Have you ever wondered what causes red rocks? Red rocks like those on the surface of Mars, the red planet, or the canyons of Utah. The answer to this question comes down to two common elements, iron and oxygen, which combine together to form the compound rust. Most people have heard of or seen rust. It’s that red crusty stuff that forms on the outside of nails or other bits of metal that have been outside too long. But what is rust? The most common type of rust is formally named Iron (iii) Oxide. This iron oxide compound has two iron atoms and three oxygen atoms all bunched together. This compound is formed in just the right way so that most colors of light are absorbed by it, but red light is reflected. The reflected red light makes rust appear red and thus make red rocks look red.
So we now know that red rocks get their distinctive color because of rust, but how did that rust get there? Why was it formed in the first place? To answer this question we must look deeper into the chemistry of iron and rust. Rust is caused when iron is exposed to amounts of oxygen, such as the oxygen in air or in water. A chemical reaction takes place between the iron and the oxygen. The oxygen oxidizes the iron and steals several of its electrons. The iron now has a positive charge and the oxygen has a negative charge and because opposite charges attract, they are drawn together to form iron oxide or rust. Red rocks, then, are rocks that have a fairly high concentration of iron in them and are exposed to some source of oxygen. The combination of these two things creates rust and turns the rock red.
The reaction that forms rust is actually very interesting. It’s what is called an endothermic reaction, or in simpler terms the reaction gives off heat. In nature things rust very slowly, so that heat is also given off slowly and you can really tell. However, there are ways to speed up reactions, which is what scientists and engineers did when they created air activated hand warmers. Iron is put in these hand warmers and begins a very sped up reaction with oxygen when the package is opened and thus creates heat. It’s pretty cool that the same process that named Mars the red planet can also keep your hands warm on a cold day.
We’ve all wondered at some point whether we’re really alone in the universe. Over the 14 billion years since the beginning of the universe, how could we possibly be the only life-supporting planet out of this massive thing we call the universe? Many of us either avoid this question, simply assuming that if there really is extraterrestrial life-forms out there, they would have made contact with us already. Others simply say that our planet simply got it right, Earth just had the perfect conditions for life to develop and it was just a fluke. The rest, escape into science fiction, hoping one day that we will make contact with alien life-forms, build a galactic police station here on Earth and let Captain Kirk go whizzing around the galaxy, boldly going where no man has gone before. While that that idea is firmly constrained to the realm of science fiction for now, recent discoveries have shed light in this very question; we might not be alone after all.
That’s right, we might not be alone, and our new found neighbors are just a mere 590 light-years down the road from us. An absolutely amazing discovery! On December 5th, 2011, scientists announced to the world the discovery of Kepler 22b, an Earth sized planet orbiting the nearby Kepler star. The planet orbits a G-class star known as Kepler 22 (hence the planets name, Kepler 22b) in the constellation Cygnus. The star itself is composed mostly of helium and is a little smaller and cooler than our own sun. But enough about the star, we all want to know about this planet right?
Kepler 22b is about 2.4 times larger than the Earth, or just more than half the size of Neptune. But what makes this planet so special is that it is the first earthlike world discovered orbiting in what is known as the habitable zone of the star. This means that the planet is in a perfect position to support life just as our own Earth does.
But what is the habitable zone of star? This is what astronomers call the area around a star where temperatures are not to hot, a result of being too close to the sun, or too cold, a result of being to far away from the sun, and the planet is able to sustain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface. Take mercury for example, it’s the closest planet in our solar system to the sun, mostly made of iron and rock. Due to Mercury’s close proximity to the sun, it is very hot, and also very cold, with temperature ranging from -183 C to 427C. This vast temperature range, combined with the generally hot area the planet orbits around, basically means that water is unable to form oceans, or even remain stable as liquid, which is of course the main requirement for life to begin. Alternatively, Jupiter orbits our sun beyond the habitable zone where temperatures are too low, causing any water in the planets to freeze. The habitable area of our star begins just beyond Venus, the second planet in our solar system, and ends between Mars and Jupiter, the next planets in our solar system after Earth. But knowing that Kepler 22b orbits within the habitable zone of its star raises another problem, we don’t know what its made of.
