Solar Eclipses Provide a Rare Way to Study Cloud Formation

Types of solar eclipses. Credits (left to right): Hinode/XRT, NASA/Aubrey Gemignani, NASA/Noah Moran.

April 8’s North American solar eclipse is just around the corner, and it has astronomy fans and weather aficionados alike preparing for an incredible show. But it’s not just fun and games. Eclipses are rare opportunities for scientists to study phenomena that only come around once in a while.

Last week, a team of meteorological experts from the Netherlands released a paper describing how eclipses can disrupt the formation of certain types of clouds. Their findings have implications for futuristic geoengineering schemes that propose to artificially block sunlight to combat climate change.

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A new way to Discover Planets? Astronomers Detect an Exoplanet by Seeing its Trojan Belts

Artist view of a planet and protoplanetary disk around a young star. Credit: M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

Although we have found thousands of exoplanets in recent years, we really only have three methods of finding them. The first is to observe a star dimming slightly as a planet passes in front of it (transit method). The second is to measure the wobble of a star as an orbiting planet gives it a gravitational tug (Doppler method). The third is to observe the exoplanet directly. Now a new study in the Astrophysical Journal Letters has a fourth method.

Continue reading “A new way to Discover Planets? Astronomers Detect an Exoplanet by Seeing its Trojan Belts”

Astronomers Finally Find a Second Asteroid in Earth’s Trojan Belt

Using the 4.1-meter SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research) Telescope on Cerro Pachón in Chile, astronomers have confirmed that an asteroid discovered in 2020 by the Pan-STARRS1 survey, called 2020 XL5, is an Earth Trojan (an Earth companion following the same path around the Sun as Earth does) and revealed that it is much larger than the only other Earth Trojan known. In this illustration, the asteroid is shown in the foreground in the lower left. The two bright points above it on the far left are Earth (right) and the Moon (left). The Sun appears on the right. 

Earth has a new companion. Asteroid 2020 XL5, a newly discovered kilometer-wide carbonaceous space rock, has been discovered at Earth’s L4 Lagrange point – a place where the gravitational forces of Earth and the Sun balance out, creating a stable point in which objects can become trapped. A new paper published this week in Nature Communications confirms that 2020 XL5 will be stuck at L4 for at least another 4000 years, shepherded silently through the Solar System by the gravitational tug of our home planet.

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Mars’ Trojans Show Remains Of Ancient Planetoid

A new study led by researchers from OU indicates that the outer planets could be why Mars is significantly smaller than Earth. Credit: NASA

Trojan asteroids are a fascinating thing. Whereas the most widely known are those that orbit Jupiter (around its L4 and L5 Lagrange Points), Venus, Earth, Mars, Uranus and Neptune have populations of these asteroids as well. Naturally, these rocky objects are a focal point for a lot of scientific research, since they can tell us much about the formation and early history of the Solar System.

And now, thanks to an international team of astronomers, it has been determined that the Trojan asteroids that orbit Mars are likely the remains of a mini-planet that was destroyed by a collision billions of years ago. Their findings are detailed in a paper that will be published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society later this month.

For the sake of their study, the team – which was led by Galin Borisov and Apostolos Christou of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium in Northern Ireland, examined the composition of Marian Trojans. This consisted of using spectral data obtained by the XSHOOTER spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and photometric data from the National Astronomical Observatory‘s two-meter telescope, and the William Herschel Telescope.

Diagram of Jupiter and the inner Solar System, showing the Jupiter and Martian Trojans (light green) and the Main Belt (teal). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/AndrewBuck

Specifically, they examined two members of the Eureka family – a group of Martian Trojans located at the planet’s L5 point. It is here that eight of Mars’ nine known Trojans exist in stable orbits (the other being at L4), and which are named after the first Martian Trojan ever discovered – 5261 Eureka. Like all Trojans, the Eurekas are thought to have orbited Mars ever since the formation of the Solar System.

In fact, astronomers have suspected for some time that the Martian Trojans could be the survivors of an early generation of planetesimals from which the inner Solar System formed. As Dr. Christou told Universe Today via email:

“[The Trojan family] is unique in the Solar System, in more ways than one. Unlike every other family that exists in the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, it is made up of olivine-rich asteroids. Also, the asteroids are < 2km across, much smaller than we can see at other families, basically because they are much closer to the Earth than other asteroids. Finally, it is the closest family we know to the Sun, and this has implications on how it formed in that the tiny but continuous action of sunlight may have played a role.”

