Space pix

July 29, 2010 • 7:08 am

As reported in today’s New York Times, the National Air and Space Museum is having an exhibit of photographs of our solar system by NASA and other agencies.  Some pictures have been colorized or represent composites (the artist is Michael Benson), but they’re not phony. In fact, they’re stunning.

Captions taken from the Smithsonian website:

Erupting into space. An 86-mile-high volcanic plume explodes above the horizon of Jupiter’s moon Io. The plume is erupting over a caldera (volcanic depression), named Pillan Patera, after a South American god of thunder, fire, and volcanoes.  Galileo, June 28, 1997.

Uranus and its rings. This remarkable picture shows the very faint rings of Uranus, which were discovered in 1977. Extremely dark, they may be made of innumerable countless fragments of water ice containing radiation-altered organic material. Uranus was the first planet discovered that was unknown to ancient astronomers. It was first sighted in 1781 by British astronomer William Herschel, using a homemade 15-centimeter telescope.  Voyager, January 24, 1986.

Europa and the great red spot. Europa (upper right) is slightly smaller than Earth’s Moon. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a vast cyclonic storm system about two times the size of Earth, is surrounded by other oval storms and banded clouds. Multi-frame mosaic.  Voyager 1, March 3, 1979

Jupiter, the largest planet. The Great Red Spot, a cyclonic storm system that has been raging for hundreds of years, is clearly visible in this portrait of Jupiter. Multi-frame mosaic.  Cassini, December 29, 2000

An erupting prominence. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool, dense plasma suspended in the Sun’s hot, thin corona. Like this large, twirling prominence, they can sometimes erupt and escape the Sun’s atmosphere.  SOHO, January 18, 2000

13 thoughts on “Space pix

  1. It’s amazing, really.
    These beautiful bodies are real, tangible objects, which we humans have the capacity to visit or see. But, alas, most of these are too dangerous or too far away for us to see. There’s a sense that our presence is in the solar system, and yet it is confined to our own planet.

  2. Kinda brings home how insignificant we are in the scheme of all!
    And how incredibly daft the godbots really are.

  3. Gorgeous. But when you think about it, the simple fact that human beings were able to obtain these extraplanetary images is stunning in itself.

  4. Lucky lucky lucky us to be alive at a time when humans can see this. Lucky us to be able to see the earth from 6 miles up, and lucky us to be able to see pictures like this. Oh and underwater filming, and nature filming in general. Lucky us to be alive at a time when camera people can spend weeks staking out a likely snow leopard spot and finally, after weeks of waiting, get a shot of a snow leopard chasing a ram down a nearly vertical mountainside. Lucky us to get to see things no humans could see before.

  5. Saw a good show on the Voyager explorations last weekend. One interesting thing was as you get farther out, the winds on gas planets get faster and faster, to the point where wind speeds on Neptune get up well over 1000 mph, the reason being that as you get farther out, there is no heat from the sun to cause turbulence and slow anything down. I don’t know why, but something about that seemed kinda spooky…

    A lot of the astronomers kept talking about how “alive” the outer planets were contrary to their expectations. In a manner of speaking, that’s true, but only in a manner of speaking. They’re really deserts as far as life is concerned. Earth is alive, these other places really aren’t (unless by strange chance Arthur Clark’s imagined possibility of life under Europa’s ice turned out to be true…)

    1. They’re really deserts as far as life is concerned.

      No, they are not, and they could well have life.

      First, they are not deserts by any means. If you look for habitability, say with Mendez habitability index, which I favor, it turns out that potential habitats like Enceladus ranks higher on habitability than Earth. Mostly because they are 100 % water, while Earth land is really a desert compared with oceans.

      Second, the ocean on Europa is a lot bigger than ours. If there is life there, it could well contain more biomass than our biosphere, given sufficient heat vent energy.

      Third, currently there are a series of thermodynamical imbalances out there to explain, on Earth often sign of life:

      – Methane on Mars.

      – Lack of surface hydrogen, acetylene, ethane and a non-standard carbon isotope ratio on Titan.

      Methane on Mars is likely because it is likely still internally active. Mars meteorites track the same ignesious rock source from ~ 4.4 Gy to a few hundred million years back.

      Titan is where I would place my money on life right now. The ethane is likely found in the seas, but people are really excited by the hydrogen-acetylene (and carbon ratio) discrepancy.

      Titan ionosphere injects a lot of energy in hydrocarbon compounds, and one way to get that back is by reducing the acetylene to methane. (IIRC, a paper of McKay discuss the feasibility of such metabolism.)

      And the discrepancy is _really_ difficult to predict from models of Titan, we aren’t even discussing finetuning but something drastic. [ Molecular hydrogen in Titan’s atmosphere: Implications of the measured tropospheric and thermospheric mole fractions,
      Darrell F. Strobel, Icarus 2010

      We don’t know if there is cryo-life on Titan. But a theory that gets 3 major predictions correct, predictions which can’t be made with the usual suspects, is intriguing.

      Bummer that we won’t revisit Saturn anytime soon!

      1. “Titan ionosphere injects a lot of energy in hydrocarbon compounds” – that was supposed to be “into”, and it’s of course the Sun that does the heavy lifting (by UV photolysis mostly, IIRC).

      2. No, they are not, and they could well have life.

        I would bet no–at least not in this solar system, and probably not in a lot of others either.

        And I bet it’s a lot harder to live on other planets than people think (as you can guess I’m not much of a techno futurist–a career working with a lot of relational databases can do that to you).

  6. Wow! What’s really depressing about the picture of the sun is that we are relegated to observing it from a distance only. With planets, we could always get very close, maybe even visit them, and experience the fine details. With the sun, it’s pictures only.

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