Space is a crazy place with all types of mysteries held within it. It is even more bizarre when you consider just how little we know about it. Sure, as humans, we’ve made our share of astronomical discoveries, but given the grand scale of the universe, there is still so much we have yet to learn and understand.
Nonetheless, in all the years we’ve spent gazing up at the night sky, we still have managed to find out some pretty interesting things. And sometimes, the stories associated with these findings are fascinating in their own right.
Here are 20 interesting astronomy facts that you might not know.
1. Uranus Is Tilted
Ah, Uranus. It’s every school child’s favorite planet. But crude jokes aside, the planet is pretty fascinating. Among the most interesting aspects of Uranus is that it is titled completely on its side. In other words, its north and south poles can be found where most other planets have their equators. Scientists think this tilt might have resulted from a massive impact in the past, or perhaps many successive collisions.
2. There Are Volcanic Eruptions on Io
Jupiter’s fifth moon, Io, is covered with volcanoes. The volcanic activity is a result of Io being stretched and squeezed as it orbits Jupiter. Aside from Earth, Io is the only known body in the solar system to have observed active volcanoes.
3. Mars Has a Grand Canyon of Its Own
If you thought the Grand Canyon was impressive, wait till you see Valles Marineris. Stretching across nearly one fifth of the circumference of Mars, this canyon system is among the largest in the solar system. For some perspective, if it was on Earth, Valles Marineris would stretch from Los Angeles to the Atlantic coast. Now that is a grand canyon!
4. Venus Has Insane Winds
Extreme temperatures, clouds of sulfuric acid – Venus is pretty insane in general. But perhaps the craziest aspect of Venus is its wind. The entire atmosphere of Venus circles around the planet at rapid speeds, with winds reaching speeds of 186 mph at the top of clouds. These clouds can circle the planet every four to five Earth days. What is unique about this, is that these winds travel up to 60 times faster than the planet itself rotates. Compare this to Earth, where the fastest winds are only 10-20% if the planet’s rotational speed.
5. Ice and Water Are Everywhere
For a long time, people thought water was one of the unique features of Earth that made our planet special. Water and ice elsewhere in space was considered rare. As we’ve explored space more, and come to better understandings about its composition, we are increasingly realizing that water and ice are fairly common throughout our solar system. While Earth is the only planet known to have stable bodies of liquid water on its surface, water is thought to exist as liquid beneath the surface of some planetary bodies, similar to groundwater on our planet.
6. Human Spacecrafts Have Visited Every Planet
After exploring space for over 60 years, we have managed to get some sort of spacecraft to flyby every single planet within our solar system. In fact, we’ve visited nearly every major body that orbits our sun. We have landed probes (or intentionally crash landed) on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Thus far, humans have only set foot on Earth and the Moon, but a future voyage to Mars seems increasingly more likely.
7. Mercury Is Shrinking
It might sound a little strange, but Mercury is actually getting smaller. Scientists have discovered numerous compression folds scattered across the surface of the planet. These folds have formed as the interior of the planet has cooled. This cooling has led the planet to contract and deform. What’s more, the fact that some of these folds are on top of older craters suggest that this phenomenon is still occuring.
8. Pluto Has Mountains
Pluto might not be a planet anymore, but that won’t stop it from showing off a little. Despite being considered a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of bodies beyond Neptune, Pluto has some pretty interesting topography. The planet Kuiper Belt Object houses many icy mountains, some that rise over 11,000 feet high.
9. Pluto’s Atmosphere Is Crazy
Speaking of Pluto, for a long time, scientists thought this tiny, cold, distant rock was incapable of having an atmosphere. It came as a surprise to NASA, then, when their New Horizons spacecraft arrived at the dwarf planet in July, 2015. The probe was able to detect a very robust atmosphere on Pluto. This primarily Nitrogen atmosphere lies over Pluto in a bluish haze, extending at least 100 miles above the surface.
10. Rings Are Everywhere
As the joke goes, God liked Saturn so much, he put a ring on it. Saturn definitely takes the cake when it comes to ring size and beauty, but don’t think it is necessarily special when it comes to having them. Rings can actually be found in many places throughout our solar system. In fact, all of the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus) have ring systems. These rings, however, vary is size and type from planet to planet.