After combining spectrographic and photometric data on these asteroids, the team found that they were rich in the mineral olivine – a magnesium iron silicate that is a primary component of the Earth’s mantle and (it is believed) other terrestrial planets. This was unusual find as far as asteroids go, but it was even more interesting when compared to 5261 Eureka itself – which also has an olivine-rich composition.

The first X-ray view of Martian soil by Curiosity rover at the “Rocknest” (October 17, 2012),  showing traces of feldspar, pyroxenes, and olivine. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames

Given that the Eureka asteroids also have similar orbits, the team concluded that every member of this family is likely to have a common composition – and hence, a common origin. These findings could have drastic implications for both the origin of Martian Trojans, and the origin of the inner Solar System. As Dr. Christou explained:

“The presence of asteroids with exposed olivine on their surfaces constrains the sequence of events that led to Mars’ formation. Olivine forms within objects that grew large enough to differentiate into a crust, mantle and core. Therefore, these objects must have formed before Mars did and were available to participate in Mars’ formation. To expose the olivine, it is necessary to break these objects up through collisions. Our ongoing work indicates that this is unlikely to have happened after the Solar System settled down in its current configuration, therefore there must have been period of intense collisional evolution during the planet formation process.”

In other words, if Mars formed from several types of material that was mixed together, these asteroids would be samples of the original source – i.e. planetesimals. By examining these asteroids further, scientists will be able to learn more about the process through which Mars came to be and (as Christou says) help us “unscramble the Martian omelette.”

This research is also likely to reveal much about the formation of Earth and the other terrestrial planets of the Solar System. Similar efforts will be made with NASA’s upcoming Lucy mission, which is scheduled to launch in October of 2021. Between 2027 and 2033, this probe will study Jupiter’s Trojan population, obtaining information on six of the asteroid’s geology, surface features, compositions, masses and densities to learn more about their origins.

Further Reading: MNRAS, Armagh Observatory

Colonizing the Inner Solar System

Colonizing The Inner Solar System
Colonizing The Inner Solar System

Science fiction has told us again and again, we belong out there, among the stars. But before we can build that vast galactic empire, we’ve got to learn how to just survive in space. Fortunately, we happen to live in a Solar System with many worlds, large and small that we can use to become a spacefaring civilization.

This is half of an epic two-part article that I’m doing with Isaac Arthur, who runs an amazing YouTube channel all about futurism, often about the exploration and colonization of space. Make sure you subscribe to his channel.

This article is about colonizing the inner Solar System, from tiny Mercury, the smallest planet, out to Mars, the focus of so much attention by Elon Musk and SpaceX.  In the other article, Isaac will talk about what it’ll take to colonize the outer Solar System, and harness its icy riches. You can read these articles in either order, just read them both.

At the time I’m writing this, humanity’s colonization efforts of the Solar System are purely on Earth. We’ve exploited every part of the planet, from the South Pole to the North, from huge continents to the smallest islands. There are few places we haven’t fully colonized yet, and we’ll get to that.

But when it comes to space, we’ve only taken the shortest, most tentative steps. There have been a few temporarily inhabited space stations, like Mir, Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong Stations.

Our first and only true colonization of space is the International Space Station, built in collaboration with NASA, ESA, the Russian Space Agency and other countries. It has been permanently inhabited since November 2nd, 2000.  Needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, an Expedition 24 flight engineer in 2010, took a moment during her space station mission to enjoy an unmatched view of home through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station, the brilliant blue and white part of Earth glowing against the blackness of space. Credits: NASA

Before we talk about the places and ways humans could colonize the rest of the Solar System, it’s important to talk about what it takes to get from place to place.

Just to get from the surface of Earth into orbit around our planet, you need to be going about 10 km/s sideways. This is orbit, and the only way we can do it today is with rockets. Once you’ve gotten into Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, you can use more propellant to get to other worlds.

If you want to travel to Mars, you’ll need an additional 3.6 km/s in velocity to escape Earth gravity and travel to the Red Planet. If you want to go to Mercury, you’ll need another 5.5 km/s.

And if you wanted to escape the Solar System entirely, you’d need another 8.8 km/s. We’re always going to want a bigger rocket.

The most efficient way to transfer from world to world is via the Hohmann Transfer. This is where you raise your orbit and drift out until you cross paths with your destination. Then you need to slow down, somehow, to go into orbit.

One of our primary goals of exploring and colonizing the Solar System will be to gather together the resources that will make future colonization and travel easier. We need water for drinking, and to split it apart for oxygen to breathe. We can also turn this water into rocket fuel. Unfortunately, in the inner Solar System, water is a tough resource to get and will be highly valued.

