Cosmic Ballet

Yummy…. Starry biscuits!

When I close my eyes, I see the planets as pirouetting dancers in a cosmic ballet, choreographed by the forces of gravity.

Very poetic!

I’m quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson…

We’re beary friends now! 🙂

From a distance, our solar system looks empty. If you enclosed it within a sphere – one large enough to contain the orbit of Neptune, the outermost planet – then the volume occupied by the Sun, all planets and their moons would take up a little more than one-trillionth of enclosed space. But it’s not empty, the space between the planets contains all manner of chunky rocks, pebbles, ice balls, dust, streams of charged particles and far-flung probes. The space is also permeated by monstrous gravitational and magnetic fields.

Planetary Lineup: This montage of photos, taken by various NASA spacecraft, shows the order of planets in the solar system. Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, is at the top, followed by Venus, Earth (with its moon), Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Image: NASA/JPL

Interplanetary space is so not-empty that Earth, during its 30 kilometre-per-second orbital journey, plows through hundreds of tons of meteors per day – most of them no larger than a grain of sand. Nearly all of them burn in Earth’s upper atmosphere, slamming into the air with so much energy that the debris vaporizes on contact. Our frail species evolved under this protective blanket. Larger, golf-ball-size meters heat fast but evenly, and often shatter into smaller pieces before they vaporize. Still larger meteors singe their surface but otherwise make it all the way to ground intact. You’d think that by now, after 4.6 billion trips around the Sun, Earth would have “vacuumed” up all possible debris in its orbital path. But things were once much worse. For a half-billion years after the formation of the Sun and its planets, so much junk rained down on Earth that heat from the persistent energy of impacts rendered Earth’s atmosphere hot and our crust molten.

Earth’s atmosphere burns up most of the 20 million meteorites zipping toward Earth each day (producing two million pounds of dust)

One substantial hunk of junk led to the formation of the Moon. The unexpected scarcity of iron and other higher-mass elements in the moon, derived from lunar samples returned by Apollo astronauts, indicates that the Moon most likely burst forth from Earth’s iron-poor crust and mantle after a glancing collision with a wayward Mars-sized proto-planet. The orbiting debris from this encounter coalesced to form our lovely, low-density satellite. Apart from this newsworthy event, the period of heavy bombardment that Earth endured during its infancy was not unique among the planets and other large bodies of the solar system. They each sustained similar damage, with the airless, erosionless surfaces of the Moon and Mercury preserving much of the cratered record from this period.

Not only is the solar system scarred by the flotsam of its formation, but nearby interplanetary space also contains rocks of all sizes that were jettisoned from Mars, the Moon and Earth by the ground’s recoil from high-speed impacts. Computer studies of meteor strikes demonstrate conclusively that surface rocks near impact zones can get thrust upward with enough speed to escape the body’s gravitational tether. At the rate we are discovering meteorites on Earth whose origin is Mars, we conclude that about a thousand tons of Martian rocks rain down on Earth each year. Perhaps the same amount reaches Earth from the Moon. In retrospect, we didn’t have to go to the Moon to retrieve Moon rocks. Plenty come to us, although they were not of our choosing and we didn’t yet know it during the Apollo program.

Most of the solar system’s asteroids live and work in the main asteroid belt, a roughly flat zone between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. By tradition, the discoverers get to name their asteroids whatever they like. Now in the hundreds of thousands, the asteroid count might soon challenge our capacity to name them. There are asteroids out there named Merlin, James Bond, Santa, Tyson, Unsold…

Often drawn by artists as a region of cluttered, meandering rocks in the plane of the solar system, the asteroid belt’s total mass is less than five percent that of the Moon, which is itself barely more than one percent of Earth’s mass. Sounds insignificant. But accumulated perturbations of their orbits continually create a deadly subset, perhaps a few thousand, whose eccentric paths intersect Earth’s orbit. A simple calculation reveals that most of them will hit Earth within a hundred million years. The ones larger than about a kilometre across will collide with enough energy to destabilise Earth’s ecosystem and put most of Earth’s land species at risk of extinction.