11. The Big Red Spot on Jupiter Is Getting Smaller
If you thought the weather where you live is bad, try living on Jupiter (or maybe not, since you’d die instantly). Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. It also is home to the largest storm. This storm is seen very clearly as a spot on the planet, rightfully named the Great Red Spot. It is unclear just when this storm started, but it has been raging for centuries. One thing we do know, however, is that it seems to be getting smaller, and possibly tamer, over time. While this storm is impressive to us Earthlings, such storms are not that uncommon within the turbulent atmospheres of gas giants.
12. There Might Be a Huge Planet at the Edge of the Solar System
We are unable to tell for sure, but in 2015, two astronomers at the California Institute of Technology, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, discovered that there may be a theoretical “Planet Nine” looming somewhere in the outer solar system. This discovery was made using mathematical calculations and simulations, and would explain some of the anomalies seen in the distribution of orbits of distant objects found mostly beyond the Kuiper Belt. If the planet does exist, scientists predict it would be extremely large, with a mass of approximately ten Earths, a diameter two to four times that of Earth, and an elongated orbit lasting roughly 15,000 years. Efforts to detect the planet have failed.
13. Neptune Radiates More Heat Than It Receives from the Sun
Given its great distance from Earth, Neptune remains one of the more mysterious planets. Neptune is located about 30 times farther away from the Sun than Earth is, receiving only about one tenth of a percent of the sunlight our planet gets. Neptune makes the most of this, however. The tiny bit of sunlight it does receive significantly affects its atmosphere, including creating a south pole that is considerably warmer than elsewhere on the planet. Furthermore, Neptune radiates about twice as much energy as it gets from the Sun, suggesting that it has an internal heat source.
14. Jupiter Is Massive
Jupiter is by far the most massive planet in the solar system. Want proof? If you combined the masses of all other planets in the solar system, Jupiter would still be roughly 2.5 times more massive. The majority of Jupiter’s mass is hydrogen and helium, which make up more than 87% of the planet’s total mass.
15. Earth’s Van Allen Belts Are Bizarre
When it came to beautiful ice rings like the outer planets, Earth really missed out. All we got were two donut-shaped belts of radiation that surround our planet. Lovely! Known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts, these two zones encircle the Earth, trapping energetic charged particles that originate from solar wind. These particles are mainly protons and electrons, which are trapped within the belts by the Earth’s magnetic field. By trapping the solar wind, the magnetic field deflects those energetic particles and protects the Earth’s atmosphere from destruction.
16. The Moons of Uranus Are Wild
Uranus is the seventh planet from the sun, and is home to 27 moons. These moons are thought to be very low mass relative to other satellites in the solar system, and they are wild. The small, inner moons of Uranus constantly perturb each other, creatings a chaotic and fairly unstable system. It is thought the the material making up the inner rings of Uranus are the remnants of past moons that have since been destroyed by collision. Mathematical models suggest that the moon Desdemona may collide with either Cressida or Juliet within the next 100 million years.
17. One of Saturn’s Moons Is Two-Tone
Who says moons have to be gray and boring? Just check out Saturn’s moon, Iapetus, which is known for its black and white, two-tone appearance, a feature that has long puzzled astronomers. Recent studies have suggested that sunlight is melting the ice on one side of the moon, leaving the dark surface of Iapetus exposed, while the opposite hemisphere retains its icy shell.
18. Titan’s Liquid Is Not Water
Of the hundreds of moons in our solar system, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is the only one with a fully developed atmosphere. In fact, the atmosphere of Titan is about 50% denser than Earth’s. Most of Titan’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, much like on Earth. However, the rest of Titan’s atmosphere is mostly made up of methane, with trace amounts of other gases like ethane. The cold temperatures on Titan mean that methane and ethane can exist on the surface in liquid form. This liquid accumulates on Titan in the form of large lakes, making Titan resemble a terrestrial planet in some ways.
19. Space Is Full of Organic Compounds
Until recently, complex organic compounds were thought to be associated only with life, and as such, were believed to be exclusive to Earth. This, as it turns out, is not the case. Organic compounds of unexpected complexity exist throughout the Universe. Recent studies have suggested that complex organic compounds can be made naturally by stars.
20. Mars Has Different Amounts of Methane in Its Atmosphere
Methane is produced by life and natural processes, like volcanic eruptions. This makes it very confusing as to why the methane in the atmosphere of Mars seems to fluctuate. Recently, NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected that these methane fluctuations seem to go up in the summer, and down in the winter. Scientists are still a bit puzzled as to where this methane comes from in the first place. Some believe that tiny microbes could be the source.
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