In his 1865 poem “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman describes how listening to the proofs and figures of astronomy leaves him less fulfilled than when he “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.” While TopTenz doesn’t really agree with the idea that facts and figures inherently drain the wondrousness of the universe, we certainly can empathize with the sense of speechless awe while contemplating worlds beyond.
Not a year goes by that Earth’s satellites don’t find a solar system’s worth of planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies that would be dismissed as ridiculous if a science fiction writer invented them. Some are bewildering in their composition, others mind-boggling in their scope, and yet others are milestone discoveries that trivial matters on Earth kept out of the public consciousness. All are worthy of our attention, so do join us in TopTenz’s observatory…
10. The Space Face
The mental habit of seeing patterns in arbitrary arrangements is called pareidolia, and usually it manifests as people seeing faces. Someone wouldn’t need an especially advanced case to see a properly alien visage in this June 2019 photo, courtesy of no less than the Hubble Telescope. It brings to mind some image that would be shown at the end of a new Men in Black film to show how some alien being’s presence is intertwined with the fabric of the universe.
While we don’t know yet if there’s some entity that bears an uncanny coincidental resemblance to this face, the truth is quite awe-inspiring on its own. This is two galaxies colliding, specifically the Arp-Madore 2026-424 System, and they’ve been known since 1987 despite being roughly 700 lightyears from Earth. The blueness that outlines the “face” are new stars that are being exchanged in the collision. Such an intermingling of galaxies is postulated to potentially last 100 million years, which as we’ve seen in other lists is quite fleeting in cosmic terms.
9. The Circumtriple Planet
We’ve heard of binary planets, which orbit two stars. It turns out this is quite common: An estimated 40% of stars are in binary systems. If nothing else, there’s the original Star Wars, which features the iconic setting of two suns. But a planet which orbits three stars? Would such a thing be possible? How could a satellite not spin off into the void with so many competing forces acting on it. Yet the GW Orionis System, located at the head of the Orion Constellation, does just that.
As reported by Jeremy Smallwood of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the first discovered circumtriple planets were found 1,300 lightyears away in 2018. Especially surprisingly, the planets in this triptych are gas planets instead of rocky ones, which you’d think would be more vulnerable to being dissipated by competing forces. It turns out that an abundance of solar winds in the GW Orionis system, which is about two and a half times the size of Pluto’s orbit around the Sun, keeps the gaseous spheres not only intact but orbiting on their merry, unusually complex way.
8. The Winds of Hell Planet
There are plenty of planets which seem unsurvivable by design, as have been described on other lists. K2-141B, by contrast, seems designed to be unvisitable. This planet is five times the mass of Earth, and since it is so close to its star that a circumnavigation of the sun takes only seven Earth hours, most of that mass is lava. “Most” is not an exaggeration, as its molten oceans are estimated to stretch 100 kilometers down.
While two-thirds of the planet’s surface is usually somewhere around 3,000 degrees Celsius, the one-third facing away can plunge into startlingly extreme cold during the brief periods out of the sunlight. Reportedly, it often reaches -200 degrees Celsius. This temperature shock causes not only large chunks of lava to solidify, and thus form fleeting continents, but unimaginably extreme winds. They can supposedly reach 5,000 kilometers-per-hour, which is roughly four times the speed of sound. Any satellite we could hope to drop on it would be covered in metallic frost or vaporized within hours, and become part of the planet’s regular cycle of rocky rain. And speaking of rocky rain, rest assured we’re going to hear plenty more about that in upcoming entries.
7. Atmospheric Bermuda Triangle
So far our entries have all been lightyears away, giving the impression that we have to look far into space to find anything new and amazing from how thoroughly we’ve explored near space. Fact is that we only have to go 124 miles from Earth to discover an energy shadow so mysterious that it’s known as the South Atlantic Anomaly. It stretches from Chile to Zimbabwe. For reasons not yet known, for this patch of the sky, the Van Allen Belt (the magnetic/atmospheric force encircling the globe) is much closer to Earth, and thus satellites orbiting the planet get bombarded by much higher concentrations of radiation, to the point where they’re much more frequently damaged to the point of radio silence.
There is precious little that scientists can do to avoid such a large section of the sky, and a number of satellites just have to take the increased radiation from that treacherous journey as a fact of life, or maybe a fact of half-life. For example, as reported by Space.com, the aforementioned Hubble Telescope moves through there ten times a day, so much that it spends about 15% of its time being microwaved.
Water is often treated as evidence that a planet is potentially habitable, but Gliese 1214B is so dissimilar to Earth in many other ways that the general rules of water don’t seem to apply. It’s similar to K2-141b, in that it’s so close to its sun that it only takes 38 hours for a complete orbit and it’s six times Earth’s mass. However, because it orbits a red dwarf star, it’s a much more manageable temperature, and thus it is covered in a layer of water.