That would be bad…

Asteroids are not the only space objects that pose a risk to life on Earth. The Kuiper belt is a comet-strewn swath of circular real estate that begins just beyond the orbit of Neptune, includes Pluto, and expands perhaps as far again from Neptune as Neptune is from the Sun. The Dutch-born American astronomer Gerard Kuiper advanced the idea that in the cold depths of space, beyond the orbit of Neptune, there reside frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system. Without a massive planet upon which to fall, most of these comets will orbit the Sun for billion more years. As is true for the asteroid belt, some objects of the Kuiper belt travel on eccentric paths that cross the orbits of other planets. Pluto and its ensemble of siblings called Plutinos cross Neptune’s path around the Sun. Other Kuiper belt objects plunge all the way down to the inner solar system, crossing planetary orbits with abandon. This subset includes Halley, the most famous comet of them all.

Gerard Kuiper, the father of modern planetary science. Kuiper founded the Lunar and Planetary Lab in Arizona in 1960.

Far beyond the Kuiper belt, extending halfway to the nearest stars, lives a spherical reservoir of comets called the Oort cloud, named for Jan Oort, the Dutch astrophysicist who first deduced its existence. This zone is responsible for the long-period comets, those with orbital periods far longer than a human lifetime. Unlike Kuiper belt comets, Oort cloud comets can rain down on the inner solar system from any angle and any direction. The two brightest of the 1990s, comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake, were both from the Oort cloud and are not coming back anytime soon.

Jan Hendrik Oort, comet pioneer, was one of the greatest astronomers of the 20th century.
Comet Hale–Bopp, at a distance of nearly two billion kilometres from the Sun. Credit: ESO
Image of Comet Hale-Bopp taken by Wally Pacholka on April 5, 1997 from the Joshua Tree National Park in California.
Image of Comet Hyakutake taken by Michael Williams on March 28, 1998 from the Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington.

If we had eyes that could see magnetic fields, Jupiter would look ten times larger than the full Moon in the sky. Spacecraft that visit Jupiter must be designed to remain unaffected by this powerful force. As the English physicist Michael Faraday demonstrated in the 1800s, if you pass a wire across a magnetic field you generate a voltage difference along the wire’s length. For this reason, fast-moving metal space probes will have electrical currents induced within them. Meanwhile, these currents generate magnetic fields of their own that interact with the ambient magnetic field in ways that retard the space probe’s motion.

There are hundreds of moons in our solar system – even a few asteroids have been found to have small companion moons. There are so many, that we no longer keep count, especially since scientists using improved ground-based telescopes and orbiting observatories discover moons by the dozens! By some measures, the solar system’s moons are much more fascinating than the planets they orbit.

Earth’s Moon is about 1/400th the diameter of the Sun, but it is also 1/400th as far from us, making the Sun and the Moon the same size in the sky – a coincidence not shared by any other planet-moon combination in the solar system, allowing for uniquely photogenic total solar eclipses. Earth has also tidally locked the Moon, leaving it with identical periods of rotation on its axis and revolution around Earth. Wherever and whenever this happens, the locked moon shows only one face to its host planet.

The total solar eclipse seen from Ellis Beach north of Cairns, Australia, November 14, 2012
The Diamond Ring effect is shown following totality of the solar eclipse at Palm Cove in Australia’s Tropical North Queensland on November 14, 2012.
Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Jupiter’s system of moons is replete with oddballs. Io, Jupiter’s closest moon, is tidally locked and structurally stressed by interactions with Jupiter and with other moons, pumping enough heat into the little orb to render molten its interior rocks; Io is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. Jupiter’s moon Europa has enough H2O that its heating mechanism – the same one at work on Io – has melted the subsurface ice, leaving a warmed ocean below. If ever there was a next-best place to look for life, it’s here.

