Friday, March 20, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part ten: Other Moons, Other Worlds

I'm waiting on a response to an e-mail before I can finish my follow-up to my last post, I'm trying to track down a specific research study.  It's about the effects of heroin on chimpanzees.  Basically, a mother chimpanzee was put into a room with her child on the other side of a glass partition.  The mother had two buttons:  one of which would dispense a meal-sized portion of food to her child, the other of which would dispense a small amount of heroin into the mother's system.  Here's the catch:  she could only press one of the two buttons at five-minute intervals (or something like that).  I'm guessing you can tell where I'm going with this.

At any rate, if anyone's heard of the study, or has any information that could help me track it down (my Google-fu is weak here), I would greatly appreciate it.  In the meantime, I should probably post some more content, eh?

Which brings me to the next installment in 101 Intersting Things.  I want to mention up front that nearly all the following information (with the exception of some details on Enceladus, and a source for ocean-floor vents as a possibility for the ultimate origin of Earthly life) can be gotten from the video series below - it's actually really well-done, so if you've got an hour to watch it, you should do that.  If you have less time than that, though, then this post is for you!

Neptune's Triton is at -400° F (a mere 33° K), making it the coldest place in the Solar System (aside from empty space in the shadow of a planet, of course).  But Triton's internal heat is enough to melt ice into water, which creates ice volcanoes and nitrogen geysers.  The water volcanoes are neat enough - the environment is so extremely cold that water is able to perform the geological functions of magma - but the nitrogen geysers are truly amazing.  Ten times faster than Earthly geysers, Triton's geysers can create plumes taller than Mount Everest!  Next door, Uranus' Miranda is home to cliffs nearly eight miles high, or eight times the depth of Grand Canyon.

Jupiter's Io is, quite simply, Hell - fire Hell and ice Hell.  Sporting three-hundred some-odd volcanoes, Io produces enough lava to cover every continent on Earth every year.  How?  Jupiter's tidal forces literally tear it apart on the inside, and all that grinding and shifting creates the internal heat to fuel such spectacular vulcanism.  But away from the continuously flowing lava, temperatures drop precipitously, resulting in multicolored sulfurous snow.  The temperature shear where these extremes meet sends plumes of gas up to 250 miles into space.  Even if you managed to get a space-suit that could stand both temperature extremes, you'd still need to worry about the constant radiation bath from Jupiter - radiation strong enough to turn the SO2 gas vented by the volcanoes into giant neon lights, an aurora to rival our own on Earth.  Europa, an ice moon with a liquid interior (also brought to you by Jupiter's tidal forces), is probably the most likely place for us to find extraterrestrial life.  The same tidal forces that liquefy Europa's core also create massive fissures in the surface, some over a thousand miles long, which can propagate at up to three miles an hour - about human walking speed.  The inside of Europa is the largest ocean we know of, more voluminous than all Earthly oceans combined, and so represents one of our most likely shots for finding life off of Earth.  After all, recent research suggests that life on Earth may have started at the bottom of the ocean, clustered around hydrothermic vents, and we have also found living bacteria in ice 20° F below zero.

Phobos, one of Mars' two moons, would be a likely waystation between Earth and the Red Planet - a natural space station for at least the next 11 million years.  It's only about the size of Houston, and shaped vaguely like a potato - it's so irregularly shaped and so close to Mars, that surface gravities vary over 450%.  Humans on Phobos would weigh about as much as mice on Earth, and so could perform some pretty extreme stunts:  pitchers could throw baseballs into orbit, power-lifters could move masses equivalent to a fully-loaded jumbo jet, a gymnast could perform 3,000 revolutions during a 25-minute jump, and a high-jumper could achieve escape velocity if he wasn't too careful (or jump into orbit around Mars, if he was extremely careful).  But be careful not to kick up the three-foot dust layer when you land!  And don't forget to visit the Stickney crater, a seven-mile pock-mark that nearly destroyed Phobos in its formation.

Our moon is also discussed, covering much of the information I discussed in my post on Theia.  It's also incredibly fun to watch astronauts at play, giddy with excitement on the moon.  Gene Cernan himself also makes an appearance for the program, which is pretty damn cool all by itself.

Enceladus shown "next to" Titan - Titan is actually some 1.2 million km (746,000 mi) farther than its vastly smaller sibling satellite. (source)

Tiny Enceladus, with a surface area of only 800,00 km2 (around 309,000 miles2, or 15% larger than Texas), is Saturn's second-smallest spherical satellite - all satellites smaller than it, with the lone exception of Mimas, are irregular in shape.  Also home to ice volcanoes, Enceladus is probably the best site for snowboarding within 7 billion miles of us.  The largest of Saturn's moons, Titan, is home to lakes of liquid natural gas. At one-seventh the gravity of Earth, humans could swim like dolphins, leaping bodily out of the water.  Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system, out-massed only by Jupiter's Ganymede, and larger than the planet Mercury.  It is massive enough to sport an oxygen-free atmosphere so dense that humans could fly through it aided only by strap-on wings - just like in the cartoons.

So check it out!  Enjoy!

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