Kepler 22b could simply be a gaseous planet like Jupiter or Neptune, with a very thick, dense atmosphere that could prevent the stars light and heat from reaching the surface, assuming it has a surface of course. Alternatively it could be a rocky planet like earth, which would give it a strong possibility of containing oceans of water with continents and its own weather and climate, the ingredients necessary to support life. In fact if the planet had an atmosphere similar to that of earth, the average surface temperature would be around 22C, a perfect day here on Earth.
This all seems a little too good to be true, a planet similar in size to Earth, orbiting a star inside the habitable zone, with the possibility of containing water, the fundamental building block of life, with a perfect surface temperature similar to that of Earth. But that’s not the end of the story, there is another planet, that may be even more suited to support life than Kepler 22b. It is known as Gliese 370 b.
Gliese 370 b, or HD 85512 b is another planet that orbits its star within the habitable zone, and appears to be a rocky planet similar to earth. Gliese 370 b’s surface temperature is also estimated to be around 25C assuming it has a similar atmosphere as earth. This puts the planet in the perfect area to maintain liquid water and thus support life. The planet is about 3.5 times the size of Earth, and is classed as a Super-Earth like planet. And the best part? Its only 36 light-years away! That’s an amazing 6% of the distance to Kepler 22b.
This still leaves the same burning question, are we really alone in the universe? If we consider that so far, we have discovered at least two earthlike planets within 600 light-years of us, then there has to be billions more left to be discovered. After all, 600 light-years is nothing considering our galaxy alone is 120,000 light-years across and contains approximately 400 billion stars. Even more surprising is that scientists believe the galaxy contains at least 400 billion planets, 10 billion of which would be within the habitable zone of their star. And that’s just in our galaxy, there’s still another 200 billion galaxies in the universe we know of. How amazing is that?
It may also surprise you to learn that life has already been found on another planet, that’s right, extraterrestrials really do exists! Albeit very small. On a meteorite found in Antarctica, known simply as ALH84001, which was ejected from Mars about 17 million years ago, scientists found evidence of the remains of bacterial organisms that may have lived on Mars. Evidence of bacterial life forms have also been discovered on two other meteorites, one of which also originated from Mars, approximately 165 million years ago.
So we know that it is possible for life to exist on other planets, and that there is approximately 10 billion life supporting planets in our galaxy alone, you do the math, do you really think we are alone? I guess we’ll just have to wait until we either invent inter stellar travel, or an extraterrestrial species comes to visit us to know the answer to that question, but that still doesn’t stop scientists from trying to find the answer anyway.
All the Gas giants of our Solar System have rings, but the ones around Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune are relatively small. Saturn’s rings are magnificent.
The first reference to Saturn’s rings appears to be from Galileo. In 1610 he looked at Saturn through his telescope. He was puzzled by what he saw. He described the rings variously as ears, handles and arms. He said that the planet appeared to be triple-bodied. He also speculated that Saturn might have two large moons.
His telescope was not very powerful, and he was hampered in his observations by the fact that the angle the rings are seen from, looking from the Earth, changes. It we are looking at the rings when they are completely edge on, they are difficult to see at all.
In 1659, Christiaan Huygens looked at the rings with a more powerful telescope and saw that they are flat rings round the planet.
The rings are very big in the sense that they look big, looking at them flat. The closest ring is something like 7000 Kilometres from the Planet while the edge of the furthest one may be about 250,000 Kilometres from Saturn’s surface. However, many of the rings seem to be only about 10 Metres thick.
The total amount of matter in the rings may only be about the same as a small moon, perhaps one with a diameter of 400 Kilometres although different measurements and their interpretations give quite different answers.
The main material in the rings appears to be water ice.
This is another thing we do not know. Different theories about the rings give ages of between 100 million and 4 billion years.
Life in the Rings
This might sound like a strange idea, and probably few serious scientists would think it is likely, but we really do not know how widespread life is in the universe, or what forms it can take. Ben Bova introduced the idea of life in the rings of Saturn.
In the beginning, as it were, there was no form or force to the universe. In fact, talking about the universe was meaningless because there was nowhere to talk about it. Space and time literally did not exist and neither did matter in any form. The universe simply was not; nothing was.
