Link - article by M. Christian and Avi Abrams

Wild, Wild Planets

We've seen the worst that Earth's climate can offer (see our "Extreme Weather" series), but what if you're an apocalypse junkie, and don't really want to pack your bags and head to Kansas to cruise inside a tornado-chasing vehicle? If you get bored with Earth's extremities, look up at the starry sky and consider the other wicked, in fact simply hellish atmospheres available there:

Hot, Fast and Furious!

Take for instance a vacation spot a mere 870 light years away. Whatever your definition, WASP-12b is an unusual place. Discovered in April of this year, it’s a large planet – 50% bigger than our own biggest world, Jupiter – and a damned fast one.

How fast? Well, you know that Earth takes 365 days to go around our comfortable yellow sun. But WASP-12b takes a fraction of that time … in fact a 364th fraction of that time. WASP-12b orbits its sun in a little longer than one day.

(image credit: ESA/C Carreau)

WASP-12b is also a rather balmy planet. Considered a “Hot Jupiter” world, a gas giant without a rocky surface, its temperature has forced a lot of astronomers to rethink exactly how hot a planet can get. Time to play that game again: how hot? Well, our previously mentioned comfortable yellow sun has a surface temperature around 5,000 degrees centigrade. WASP-12b is also a fraction of that... in fact only half of that. WASP-12b has been measured at about 2500 degrees – one of, if not the – hottest extrasolar worlds so far discovered.

Here is an artist's conception of how bright the illuminated side of such planet might look - "roughly 500 times brighter than desert sand dunes on a midsummer day" (on the left). Right image shows a Jupiter-like planet in front of the HD 149026 star (more info) -

(images by U.C. Santa Cruz andLynette Cook)


Another big fast wonder - with a possibility of life on it??
(the first organic molecule found on an extrasolar planet)

Another distant, possibly temperate, vacation destination is much closer, a mere 63 years away at the speed of light. Charmingly named HD 189733b, this world in the Vulpecula constellation is another big, hot, and fast wonder - it's slightly bigger than our own Jupiter, orbits every 2 or so days and has a registered temperature of around 700 degrees Celsius.

Why a lot of people are so thrilled about the world that can turn you into a puff of ash if you so much as even cracked your starship’s door?

(image by ESA, NASA, G. Tinetti, via)

Many things can get astronomers all atwitter: new stars, new worlds, new phenomena, and especially certain colors showing up on a spectroscopic scan. Without getting too technical, and not testing your patience any further, Giovanna Tinetti (and later NASA) discovered those spectroscopic colors in HD 189733b: water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane – evidence of what could be some form of life. Though what kind of life could live on a world like HD 189733b is anyone’s guess.

(image by NASA/JPL-Calech/T.Pyle, SSC, via)

Especially since the winds on this planet are supersonic blasts exceeding 2 miles per second or 7,000 miles per hour. "You're talking about winds fast enough to carry you in a hot air balloon from San Francisco to New York in 25 minutes" (source)


Speaking about supersonic winds, there is enough hellish weather to be found inside our Solar System:

Saturn's Psychedelic Clouds

Saturn boasts winds up to 1,800 km per hour - whipping up wildly irregular clouds, which are often enveloped by darkness: the huge shadow of Saturn's ring system blocks sunlight for long time, over a huge area. Look into the eye of a monster storm on Saturn: the image on the left shows an 8,000 km area, big enough to swallow Earth.... the right image shows a mysterious hexagonal storm cloud shape:

(image via, more info)

Do you remember the wave clouds (or Kelvin-Helmholtz instability) that we featured in one of our extreme Earth weather articles? Such wave clouds are a regular feature on Saturn:

(images by NASA, via)

Don Dixon imagines what flying through Saturn's clouds may look like:

(image credit: Don Dixon)

Some slightly-enhanced images show the coffee-colored atmosphere (looks like a tiramisu) -

(image credit: space.com)

The weather can be a concern, though, with supersonic winds whirling around. And then, of course, there is Uranus, which has seasonal patterns (each season lasts more than 20 years) that are entirely messed up: the planet is tilted 98 degrees from the orbital plane! The poles are actually getting more sunlight than the equator.


