10 Weirdest Things About The Solar System

The solar system is our home, but that doesn’t mean we know it as well as we should. There are numerous questions concerning the celestial bodies that spend their lifetimes revolving around the Sun. However, some facts are simply astonishing! To get the most bang for our galactic buck, let’s try to boil the list down to the 10 weirdest truths about our celestial neighborhood.

  1. Saturn hexagon.

This is something truly extraordinary, as we all know that nature prefers shapes that maximize symmetry, like spheres. However, this natural persistent phenomenon manifests itself in the form of a hexagon around Saturn’s North Pole. It was first discovered by the Voyager space probes in 1981. Since then, Saturn has become more illuminated by sunlight, enabling us to capture it in more detail. Scientists explain the hexagon as a result of the atmosphere creating a vortex due to the turbulent nature of Saturn’s wind pattern. However, polygon formation has not been observed on Jupiter, nor on Saturn’s South Pole.

saturn-nov27

  1. We live inside the Sun.

When we picture the sun, what comes to mind is a massive ball of light 93 million miles away. However, in reality, its atmosphere extends outwards far beyond its surface. The Southern and Northern lights that we see on Earth are proof that we orbit inside the Sun’s atmosphere. Auroras have been observed on planets as far away as Neptune. The outer solar atmosphere is thought to extend to about 10 billion miles – more than twice the distance between the Sun and Pluto!

Northern Lights

  1. Iapetus: The mysterious moon of Saturn.

One of Saturn’s moons, Iapetus, was discovered in 1671, but more recent discoveries about the moon have been baffling astronomers all over the world. Iapetus is the third-largest natural satellite of Saturn, but it raises the most questions. Firstly, one side of this moon is darker than the other, and the color difference is striking. This is mainly attributed to the fact that its orbit around Saturn allows one of its hemisphere to be more illuminated than the other.

Color_hemispheres_map_of_Iapetus_PIA18436_Nov._2014 Secondly, it is the only body in the Solar System that is not in hydrostatic equilibrium. This means that its shape is non-spherical, and not just because of irregularities in its thin crust. Iapetus peaks at its equator by a height of about 20km above the surrounding plains. This ridge gives it a unique shape, so Iapetus actually resembles a walnut more than a moon.

Iapetus_equatorial_ridge

Close up of the Equatorial ridge

  1. Mercury is colder than Venus.

As we all know, Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and therefore, logically, it should be the hottest one, but that’s actually incorrect. Although Venus is twice as far away from the Sun as compared to Mercury, it is still the hottest planet. This is because of something with which we are all quite familiar – the ‘Greenhouse effect’. Mercury’s atmosphere is insignificant, so most of the heat from the Sun is reflected back into space by its surface, whereas the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere of Venus traps heat and the planet’s temperature rises over time.

  1. Venus rotates in the opposite direction.

Most planets rotate on their axes in a counterclockwise direction, but Venus rotates clockwise at the slowest rotational speed of all the planets. Because its rotation is so slow, Venus is very close to being a perfect sphere. One Venusian year is only twice as long as one Venusian day.

  1. Saturn can float on water

This is more like a weird fact than a mystery, but it’s still quite surprising to know that something as large as a planet would be able to float on water. Contrary to what most people think, the ability of a body to float on water does not depend on its weight, but rather on its density.  If something is denser than water, then it will sink, and otherwise it will float. The average density of Saturn is less than that of water, thus making it possible for it to float on water. However, we would need a swimming pool 1300 times the volume of the Earth to test this interesting fact in person.

  1. Ceres has more water than Earth

Ceres is a minor planet and the largest object in the asteroid belt. It is also the thirty-third largest object in the Solar System and is, interestingly enough, composed of ice and rock. Due to its sheer gravitational power, it is the only object in the asteroid belt that is rounded by its own gravity. While all this is pretty unique for a minor planet, the fact that helps it outshine its brethren is that the minor planet might have a remnant internal ocean of liquid water under a layer of ice. This liquid ocean would be so vast that the total volume might be larger than all of the Earth’s freshwater reserves. Scientists widely speculate about the possibility of finding life in such an environment, since all of the known organic life on Earth require two things, water and heat, both of which are readily available near Ceres’ core.

Ceres-3

Heavily cratered surface of Ceres

  1. Pluto moon Charon.

Although Pluto enjoyed the status of being a planet for almost 75 years, very little is known about it. Pluto’s orbit is so huge that it still hasn’t completed a single revolution around the Sun since being discovered in 1930. Still more interesting is that it has five satellites, the largest of which is Charon. Scientists were surprised to discover, in 1978, a moon with almost half as large a diameter as its parent planet. Charon is quite huge, as far as moons are concerned. Its gravitational influence is such that the center of its orbit around Pluto lies outside Pluto itself!

Barycenter-color-NASA

Out of center orbit of Charon

  1. Uranus rotates on its side.

All of the planets in the Solar System have their axis of rotation more-or-less pointing up except Uranus. Uranus has a strange axis of rotation, with a tilt of 98 degrees. This means that days on Uranus last almost as long as seasons, with either the North or the South Pole always pointed towards the Sun. Some scientists believe that Uranus’ tilt can be attributed to a cosmic hit and run. Other scientists explain it as a result of the transfer of momentum due to the gravitational influence of Saturn and Jupiter.

uranus-rings-sideways-multiple-impacts-620

10.The Solar System is bigger than you think.

So, as we’ve learned, the atmosphere of the Sun extends beyond Pluto, but you might be surprised to discover that this isn’t where the Solar System ends. If the Solar System is imagined as the size of our body, then the Sun would be the size of  a single white-blood cell. Mercury is only 0.39 astronomical units from the Sun, while Jupiter orbits at a distance of 5.5 astronomical units. Pluto is way out there at 39.2 astronomical units. That’s the equivalent of 5.9 billion kilometers. In the furthest reaches of the Solar System is the Oort Cloud, a theorized cloud of icy objects that might orbit the Sun at a distance of 100,000 astronomical units – roughly 1.87 light-years away. The Oort cloud marks the boundary of our own ‘solar’ neighborhood.

solar-system-

References:

  1. Saturn’s Hexagon – Wikipedia
  2. NASA
  3. Mystery of Saturn’s Walnut Moon Cracked? – Space.com
  4. Why Is Venus Hotter Than Mercury If Mercury Is Closer To The Sun? – University of California, Santa Barbara Science Line
  5. Planet Uranus Got Sideways Tilt From Multiple Impacts – Space.com
  6. Charon (Moon) – Wikipedia
  7. Largest Asteroid Might Contain More Fresh Water than Earth – Space.com
  8. Scientific American
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About the Author:

Harsh Gupta graduated from IIT Bombay, India with a Bachelors degree in Chemical Engineering. His pedantic and ‘know-it-all’ nature made it impossible for him not to spread knowledge about (hopefully) interesting topics. He likes movies, music and does not shy away from talking and writing about that too.

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