We need solid ground. To build our bases, to mine our resources, to grow our food, and to protect us from the dangers of space radiation. The more gravity we can get the better, since low gravity softens our bones, weakens our muscles, and harms us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Each world and place we colonize will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s be honest, Earth is the best place in the Solar System, it’s got everything we could ever want and need. Everywhere else is going to be brutally difficult to colonize and make self-sustaining.

We do have one huge advantage, though. Earth is still here, we can return whenever we like. The discoveries made on our home planet will continue to be useful to humanity in space through communications, and even 3D printing. Once manufacturing is sophisticated enough, a discovery made on one world could be mass produced half a solar system away with the right raw ingredients.

We will learn how to make what we need, wherever we are, and how to transport it from place to place, just like we’ve always done.

Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun, and one of the most difficult places that we might attempt the colonize. Because it’s so close to the Sun, it receives an enormous amount of energy. During the day, temperatures can reach 427 C, but without an atmosphere to trap the heat, night time temperatures dip down to -173 C. There’s essentially no atmosphere, 38% the gravity of Earth, and a single solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days.

Mercury does have some advantages, though. It has an average density almost as high as Earth, but because of its smaller size, it actually means it has a higher percentage of metal than Earth. Mercury will be incredibly rich in metals and minerals that future colonists will need across the Solar System.

With the lower gravity and no atmosphere, it’ll be far easier to get that material up into orbit and into transfer trajectories to other worlds.

But with the punishing conditions on the planet, how can we live there? Although the surface of Mercury is either scorching or freezing, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned up regions of the planet which are in eternal shadow near the poles. In fact, these areas seem to have water ice, which is amazing for anywhere this close to the Sun.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

You could imagine future habitats huddled into those craters, pulling in solar power from just over the crater rim, using the reservoirs of water ice for air, fuel and water.

High powered solar robots could scour the surface of Mercury, gathering rare metals and other minerals to be sent off world. Because it’s bathed in the solar winds, Mercury will have large deposits of Helium-3, useful for future fusion reactors.

Over time, more and more of the raw materials of Mercury will find their way to the resource hungry colonies spread across the Solar System.

It also appears there are lava tubes scattered across Mercury, hollows carved out by lava flows millions of years ago. With work, these could be turned into safe, underground habitats, protected from the radiation, high temperatures and hard vacuum on the surface.

With enough engineering ability, future colonists will be able to create habitats on the surface, wherever they like, using a mushroom-shaped heat shield to protect a colony built on stilts to keep it off the sun-baked surface.

Mercury is smaller than Mars, but is a good deal denser, so it has about the same gravity, 38% of Earth’s. Now that might turn out to be just fine, but if we need more, we have the option of using centrifugal force to increase it. Space Stations can generate artificial gravity by spinning, but you can combine normal gravity with spin-gravity to create a stronger field than either would have.

So our mushroom habitat’s stalk could have an interior spinning section with higher gravity for those living inside it. You get a big mirror over it, shielding you from solar radiation and heat, you have stilts holding it off the ground, like roots, that minimize heat transfer from the warmer areas of ground outside the shield, and if you need it you have got a spinning section inside the stalk. A mushroom habitat.

Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Some exoplanets may suffer the same fate as this scorched world. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Venus as photographed by the Pioneer spacecraft in 1978. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and it’s the evil twin of Earth. Even though it has roughly the same size, mass and surface gravity of our planet, it’s way too close to the Sun. The thick atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the intense heat, pushing temperatures at the surface to 462 C.

Everywhere on the planet is 462 C, so there’s no place to go that’s cooler. The pure carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth, which is equivalent to being a kilometer beneath the ocean on Earth.

In the beginning, colonizing the surface of Venus defies our ability. How do you survive and stay cool in a thick poisonous atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead? You get above it.

One of the most amazing qualities of Venus is that if you get into the high atmosphere, about 52.5 kilometers up, the air pressure and temperature are similar to Earth. Assuming you can get above the poisonous clouds of sulphuric acid, you could walk outside a floating colony in regular clothes, without a pressure suit. You’d need a source of breathable air, though.

Even better, breathable air is a lifting gas in the cloud tops of Venus. You could imagine a future colony, filled with breathable air, floating around Venus. Because the gravity on Venus is roughly the same as Earth, humans wouldn’t suffer any of the side effects of microgravity. In fact, it might be the only place in the entire Solar System other than Earth where we don’t need to account for low gravity.

