaporate before it touches the ground.
Is Venus bad? Absolutely. Is it special Well, it is definitely one of a kind.
Saturn’s love for geometry
So, there is a hexagon at the north pole of Saturn. No kidding, we have pictures of this and everything. A real, legal geometric figure staring at us like some kind of cosmic joke.
But this is no joke, just physics. Saturn’s North Pole is dominated by a huge vortex-like storm, such as winds blowing at hundreds of miles per hour around the planet. But as you migrate south, the winds blow at higher speeds.
At a particular latitude, those winds become unstable, such that strong moving winds rub against their slow moving cousins. Turbulent motion produces small, semi-permanent storms like beads on a necklace in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. These storms shape and shape the jet stream above them, giving the winds a six-sided appearance.
Therefore, if you are a fan of geometry, there is no better planet than Saturn. There is no other system in the game of our solar system, such a system of storms, from which the world is in full motion.
A surprise from titan
The hexagon is not the only wonder found in the Saturnian system. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is immersed in dense fog.
And that fog hides a wonderful secret.
Titan’s atmosphere is the thickest of any moon in the Solar System and 50% thicker than Earth’s atmosphere. It is mostly nitrogen (like the Earth’s air), but it also contains methane and a bit of ethane. This gives Titan its characteristic yellow, ugly color. And just above the surface, methane bonds with hydrogen, spraying some clouds in the mist.
And sometimes it falls to the ground in the form of methane droplets, where it gathers to form the pools and rivers, lakes and oceans of methane. And if it gets a little worse, some methane evaporates back into the atmosphere, which starts the cycle anew.
A full circle, similar to the water cycle on Earth, but at temperatures below a few hundred degrees below zero. And with methane.
Apart from Earth, Titan is the only country in the Solar System that dissolves liquids on its surface. Methane sea. Methane rain. Liquid hydrocarbons dominate a landscape. Life as we know it requires water, but it is not impossible for any form of life to exist in this methane oasis bordering the solar system.
And any place that can potentially host life is most definitely special.
Listen to the episode “AAS! 126:” and learn which is the biggest season in the solar system? An astronaut is available on podcasts, on iTunes, and on the web at http://www.askaspaceman.com. Thanks to Saul C To the questions that led to this piece! Ask your question on Twitter using #AskASpaceman or by following Paul on Twitter @PaulMattSutter and facebook.com/PaulMattSutter.