Thursday, April 23, 2015

An Astronomical Earth Day

Happy post Earth Day! Whether you took a walk in the springtime sun, planted a tree or a flower, or even just wistfully looked out the window while you were stuck at work, I hope you took some time to appreciate this planet that we call home. It's a pretty cool place, and we are lucky to be here. Today I thought we'd take a look at our neighbors within the solar system and perhaps by learning about them, we can learn a bit more about our own planet and appreciate just how special it is.

Sun: Giant Ball of Life-Giving Fusion

Our lives literally revolve around the sun; our juuust right proximity to it is what makes life possible on planet Earth. This great ball of fire has temperatures that vary according to the colors that you see in the photo. The white spots are the hottest, coming in at around 9980° F, while the darkest areas, known as sun spots, are a mere 6380° F.

Mercury: A Lesson in Climate Change
Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and has almost no atmosphere, which means nothing to protect its surface from the heat of the sun. On this planet, daytime highs hover around 800° F. "But Katie," you're saying, "Mercury is the closest to the sun, of course it's going to get that hot." Well consider this then, although this planet is indeed the closest to the sun, because there is also no atmosphere to hold in the heat from the day, the nighttime lows plummet to -300° F. "Global warming" doesn't mean that there will no longer be any winters if we damage our own atmosphere due to pollution and deforestation, it means things will become more extreme on both ends of the spectrum. This is why scientists use the term "climate change" today instead of the misleading "global warming." 

Venus: Earth's Twin Sister

Venus is called Earth's twin because it is pretty much the same size as our planet and is our next door neighbor. But you wouldn't want to go to school or have a work day on Venus. That's because it rotates so slowly that it completely circles the sun before it makes one revolution, ie a day is longer than a year! A day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days, while a year is 224 days. I'm going to need a lot more coffee breaks if I ever get relocated to Venus.

Earth: Third Rock from the Sun

DUDE! I go there! w00t!

Mars: The Red Planet

It seems like almost daily we are learning more about our other next door neighbor, thanks to the Mars Rover. Mars gets its characteristic color from iron (rust) that is found in the soil. While Venus shares the same jeans size as the Earth, Mars has something in common with Earth too: polar ice caps!

Jupiter: Florida Ain't Got Nothin' on Me

You just can't show a picture or illustration of Jupiter without featuring the Great Red Spot that you see here in the lower left. That spot is a massive hurricane, the size of 100 Earths, that has been raging for over 300 years. Aliens on Jupiter would treat a Category 5 hurricane on Earth like Floridans treat a Category 1. Days on this planet are only 10 hours long, but one year is the equivalent of 12 on Earth. So you have shorter work days, but have to wait much, much longer for the next Black Friday sale.

Saturn: Put a Ring on It

Saturn is probably the most widely recognized planet, aside from Earth. Although cartoons like to portray its famous rings as solid, they are made from pieces of rock and dust. If you had a pool of water large enough to put Saturn in (72,367 miles across), it would float! That's because Saturn has a solid inner core, but no solid surface. Like many reality TV stars, it's a gassy giant. 

Uranus: The Most Unfortunately Named Planet

Poor Uranus. It may have been named after the Greek god of the sky (the only planet not named after a Roman god), but I'll bet even the god Uranus was the butt of many jokes. So yes, Uranus is blue. Uranus even has rings around it. And Uranus is also considered a gassy giant. But hey, at least Uranus is popular, it has 27 moon groupies. This planet also rotates perpendicular to its orbit, which means nights can last 40 years. Maybe we should rename this planet Rip Van Winkle.

Neptune: The Stormy Planet

Neptune, like its neighbor, is blue, which it gets from a large amount of methane gas in its atmosphere. While Jupiter may have the Great Red Spot, this entire planet is ravaged by storms with winds up to 1240 miles per hour. Talk about breaking wind, this planet is even smellier than Uranus. 

Pluto: I Still Love You!
Oh Neil DeGrasse Tyson, how you shattered the lives of countless geeks when you and your team demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet on August 24, 2006. So why was Pluto kicked out of the planet clique? In order to be considered a planet, an object has to meet 3 criteria:
  1. It must orbit the sun.
  2. It must be round due to the force of its own gravity.
  3. It has to dominate its orbit, meaning it either must consume or sling items in its orbit path. 
Poor little Pluto, it's orbital path is littered with objects that refuse to yield to its inferior mass, and so it has been demoted to dwarf planet. Don't worry, Pluto, there will always be nine planets in my heart

When you look at our neighbors in the solar system, you get a better idea of just how unique our beloved planet Earth is. It has water, a protective atmosphere, is positioned neither too far nor too close to a source of energy, day and night lengths that make the workday tolerable, a favorable climate, and isn't a smelly, gassy giant with an unfortunate name. On this Earth Day and every day, we need to do our best to remember this awesome place we call home and treat it like we plan on sticking around for many Earth Days to come.

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