Our solar system has always been the science-fiction equivalent of Cleveland: a nice place to visit, but not the most exciting setting for an epic drama. However, as we've mentioned before, there's actually more to our sun's 'hood than meets the eye, and if you just give it a chance, it may surprise you ...
Saturn's Enceladus may not seem like anything special; just another middle child in a family of 62 natural satellites (funny, Saturn doesn't sound like a Catholic name). But zoom in real close and you'll see that its surface is constantly rocked by massive explosions ... of ice. Yes, Enceladus is home to thousands of what scientists are awesomely calling cryovolcanoes.
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute via BBC
"Sorry, I had Mexican for lunch."
Due to the proximity and the immense gravitational pull of Enceladus' smothering helicopter parent planet, the moon is constantly being warped and squished, causing its subterranean ice reserves to crack and pulverize into an underground ocean. As forces continue to build up, the subterranean sea, much like a Japanese high school student, eventually succumbs to pressure and erupts. Great plumes of water shoot outward into space, instantly freezing into ice and making an entire moon appear as if it had spontaneously sprouted jet engines.
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute via Space.com
Is there a more badass way to solve global warming?
Enceladus' cryovolcanoes were discovered quite recently by the Cassini space probe, after it managed to capture actual images of the moon's great flailing ice tantrums. According to scientists, this discovery might also explain what keeps replenishing the debris that makes up Saturn's signature rings. If you're having trouble wrapping your mind around it, imagine Saturn as a great big pimp that beats up on its poor trusting charges until they eventually cough up more ice for the planet's tacky, outrageous bling.
"Now give Daddy Saturn some sugar."
Every decade or so, our parent star is host to a series of explosions of superhot ionized gas called plasma, which, due to the sun's powerful magnetic field, then circle its surface in massive, unstable solar loops. Think of it like the sun working a hula hoop of fiery death, if that helps. After a couple of weeks, the death-hoop has built up enough energy and starts to wobble. It falters once, twice, and then falls free of the sun, emitting a burst of electricity, heat, and radiation 10 times the size of Earth. You probably know this phenomenon as a solar flare. You probably thought it was benign. We just figured you might like to stop being secure in that knowledge:
Occasionally a solar loop will get so big that it results in an X-class solar flare, a huge explosion that appears to rip holes in the sun itself:
We're not trying to jump to conclusions, but that is most definitely Satan in the hole.
Luckily, not every solar phenomenon is fuming out there in the cold void of space, waiting to existentially terrify you into a fear-coma. Sundogs, for example, occur right here on Earth, when light from the sun is refracted by ice crystals in the atmosphere. The only end results are pretty things like solar halos and glowing orbs moving gently across the sky.
Yea, the sun taketh life away, but she also giveth of it (probably because she thinks it's funny to get your hopes up before she takes it away again).
How many planets are there in the solar system? "Aha!" you yell at your computer, netting some odd stares from your co-workers. "That depends on whether you're counting Pluto, which was demoted to 'dwarf planet' status in 2006!" Hold off on patting yourself on the back there, Tycho. If you said "nine planets, assuming you count Pluto," you're actually off by a factor of 50, or maybe even 1,500. Much like the real Tycho, you are seriously neglecting some dwarfs here.
NASA via Space.com
In all the volumes of Tycho's research, not one mention of Peter Dinklage.
So far, we've officially classified five dwarf planets right here in our solar system (although we've observed many more): Pluto, Eris, Ceres, Makemake, and Haumea. Most of these are out in the solar ghetto, way past Neptune, but Ceres is actually quite close, as it orbits between Mars and Jupiter. But the one of particular note right now is the icy dwarf planet Haumea, discovered in 2004.
Haumea, you're not misshapen, you're just ... unique.
Named after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, Haumea is a frozen rock uncannily resembling a football one-tenth the size of Earth. At least that's what complex science calculations tell us about the planet. We haven't yet physically observed Haumea, but we do know some things about it -- like that it exists in a perpetual, hellish cycle of freezing death and rebirth.
SINC/José Antonio Peñas via Wired
Which wouldn't be so bad if they could just get rid of that awful rash.
Analyses have shown that large amounts of radiation on Haumea are causing the ice on its surface to continuously melt and instantly refreeze, probably because the planet is located 4.6 billion miles from the sun (it's pretty much all Snuggie territory as soon as you pass Jupiter). Scientists also hypothesize that there might be organic matter on Haumea because of its dark red spot. No word yet on whether said organic matter has claws and hates humanity with a burning radioactive passion, so we are forced to assume it does.