And yet not water as we know it, because the atmospheric pressure and temperature on the planet are both so high that the water is in permanent plasmatic state, and with intense electricity constantly coursing through it. Imagine an entire atmosphere at a level when a bolt of lightning is present to get an idea what we’re talking about. Down on the surface of Gliese 1214b, the superpressure results in crystallization that has been dubbed “hot ice.” Truly there would be water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
5. Gold Rains
No, it’s not just a drink special found at the most fashionable clubs downtown. It’s the bombardment of metal from space that accounts for our rich deposits of precious metals today. See, part of the reason that gold is so rare is that as such a heavy metal, it did not occur very commonly in the sort of natural creation of minerals on Earth. As reported by Livescience.com in October 2020, it was up to chemical reactions in stars, especially neutron stars, to create gold through the supernova process, and send it to planets as meteors.
For evidence of this, scientists have looked not up to the stars, but beneath the ground. In 2017, during an excavation in Deseado Massiff in Argentina, deposits from 70 kilometers were being unearthed in unusually high concentration through volcanic eruptions. Jose Jimenez of the University of Granada reported that this meant the meteors that formed the Earth’s rich gold deposits fell in the largest amounts roughly 200 million years ago.
If you happen to hear that Venus has gold rains, don’t make plans to go prospecting. That’s just pyrite, vaporized on the surface and freezing back into crystals like snowflakes in the upper atmosphere. That means it’s more like fools gold rain, if you will.
4. Diamond Rains
If gold rains from eons past aren’t your thing, how about rains of supercompressed carbon? It turns out the mechanism for this bejeweled weather is reminiscent of the situation on Gliese 1214B: Lightning caused by friction between atmospheric forces breaks down methane gas into lumps of carbon. This isn’t a bunch of insubstantial particulates we’re talking about either, but pebbles often as much as a centimeter (roughly a third of an inch) in diameter.
As reported by Dr. Kevin Baines of the University of Madison-Wisconsin and NASA, an estimated 1,000 tons of diamonds get churched by this process in the gases of Saturn alone. That’s “tons” by Earth standards, since the same rocks would weigh vastly more on Saturn, of course. This is by no means unique to Saturn. Both Uranus and Neptune were speculated to have diamonds, but it seems the chemical composition of Jupiter makes it a uniquely diamond poor planet among the solar system’s gas giants. Not that it has none, they just get broken up again quite rapidly among Jupiter’s fumes.
3. The Cold Spot
If there is anything the universe goes all out on, it’s making gigantic stretches of nothingness. TopTenz previously paid tribute to the Bootes Void and its 330 million lightyears of emptiness, but we’ve since learned that it’s practically a gopher hole compared to one discovered in 2005. This supervoid has been measured to stretch for 1.8 billion lightyears. Not for nothing has it been widely dubbed the “supervoid.” You needn’t worry about ever getting stuck in it, though, as it is three billion lightyears away.
Since it is so deprived of stars and other matter to generate heat through a wealth of chemical processes, it has been found to be a huge contributor to why galaxies on its outer edges are much colder than normal. It’s also worth noting that nature generally abhors the vacuum of the supervoid and the like, with astronomers pointing out that throughout much of the rest of the universe, matter is fairly evenly distributed. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that the supervoid is likely one of the universe’s biggest mysteries.
2. Giant Comet
Comets, as far as we know, usually aren’t that big. Halley’s Comet, for all it’s fame, is a fairly small 9.3 miles wide. Then when the summer of 2021 rolled around, a comet came to humanity’s attention which put all previous ice balls to shame. The Bernardinelli-Bernstein Comet stretches a robust 124 miles wide.
If you’re confused how you didn’t hear about the heavenly body that dwarfs Halley’s, it’s to no small degree because it wasn’t visible in the night’s sky yet. It won’t be visible from Earth by the average person using consumer grade equipment until 2031. Which means if it comes closer to Earth than predicted (as has happened before, such as in October 2021 with the asteroid UA21) it could light the sky well over ten times brighter than any comet has in recorded history.
1. The Moon Cube
Here it is, something much closer to the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey than any of us would have thought possible. On December 3, 2021 the Chinese lunar rover Yutu 2, on its mission to explore the South Pole of the “Dark Side of the Moon” and fresh from discovering such curious moon sights as a moon stalagmites and rocks fused together, photographed a large square boulder. Initially China’s National Space Administration nicknamed it the “mystery hut.” It was taken sufficiently seriously that the rover controllers changed the course. This is no casual trip we’re talking about here. Since the rover has to rely on solar recharges, it will take more than two months before it comes close enough to the object to take a more definitive photo, even though it was estimated to be only 40 miles away from the mystery hut when it took the photo.
At present, the leading theory is that the unusually symmetrical boulder got blown out of the moon’s surface by a meteor impact. Killjoys have speculated that it’s not really very distinctly-shaped at all, it just looks like that because of the camera’s pixelation. Whatever it is, it is part of a mission which has already produced mountains of data which will be invaluable in better understanding Earth’s nearest solar companion.
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