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/JosÃ© Antonio PeÃ±as 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.
NASA via Science Blogs
Astronomers from the European Space Agency recently glimpsed a pair of 30-mile-wide pitted craters on Mars that they believe were created by a combination of impacts from space and subterranean explosions. Why do we bring this up? Because we're interested in the cause of these subterranean events? Because we're fascinated by geological shifts? Because we're serious, scientifically minded people who will stop at nothing to uncover the truth? No. Of course not. We bring this up because those craters totally look like a pair of deranged eyes:
ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum) via ESA
The Martian landscape is not the vast monochromatic wasteland you think you know. In fact, it is host to many otherworldly sand dunes, craters, and rock formations that would feel right at home in one of Dali's surrealist dreamscapes. A recent montage of landscapes taken by the HiRISE high-resolution imaging system aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has shown us everything from a buried pencil to mitosis to what looks like nipples (if you're lonely and myopic enough).
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona via Discovery
We've also spotted gigantic dust devils racing across Mars' surface, unfettered by Earth levels of gravity and therefore able to grow much larger than anything we get down here.
This is why there are no trailer parks on Mars.
Hell, we've even found what appears to be a blasted-out Stormtrooper helmet on the red planet (either it's a prime example of pareidolia or the new Star Wars movies have waaay too much in the PR budget).
Well, they did say it was a long time ago.
ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA via Phys.org
Just looking at the evidence, one could be forgiven for assuming that the planet Venus is the basis for the Christian vision of hell. The second closest planet to the sun is cloaked in noxious gas and boasts surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead, not to mention the 90 atmospheres' worth of pressure that would instantly turn that squishy meat-mech you call a body into a thin layer of human jam.
Shorts weather, basically.
Then there's the weather: You've heard of the acid rain, surely, but did you know that Venus sports a perpetually spinning vortex approximately the size of Europe that is virtually indestructible?
Thanks to data collected by the European Space Agency's Venus Express satellite, we now know that this gigantic cyclone, called the south polar vortex, is constantly breaking apart and reforming like a nightmarish wind-based Jefferson Airplane.
ESA/VIRTIS/INAF-IASF/Obs. de Paris-LESIA via Space.com
"Feeeeeeeeeed your heeeeAHHHHHHHH OH MY GOD WE'RE BURNING UP!"
The cycle appears to be unbreakable, meaning it could very well be an eternal storm. And we reiterate: It's the size of friggin' Europe. The vortex is so huge that the storm actually has two eyes. You know, the better to see you with.
APOD/NASA via Daily Galaxy
And it's shaped like a Mobius strip so you're always facing directly at it.
And if a ceaselessly raging immortal continental storm that stares into your very soul doesn't unnerve you, well ... we guess you're leaving disappointed, because we don't have anything that beats it. But before you leave, could you come over and kill this spider for us? We've had it trapped under a Dixie cup in the kitchen for like a week.
Related Reading: What's also crazy are the awesome planets we used to think existed in our solar system, like Vulcan. Also, Saturn has a moon shaped like a walnut. And by the way, rogue black holes exist.