In July of 2010, the History Channel series “The Universe” premiered its episode on the seven wonders of the solar system. Utilizing computer graphics as well as commentary by scientists and historians, the episode included a range of phenomena from across the solar system including planetary bodies, volcanic activity and recently discovered eruptions from the surface of the Sun.
One of the outer moons orbiting the planet Saturn, Enceladus is home to around 30 geysers that erupt from cracks (called “tiger stripes”) on the surface in the South Pole region, shooting liquid water which freezes into ice and snow in a process called “cryovolcanism.” These blasts can reach over a hundred miles into space at speeds of over 1,400 miles per hour. Though there are other ice-covered moons in the solar system, Enceladus is the only one where these geysers have been found. Though they do not know for sure, scientists believe there could be several sources for the liquid water that shoots from the geysers, including an ocean size body of water located within the moon’s core.
Rings of Saturn
There are seven main rings around the planet Saturn, as well as thousands of smaller “ringlets,” all of which are made up of ice and dust particles. The exact origin of these rings is not known, but scientists do have several theories. They think it is possible that they could be comprised of material that never formed a moon, or that it came from a moon or comet that once existed but was crushed by the gravitational pull of the planet when orbiting too closely. Sixty-two moons orbit within Saturn’s rings and cause “mountain ranges” — uneven areas that change constantly as the moons continue their revolutions around the planet. Even though the rings look smooth and even, because of these moons they actually are not.
Great Red Spot
Located on the planet Jupiter, the Great Red Spot is actually an enormous storm that is nearly three times the size of the planet Earth and has been going on for over 400 years. Though the exact origin of the storm is unknown, it is believed that it may have been caused by the merging of several smaller storms that eventually became one giant storm. Unlike the low-pressure systems that move clockwise on Earth, the Great Red Spot storm is a high-pressure system moving counter-clockwise and including winds of up to 400 miles per hour. It is also not known exactly why the storm appears red, but is thought to be caused by gases as well as debris from the planet.
Over 100 million miles of rocks and leftover debris from the formation of the solar system create the Asteroid Belt. Some of these rocks are just 1 to 2 feet across, while others are larger than cities. Though they may appear close together in pictures, these rocks can be millions of miles apart. The dwarf planet Ceres lies within the Asteroid Belt. Unlike other rocks, Ceres had enough mass and gravity to form into a spherical, planet-like shape, which led to its classification as a dwarf planet, like Pluto.
Located on Mars in the Tharsis Montes region, this is the largest volcano in the solar system. The base is 350 miles across and the summit is 13 miles in the air. This makes Olympus Mons several times higher than volcanoes found on Earth and over 100 times their volume. It is believed that three things led to this volcano reaching its giant size — the lack of plate tectonics on Mars, as well as low gravity and lots of volcanic activity. Though it seems as if Mars is geologically “dead,” the age of the marks of lava flows range from 115 million years to only two million years, which is not so long ago from a geological standpoint.
Surface of the Sun
The surface of the Sun, called a “photosphere,” is made up of a constantly moving and erupting ocean of 10,000 degree plasma. Magnetic storms, which cause thunder-like noise disturbances and “eruptive prominences” of plasma, can break free of the Sun’s strong magnetic field and shoot into space. These are eclipsed, however, by Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which are massive bubbles of ionized gas that erupt into space at millions of miles per hour. They can enter the Earth’s atmosphere and cause problems with power grids and satellites, and expose astronauts or travelers in airplanes to high levels of radiation.
The third planet from the Sun, Earth, is the only planet within the solar system with features adequate for sustaining human life, including liquid water, a breathable atmosphere and comfortable temperatures. There is dry land of varied types as well an abundance of liquid water, which is thought to be the key component to the beginnings of life. Though the exact reason there is so much liquid water on Earth is unknown, it is believed to have come from comets or asteroids that crashed into the planet, or from steam emissions coming from volcanic eruptions.