Cumberland Times-News

July 21, 2012

Book can take us on tour of solar system

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— It may be another century before humans can visit all the unusual sites in our solar system.

But the large format book, “A Voyage Across the Cosmos” features a beautiful array of images of these places as well as sights of our galaxy and many superb deep space wonders.

This 2008 book by Giles Sparrow was published by Quercus with ISBN 10: 1-84724-824-2.

Here are some interesting facts drawn from “Voyage” about the exotic sights of our planets and their moons.

The largest impact crater in the solar system is at our moon’s South Pole.

This is the Aitken basin, about the size of Western Europe. Some of the craters deep inside the basin are forever shielded from the sun, allowing ice from crashed comets to stay there permanently.

Mercury has an impact basin about 840 miles wide, formed by the impact of a 60 mile wide asteroid smashing into the planet four billion years ago.

This asteroid was 10 times larger in diameter than the six mile wide asteroid that impacted the Earth 65 million years ago, leading to the demise of the dinosaurs.

The planet Venus features volcanic “pancakes,” one-half mile high and 15 miles across, formed from lava that oozed upward.

The Mariner Valley on Mars is three times as long as our Grand Canyon, up to 435 miles across and averages five miles in depth.

Mars has the biggest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons with a mouth 32 miles wide and cliffs up to four miles high.

Vesta, the only asteroid that can be seen by eye, is not round due to its south pole being flattened by a huge impact.

Jupiter’s great mass has drawn many asteroids and comets off course.

In 1992, a comet’s orbit was so altered that the comet went into orbit about Jupiter.

Two years later, this comet, torn into 21 fragments slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

The total energy of the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levi 9 was 750 times the energy of all the world’s nuclear warheads.

Huge dark clouds, about the size of the Earth, were formed. Within a few months, the dark matter in these clouds had dispersed.

Callisto, Jupiter’s outermost large moon, has the most cratered surface of any moon in the solar system.

Saturn’s creamy color is due to ammonia crystals high in its atmosphere. Saturn also has aurorae (northern and southern lights) at its poles.

A patch of a rainbow has been imaged above Saturn’s rings by the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn.

Saturn’s rings are made of ice chunks up to 100 meters across (the size of a football field).

The smaller ice chunks, just as rain drops can, reflect the sunlight forward. The colors in a Saturnian or solar rainbow are due to the interference of light.

Enceladus, a moon of Saturn about the size of Maryland, has jets of steam that freeze and fall back as snow.

This moon has the highest reflectance of sunlight in the solar system. Iapetus, a thousand mile wide moon of Saturn, has a bright side and a dark side.

The dark side is its leading side that is covered with dust while the trailing side (bright) is clean.

Tipped over on its side, Uranus’ poles have 42 Earth years of daylight followed by an equal period of darkness. (Uranus takes 84 Earth years to orbit the sun.)

Neptune has the highest atmospheric winds in the solar system with speeds over one thousand miles an hour.

Unlike its twin (Uranus), Neptune gives off more heat than it receives from the sun.

SKY SIGHTS THIS WEEK: The moon is now in the evening sky, appearing below Mars this Tuesday evening, and below Spica (with Saturn above) on Wednesday evening.

Also on July 25, the moon will appear half full, offering good views of its craters through binoculars held steadily.

On Saturday evening, the gibbous moon (three-quarters full) appears above Antares, the pink star marking the head of the Scorpion.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.