Artist's concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center
Artist’s concept of a Venus cloud city — a possible future outcome of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) plan. Credit: Advanced Concepts Lab at NASA Langley Research Center

Now the day on Venus is incredibly long, 243 earth days, so if you stay over the same place the whole time it would be light for four months then dark for four months. Not ideal for solar power on a first glance, but Venus turns so slowly that even at the equator you could stay ahead of the sunset at a fast walk.

So if you have floating colonies it would take very little effort to stay constantly on the light side or dark side or near the twilight zone of the terminator. You are essentially living inside a blimp, so it may as well be mobile. And on the day side it would only take a few solar panels and some propellers to stay ahead. And since it is so close to the Sun, there’s plenty of solar power. What could you do with it?

The atmosphere itself would probably serve as a source of raw materials. Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We’ll need it for food and building materials in space. Floating factories could process the thick atmosphere of Venus, to extract carbon, oxygen, and other elements.

Heat resistant robots could be lowered down to the surface to gather minerals and then retrieved before they’re cooked to death.

Venus does have a high gravity, so launching rockets up into space back out of Venus’ gravity well will be expensive.

Over longer periods of time, future colonists might construct large solar shades to shield themselves from the scorching heat, and eventually, even start cooling the planet itself.

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA
Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft. Credits: NASA

The next planet from the Sun is Earth, the best planet in the Solar System. One of the biggest advantages of our colonization efforts will be to get heavy industry off our planet and into space. Why pollute our atmosphere and rivers when there’s so much more space… in space.

Over time, more and more of the resource gathering will happen off world, with orbital power generation, asteroid mining, and zero gravity manufacturing. Earth’s huge gravity well means that it’s best to bring materials down to Earth, not carry them up to space.

However, the normal gravity, atmosphere and established industry of Earth will allow us to manufacture the lighter high tech goods that the rest of the Solar System will need for their own colonization efforts.

But we haven’t completely colonized Earth itself. Although we’ve spread across the land, we know very little about the deep ocean. Future colonies under the oceans will help us learn more about self-sufficient colonies, in extreme environments. The oceans on Earth will be similar to the oceans on Europa or Enceladus, and the lessons we learn here will teach us to live out there.

As we return to space, we’ll colonize the region around our planet. We’ll construct bigger orbital colonies in Low Earth Orbit, building on our lessons from the International Space Station.

One of the biggest steps we need to take, is understanding how to overcome the debilitating effects of microgravity: the softened bones, weakened muscles and more. We need to perfect techniques for generating artificial gravity where there is none.

A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA
A 1969 station concept. The station was to rotate on its central axis to produce artificial gravity. The majority of early space station concepts created artificial gravity one way or another in order to simulate a more natural or familiar environment for the health of the astronauts. Credit: NASA

The best technique we have is rotating spacecraft to generate artificial gravity. Just like we saw in 2001, and The Martian, by rotating all or a portion of a spacecraft, you can generated an outward centrifugal force that mimics the acceleration of gravity. The larger the radius of the space station, the more comfortable and natural the rotation feels.

Low Earth Orbit also keeps a space station within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, limiting the amount of harmful radiation that future space colonists will experience.

Other orbits are useful too, including geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here spacecraft orbit the Earth at exactly the same rate as the rotation of Earth, which means that stations appear in fixed positions above our planet, useful for communication.

Geostationary orbit is higher up in Earth’s gravity well, which means these stations will serve a low-velocity jumping off points to reach other places in the Solar System. They’re also outside the Earth’s atmospheric drag, and don’t require any orbital boosting to keep them in place.

By perfecting orbital colonies around Earth, we’ll develop technologies for surviving in deep space, anywhere in the Solar System. The same general technology will work anywhere, whether we’re in orbit around the Moon, or out past Pluto.

When the technology is advanced enough, we might learn to build space elevators to carry material and up down from Earth’s gravity well. We could also build launch loops, electromagnetic railguns that launch material into space. These launch systems would also be able to loft supplies into transfer trajectories from world to world throughout the Solar System.

Earth orbit, close to the homeworld gives us the perfect place to develop and perfect the technologies we need to become a true spacefaring civilization. Not only that, but we’ve got the Moon.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

The Moon, of course, is the Earth’s only natural satellite, which orbits us at an average distance of about 400,000 kilometers. Almost ten times further than geostationary orbit.

The Moon takes a surprising amount of velocity to reach from Low Earth Orbit. It’s close, but expensive to reach, thrust speaking.

But that fact that it’s close makes the Moon an ideal place to colonize. It’s close to Earth, but it’s not Earth. It’s airless, bathed in harmful radiation and has very low gravity. It’s the place that humanity will learn to survive in the harsh environment of space.