Enceladus Shifting Terrain

The Saturn's moon Enceladus experiences periodic and dramatic tectonic shifts, including the spontanious creation of new terrain! - caused perhaps by the existence of organics-rich, liquid-water environment beneath the moon's surface (more info). Often called a "tectonic feast", this activity produces twisted breaks, spreading ridges and even vigorous jets of vapor and icy particles, shooting off into space.

New images of "tiger stripes" on the surface testify of such dynamics (a spreading and splitting of the existing surface) -

(images credit: ciclops.org)

Jets of Enceladus: huge plumes erupt from giant fissures in the moon's surface -

(images credit: NASA, Karl Kofoed)

"What causes and controls the jets is a mystery", NASA admits. If there is evidence of water, then Enceladus will become the prime candidate for providing a habitable environment... similiar to the oceans under the surface of Europa (moon of Jupiter). Europa's mysterious hidden ocean covers the whole moon and is 100 km deep - containing in total more water than all Earth's oceans combined.


The Crab Nebula has a really crabby instability

Interstellar nebula clouds can sometimes display a Rayleigh-Taylor type of instability (when two fluids of different densities interact with each other, compounded by gravitational effects). Such "RT fingers" can be clearly seen in the Crab Nebula, where the "expanding pulsar wind nebula is sweeping up ejected material from the supernova explosion long ago".

(image via)


Where's CNN when you need it?

Cold or hot, comfortable or not, the universe can be a very dramatic place – and a very dangerous place if you should get caught in one of its ‘dramatic’ events. Everyone knows about black holes and supernovas, and some of you might have heard about neutron stars, quasars, and hypernovas, but in a few billion years everyone – if anyone is still around of course – will know all about our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda.

Galaxies, like our own Milky Way, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including elliptical, peculiar, or – in the case of our home galaxy – a barred spiral. Like everything in the universe they’ve been moving since the Big Bang, heading to an eventual Big Crunch (if there’s enough mass in the universe to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the expansion back into a supermassive black hole and then, possibly, out again in another Big Bang), Heat Death (where everything in the universe simply dissolves into a dull, gray, warm ‘blah’), or one of the many other theories about the eventual fate of the Universe.

An example of interacting galaxies, info, image by Stanford University)

But one thing is known: sometime in the next two and a half billion years, our skies will become very interesting as our Milky Way galaxy collides with, and merges with, our neighbor Andromeda. No one knows what will happen then, but if we’re around – maybe holding ‘hands’ with our friends from HD 189733b – the sight will truly be something behold.

That is, if we’re around to enjoy it …

A near galactic-collision between NGC 2207 (left) and IC 2163. via. See the animation of similar event here.

Another galactic collision captured in incredible detail (click to enlarge, or see the really large image here) -

The Antenna Galaxy (more info)

Also Read:
Most Spectacular View of Saturn
Stars & Planets Scale Comparison

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, but WASP-12b was discovered in April last year. Its 2009 now, remember? ;)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post, like always.

Blogger BrianDeuelDotCom said...

Good stuff as always. Extrasolar planets are incredibly fascinating. There is one (name and location escapes me at the moment) that is a "Super Earth" with nothing but water for a surface. But the pressure is such that the water molecules are tightly packed into a solid, similar to the "ice" within the ice giants Neptune and Uranus.

Titan would have been a good Saturn satellite to add to this list; being what Prof. Carolyn Porco calls "an analog of Earth." With its lakes of hydrocarbons and hazy atmosphere, you have rains and large bodies of paint thinner to enjoy on your Titanic vacation!

Anonymous Dawid Michalczyk said...

I didn't know that wave clouds were a real phenomena.

Blogger mchristian said...

Always wonderful to work with you! Here's to lots of great -- and weird -- stuff for 2010!


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