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, is so big and close to Pluto that Pluto and Charon have each tidally locked the other: their rotation periods and their periods of revolution are identical. We call this a double tidal lock, which sounds like a yet-to-be-invented wrestling hold.

Selected moons of the solar system , showed to scale with Earth’s Moon. Credit: NASA

By convention, moons are named for Greek personalities in the life of the Greek counterpart to the Roman god after whom the planet itself was named. The classical gods led complicated social lives, so there is no shortage of characters from which to draw. The lone exception to this rule applies to the moons of Uranus, which are named for assorted protagonists in British lit. The English astronomer Sir William Herschel was the first person to discover a planet beyond those easily visible to the naked eye, and he was ready to name it after the King, under whom he faithfully served. Had Sir William succeeded, the planet list would read: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and George. Fortunately clearer heads prevailed and the classical name Uranus was adopted some years later. But his original suggestion to name the moons after characters in William Shakespeare’s plays and Alexander Pope’s poems remains the tradition to this day. Among its twenty-seven moons we find Ariel, Cordelia, Desdemona, Juliet, Ophelia, Portia, Puck, Umbriel and Miranda!

The Sun loses material from its surface at a rate of more than a million tons per second. We call this the “solar wind”, which takes the form of high-energy charged particles. Traveling up to a 1600 kilometre per second, these particles stream through space and are deflected by planetary magnetic fields. The particles spiral down toward the north and south magnetic poles, forcing collisions with gas molecules and leaving the atmosphere aglow with colourful aurora. The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted aurora near the poles of both Saturn and Jupiter. And on Earth, the aurora borealis and australis serve as intermittent reminders of how nice it is to have a protective atmosphere.

Astronomers are using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras — stunning light shows in a planet’s atmosphere — on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)
Saturn has its own unique brand of aurora that lights up the polar cap, unlike any other planetary aurora known in our solar system. This odd aurora revealed itself to one of the infrared instruments on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Earth’s atmosphere is commonly described as extending tens of kilometres above Earth’s surface. Satellites in “low” Earth orbit typically travel between 150 and 600 kilometres up, completing an orbit in about 90 minutes. While you can’t breathe at those altitudes, some atmospheric molecules remain – enough to slowly drain orbital energy from unsuspecting satellites. To combat this drag, satellites in low orbit require intermittent boosts, lest they fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. An alternative way to define the edge of our atmosphere is to ask where its density of gas molecules equals the density of gas molecules in interplanetary space. Under that definition, Earth’s atmosphere extends thousands of kilometres.

Orbiting high above this level, 38,000 kilometres up (one tenth of the distance to the moon) are the communications satellites. At this special altitude, Earth’s atmosphere is not only irrelevant, but the speed of the satellite is low enough for it to require a full day to complete one revolution around Earth. With an orbit precisely matching the rotation rate of Earth, these satellites appear to hover, which makes them ideal for relaying signals from one part of Earth’s surface to another.

Newton’s laws specifically state that, while the gravity of a planet gets weaker and weaker the farther from it you travel, there is no distance where the force of gravity reaches zero. The planet Jupiter, with its mighty gravitational field, bats out of harm’s way many comets that would otherwise wreak havoc on the inner solar system. Jupiter acts as a gravitational shield for Earth, a burly big brother, allowing long (hundred-million-year) stretches of relative peace and quiet on Earth. Without Jupiter’s protection, complex life would have a hard time become interestingly complex, always living at risk of extinction from a devastating impact.

We have exploited the gravitational fields of planets for nearly every probe launched into space. The Cassini probe, for example, which visited Saturn, was gravitationally assisted twice by Venus, one by Earth (on a return flyby) and once by Jupiter. Like a multi-cushion billiard shot, trajectories from one planet to another are common. Our tiny probes would not otherwise have enough speed and energy from our rockets to reach their destination.

From Astrophysics for Bears in a Hurry 🙂 by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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