But it still does have some resources we can exploit. The lunar regolith, the pulverized rocky surface of the Moon, can be used as concrete to make structures. Spacecraft have identified large deposits of water at the Moon’s poles, in its permanently shadowed craters. As with Mercury, these would make ideal locations for colonies.

Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA's Johnson Space Center
Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Our spacecraft have also captured images of openings to underground lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. Some of these could be gigantic, even kilometers high. You could fit massive cities inside some of these lava tubes, with room to spare.

Helium-3 from the Sun rains down on the surface of the Moon, deposited by the Sun’s solar wind, which could be mined from the surface and provide a source of fuel for lunar fusion reactors. This abundance of helium could be exported to other places in the Solar System.

The far side of the Moon is permanently shadowed from Earth-based radio signals, and would make an ideal location for a giant radio observatory. Telescopes of massive size could be built in the much lower lunar gravity.

We talked briefly about an Earth-based space elevator, but an elevator on the Moon makes even more sense. With the lower gravity, you can lift material off the surface and into lunar orbit using cables made of materials we can manufacture today, such as Zylon or Kevlar.

One of the greatest threats on the Moon is the dusty regolith itself. Without any kind of weathering on the surface, these dust particles are razor sharp, and they get into everything. Lunar colonists will need very strict protocols to keep the lunar dust out of their machinery, and especially out of their lungs and eyes, otherwise it could cause permanent damage.

Artist's impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA
Artist’s impression of a Near-Earth Asteroid passing by Earth. Credit: ESA

Although the vast majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located in the main asteroid belt, there are still many asteroids orbiting closer to Earth. These are known as the Near Earth Asteroids, and they’ve been the cause of many of Earth’s great extinction events.

These asteroids are dangerous to our planet, but they’re also an incredible resource, located close to our homeworld.

The amount of velocity it takes to get to some of these asteroids is very low, which means travel to and from these asteroids takes little energy. Their low gravity means that extracting resources from their surface won’t take a tremendous amount of energy.

And once the orbits of these asteroids are fully understood, future colonists will be able to change the orbits using thrusters. In fact, the same system they use to launch minerals off the surface would also push the asteroids into safer orbits.

These asteroids could be hollowed out, and set rotating to provide artificial gravity. Then they could be slowly moved into safe, useful orbits, to act as space stations, resupply points, and permanent colonies.

There are also gravitationally stable points at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrange Points. These asteroid colonies could be parked there, giving us more locations to live in the Solar System.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The future of humanity will include the colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. On the surface, Mars has a lot going for it. A day on Mars is only a little longer than a day on Earth. It receives sunlight, unfiltered through the thin Martian atmosphere. There are deposits of water ice at the poles, and under the surface across the planet.

Martian ice will be precious, harvested from the planet and used for breathable air, rocket fuel and water for the colonists to drink and grow their food. The Martian regolith can be used to grow food. It does have have toxic perchlorates in it, but that can just be washed out.

The lower gravity on Mars makes it another ideal place for a space elevator, ferrying goods up and down from the surface of the planet.

The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA
The area depicted is Noctis Labyrinthus in the Valles Marineris system of enormous canyons. The scene is just after sunrise, and on the canyon floor four miles below, early morning clouds can be seen. The frost on the surface will melt very quickly as the Sun climbs higher in the Martian sky. Credit: NASA

Unlike the Moon, Mars has a weathered surface. Although the planet’s red dust will get everywhere, it won’t be toxic and dangerous as it is on the Moon.

Like the Moon, Mars has lava tubes, and these could be used as pre-dug colony sites, where human Martians can live underground, protected from the hostile environment.

Mars has two big problems that must be overcome. First, the gravity on Mars is only a third that of Earth’s, and we don’t know the long term impact of this on the human body. It might be that humans just can’t mature properly in the womb in low gravity.

Researchers have proposed that Mars colonists might need to spend large parts of their day on rotating centrifuges, to simulate Earth gravity. Or maybe humans will only be allowed to spend a few years on the surface of Mars before they have to return to a high gravity environment.

The second big challenge is the radiation from the Sun and interstellar cosmic rays. Without a protective magnetosphere, Martian colonists will be vulnerable to a much higher dose of radiation. But then, this is the same challenge that colonists will face anywhere in the entire Solar System.

That radiation will cause an increased risk of cancer, and could cause mental health issues, with dementia-like symptoms. The best solution for dealing with radiation is to block it with rock, soil or water. And Martian colonists, like all Solar System colonists will need to spend much of their lives underground or in tunnels carved out of rock.

Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. The explorers have descended to the surface of Phobos in a small "excursion" vehicle, and they are navigating with the aid of a personal spacecraft, which fires a line into the soil to anchor the unit. The astronaut on the right is examining a large boulder; if the boulder weighed 1,000 pounds on Earth, it would weigh a mere pound in the nearly absent gravity field of Phobos. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)
Two astronauts explore the rugged surface of Phobos. Mars, as it would appear to the human eye from Phobos, looms on the horizon. The mother ship, powered by solar energy, orbits Mars while two crew members inside remotely operate rovers on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

In addition to Mars itself, the Red Planet has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These will serve as ideal places for small colonies. They’ll have the same low gravity as asteroid colonies, but they’ll be just above the gravity well of Mars. Ferries will travel to and from the Martian moons, delivering fresh supplies and sending Martian goods out to the rest of the Solar System.

We’re not certain yet, but there are good indicators these moons might have ice inside them, if so that is an excellent source of fuel and could make initial trips to Mars much easier by allowing us to send a first expedition to those moons, who then begin producing fuel to be used to land on Mars and to leave Mars and return home.

According to Elon Musk, if a Martian colony can reach a million inhabitants, it’ll be self-sufficient from Earth or any other world. At that point, we would have a true, Solar System civilization.

Now, continue on to the other half of this article, written by Isaac Arthur, where he talks about what it will take to colonize the outer Solar System. Where water ice is plentiful but solar power is feeble. Where travel times and energy require new technologies and techniques to survive and thrive.

Colonizing the Outer Solar System

Colonizing The Outer Solar System
Colonizing The Outer Solar System

Okay, so this article is Colonizing the Outer Solar System, and is actually part 2 of our team up with Fraser Cain of Universe Today, who looked at colonizing the inner solar system. You might want jump over there now and watch that part first, if you are coming in from having seen part 1, welcome, it is great having you here.

Without further ado let us get started. There is no official demarcation between the inner and outer solar system but for today we will be beginning the outer solar system at the Asteroid Belt.

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

The Asteroid Belt is always of interest to us for colonization. We have talked about mining them before if you want the details on that but for today I’ll just remind everyone that there are very rich in metals, including precious metals like gold and platinum, and that provides all the motivation we need to colonize them. We have a lot of places to cover so we won’t repeat the details on that today.

You cannot terraform asteroids the way you could Venus or Mars so that you could walk around on them like Earth, but in every respect they have a lot going for them as a candidate. They’ve got plenty for rock and metal for construction, they have lots of the basic organic elements, and they even have some water. They also get a decent amount of sunlight, less than Mars let alone Earth, but still enough for use as a power source and to grow plants.

But they don’t have much gravity, which – pardon the pun – has its ups and downs. There just isn’t much mass in the Belt. The entire thing has only a small fraction of the mass of our moon, and over half of that is in the four biggest asteroids, essentially dwarf planets in their own right. The remainder is scattered over millions of asteroids. Even the biggest, Ceres, is only about 1% of 1% of Earth’s mass, has a surface gravity of 3% Earth-normal, and an escape velocity low enough most model rockets could get into orbit. And again, it is the biggest, most you could get away from by jumping hard and if you dropped an object on one it might take a few minutes to land.

Don't blink... an artist's conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.
Don’t blink… an artist’s conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.

You can still terraform one though, by definition too. The gentleman who coined the term, science fiction author Jack Williamson, who also coined the term genetic engineering, used it for a smaller asteroid just a few kilometers across, so any definition of terraforming has to include tiny asteroids too.

Of course in that story it’s like a small planet because they had artificial gravity, we don’t, if we want to fake gravity without having mass we need to spin stuff around. So if we want to terraform an asteroid we need to hollow it out and fill it with air and spin it around.

Of course you do not actually hollow out the asteroid and spin it, asteroids are loose balls of gravel and most would fly apart given any noticeable spin. Instead you would hollow it out and set a cylinder spinning inside it. Sort of like how a good thermos has an outside container and inside one with a layer of vacuum in between, we would spin the inner cylinder.

You wouldn’t have to work hard to hollow out an asteroid either, most aren’t big enough to have sufficient gravity and pressure to crush an empty beer can even at their center. So you can pull matter out from them very easily and shore up the sides with very thin metal walls or even ice. Or just have your cylinder set inside a second non-spinning outer skin or superstructure, like your washer or dryer.