Then suddenly there was an explosion of epic proportions. We can’t even say that it happened later because there was no time, no anything, even ideas. This explosion was so energetic that particles by the insurmountable amounts were created. Einstein taught us that energy and matter are equivalent; only different manifestations of energy. So with all this energy came matter.
At first this matter was terribly dense. It was essentially all the matter in the universe crushed into the size of a pea. It quickly expanded into the vast universe it is today, but because of its incomprehensible density, the matter was billions of times hotter than the center of the sun. And so the matter in that ball acted very diffferently than the matter we are used to.
Electrons existed as they do today, but with a whole lot of energy. Protons and neutrons though, are actually made of much smaller parts called quarks. Because they contained so much energy, they couldn’t coallesce and become the subatomic particles we know today.
In fact, it actually took 100,000 years before the universe was cool enough for quarks to stick together. When quarks get really close to each other, they stick together like magnets, but when they contain too much energy, the force of their momentum outweighs the force of their attraction.
Once this finally happened we finally had protons neutrons electrons and still lots of energy to go around. But now, with actual subatomic particles, the universe was able to form the basic elements of helium and hydrogen. Of course this too was a difficult task because the universe had to expand yet further so it would cool enough such that the energy of the protons, neutrons, and electrons was low enough that they would actually combine instead of flying past one another as they had for eons.
This was finally the point that the universe was cool enough that matter began to exist. Once it gathered together into dust clouds as a result of gravity, the universe was finally prepared to give birth to life. Of course many billions of years would be required for stars to form, burn out, and explode the elements of life throughout their respective galaxies.
How could planets near to Neptune operate the way they had been? Astronomers knew there must have been a planet far away from our sun, so when Bouvard constructed the idea and Galle finally spotted the planet, a piece of our solar system’s puzzle fell into place. This gas giant planet takes its blue color the same way as Saturn, from a mix of hydrogen and helium, plus a much smaller dose of helium.
The Near-Miss of a Galilean Discovery
While Galileo has his lion’s share of discoveries, historians note that a few cloudy days in Italy probably stood between him and the discovery of Neptune. In 1613, while observing what he thought was a star close to Jupiter, Galileo saw Neptune and even noted that it moved a bit in relation to nearby stars. Were it not for cloudy Florentine skies on the following nights, the orbit of Neptune would have never been out of the reach of this great astronomer.
What Makes Planet Neptune Tick
Neptune is the furthest planet from the sun, so it does not feel the impact of that star in terms of warmth or ability to support life. Inside Neptune’s core, geologists expect to find many similarities with Earth. Outside, the similarities do not hold. Its color, a spectacular blue, is believed to be the result of the atmosphere’s controlling a red light, along with help from an unknown compound in Neptune’s atmosphere. Still, the similarities in color must be a result of this mix of helium, hydrogen and methane. It’s slushy mixture of gaseous particles, water and ice has also led to its reputation as a blue planet.
Great storms on the planet have been known to generate winds that clock around 1500 mph – the solar system’s most intense. Storms thought to eclipse the size of the Earth in size have been seen firing through the atmosphere around Neptune, traveling at over 700 miles per hour. Needless to say, events of this magnitude would wow any casual observer and captivated NASA scientists when seeing them first while using the Hubble telescope.
An Exploration of Neptune’s Moons
William Lassell, a brewer by trade with a keen interest in astronomy, was the first to identify Triton, the largest moon of Neptune. Further studies of this moon have led to amazing discoveries. Among them is the fact that Neptune and Triton actually move in opposite directions. This style of orbit is unique: no other planet has a moon moving against its planet’s rotation. Could Triton have once been a lesser planet? Evidence would suggest it was, before being pulled in by Neptune’s magnetic field.
In fact, most astronomers believe Triton will eventually crumble at the hands of its planet. Neptune continues to draw the moon nearer to itself, setting up a date with destiny many millions of years from now. Once Neptune gets Triton within its sphere of gravitational pull, it will likely be the end of this frigidly cold moon’s existence.
Until then, Neptune and Triton will continue their unusual system of orbit to the delight of observers everywhere. Though Triton is thought to be the coldest celestial body in our solar system, no one wishes such a fate upon this remarkable moon.