You can then conduct your mining from the inside, shielded from space. You could ever pressurize that hollowed out area if your spinning living area was inside its own superstructure. No gravity, but warmth and air, and you could get away with just a little spin without tearing it apart, maybe enough for plants to grow to normally.

It should be noted that you can potentially colonize even the gas giants themselves, even though our focus today is mostly on their moons. That requires a lot more effort and technology then the sorts of colonies we are discussing today, Fraser and I decided to keep things near-future and fairly low tech, though he actually did an article on colonizing Jupiter itself last year that was my main source material back before got to talking and decided to do a video together.

Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach
Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach

Hydrogen is plentiful on Jupiter itself and floating refineries or ships that fly down to scoop it up might be quite useful, but again today we are more interested in its moons. The biggest problem with colonizing the moons of Jupiter is all the radiation the planet gives off.

Europa is best known as a place where the surface is covered with ice but beneath it is thought to be a vast subsurface ocean. It is the sixth largest moon coming right behind our own at number five and is one of the original four moons Galileo discovered back in 1610, almost two centuries before we even discovered Uranus, so it has always been a source of interest. However as we have discovered more planets and moons we have come to believe quite a few of them might also have subsurface oceans too.

Now what is neat about them is that water, liquid water, always leaves the door open to the possibility of life already existing there. We still know so little about how life originally evolved and what conditions permit that to occur that we cannot rule out places like Europa already having their own plants and animals swimming around under that ice.

They probably do not and obviously we wouldn’t want to colonize them, beyond research bases, if they did, but if they do not they become excellent places to colonize. You could have submarine cities in such places floating around in the sea or those buried in the surface ice layer, well shielded from radiation and debris. The water also geysers up to the surface in some places so you can start off near those, you don’t have to drill down through kilometers of ice on day one.

Water, and hydrogen, are also quite uncommon in the inner solar system so having access to a place like Europa where the escape velocity is only about a fifth of our own is quite handy for export. Now as we move on to talk about moons a lot it is important to note that when I say something has a fifth of the escape velocity of Earth that doesn’t mean it is fives time easier to get off of. Energy rises with the square of velocity so if you need to go five times faster you need to spend 5-squared or 25 times more energy, and even more if that place has tons of air creating friction and drag, atmospheres are hard to claw your way up through though they make landing easier too. But even ignoring air friction you can move 25 liters of water off of Europa for every liter you could export from Earth and even it is a very high in gravity compared to most moons and comets. Plus we probably don’t want to export lots of water, or anything else, off of Earth anyway.

Artist's concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA

We should start by noting two things. First, the Asteroid Belt is not the only place you find asteroids, Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids are nearly as numerous, and every planet, including Earth, has an equivalent to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids at its own Lagrange Points with the Sun. Though just as Jupiter dwarfs all the other planets so to does its collection of Lagrangian objects. They can quite big too, the largest 624 Hektor, is 400 km across, and has a size and shape similar to Pennsylvania.

And as these asteroids are at stable Lagrange Points, they orbit with Jupiter but always ahead and behind it, making transit to and from Jupiter much easier and making good waypoints.

Before we go out any further in the solar system we should probably address how you get the energy to stay alive. Mars is already quite cold compared to Earth, and the Asteroids and Jupiter even more so, but with thick insulation and some mirrors to bounce light in you can do fairly decently. Indeed, sunlight out by Jupiter is already down to just 4% of what Earth gets, meaning at Jovian distances it is about 50 W/m²

That might not sound like much but it is actually almost a third of what average illumination is on Earth, when you factor in atmospheric reflection, cloudy days, nighttime, and higher, colder latitudes. It is also a good deal brighter than the inside of most well-lit buildings, and is enough for decently robust photosynthesis to grow food. Especially with supplemental light from mirrors or LED growth lamps.

But once you get out to Saturn and further that becomes increasingly impractical and a serious issue, because while food growth does not show up on your electric bill it is what we use virtually all our energy for. Closer in to the sun we can use solar panels for power and we do not need any power to grow food. As we get further out we cannot use solar and we need to heat or cold habitats and supply lighting for food, so we need a lot more power even as our main source dries up.

So what are our options? Well the first is simple, build bigger mirrors. A mirror can be quite large and paper thin after all. Alternatively we can build those mirrors far away, closer to the sun, and and either focus them on the place we want illuminated or send an energy beam, microwaves perhaps or lasers, out to the destination to supply energy.

We also have the option of using fission, if we can find enough Uranium or Thorium. There is not a lot of either in the solar system, in the area of about one part per billion, but that does amount to hundreds of trillions of tons, and it should only take a few thousand tons a year to supply Earth’s entire electric grid. So we would be looking at millions of years worth of energy supply.

Of course fusion is even better, particularly since hydrogen becomes much more abundant as you get further from the Sun. We do not have fusion yet, but it is a technology we can plan around probably having inside our lifetimes, and while uranium and thorium might be counted in parts per billion, hydrogen is more plentiful than every other element combines, especially once you get far from the Sun and Inner Solar System.

So it is much better power source, an effectively unlimited one except on time scales of billions and trillion of years. Still, if we do not have it, we still have other options. Bigger mirrors, beaming energy outwards from closer to the Sun, and classic fission of Uranium and Thorium. Access to fusion is not absolutely necessary but if you have it you can unlock the outer solar system because you have your energy supply, a cheap and abundant fuel supply, and much faster and cheaper spaceships.

Of course hydrogen, plain old vanilla hydrogen with one proton, like the sun uses for fusion, is harder to fuse than deuterium and may be a lot longer developing, we also have fusion using Helium-3 which has some advantages over hydrogen, so that is worth keeping in mind as well as we proceed outward.

Since NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet's appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet’s appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Okay, let’s move on to Saturn, and again our focus is on its moons more than the planet itself. The biggest of those an the most interesting for colonization is Titan.

Titan is aptly named, this titanic moon contains more mass than than all of Saturn’s sixty or so other moons and by an entire order of magnitude at that. It is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and one where the surface pressure is 45% higher than here on Earth. Even though Titan is much smaller than Earth, its atmosphere is about 20% more massive than our own. It’s almost all nitrogen too, even more than our own atmosphere, so while you would need a breather mask to supply oxygen and it is also super-cold, so you’d need a thick insulated suit, it doesn’t have to be a pressure suit like it would on Mars or almost anyplace else.

There’s no oxygen in the atmosphere, what little isn’t nitrogen is mostly methane and hydrogen, but there is plenty of oxygen in the ice on Titan which is quite abundant. So it has everything we need for life except energy and gravity. At 14% of earth normal it is probably too low for people to comfortably and safely adapt to, but we’ve already discussed ways of dealing with that. It is low enough that you could probably flap your arms and fly, if you had wing attached.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit:
On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit:

It needs some source of energy though, and we discussed that. Obviously if you’ve got fusion you have all the hydrogen you need, but Titan is one of those places we would probably want to colonize early on if we could, it is something you need a lot of to terraform other places, and is also rich in a lot of the others things we want. So we often think of it as a low-tech colony since it is one we would want early on.

In an scenario like that it is very easy to imagine a lot of local transit between Titan and its smaller neighboring moons, which are more rocky and might be easier to dig fissile materials like Uranium and Thorium out of. You might have a dozen or so small outposts on neighboring moons mining fissile materials and other metals and a big central hub on Titan they delivered that too which also exported Nitrogen to other colonies in the solar system.

Moving back and forth between moons is pretty easy, especially since things landing on Titan can aerobrake quite easily, whereas Titan itself has a pretty strong gravity well and thick atmosphere to climb out of but is a good candidate for a space elevator, since it requires nothing more sophisticated than a Lunar Elevator on our own moon and has an abundant supply of the materials needed to make Zylon for instance, a material strong enough to make an elevator there and which we can mass manufacture right now.

Titan might be the largest and most useful of Saturn’s moons, but again it isn’t the only one and not all of the other are just rocks for mining. At last count it has over sixty and many of them quite large. One of those, Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is a lot like Jupiter’s Moon Europa, in that we believe it has a large and thick subsurface ocean. So just like Europa it is an interesting candidate for Colonization. So Titan might be the hub for Saturn but it wouldn’t be the only significant place to colonize.

Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)
Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)

While Saturn is best known for its amazing rings, they tend to be overlooked in colonization. Now those rings are almost all ice and in total mass about a quarter as much as Enceladus, which again is Saturn’s Sixth largest moon, which is itself not even a thousandth of the Mass of Titan.

In spite of that the rings are not a bad place to set up shop. Being mostly water, they are abundant in hydrogen for fusion fuel and have little mass individually makes them as easy to approach or leave as an asteroid. Just big icebergs in space really, and there are many moonlets in the rings that can be as large as half a kilometer across. So you can burrow down inside one for protection from radiation and impacts and possibly mine smaller ones for their ice to be brought to places where water is not abundant.

In total those rings, which are all frozen water, only mass about 2% of Earth’s oceans, and about as much as the entire Antarctic sheet. So it is a lot of fresh water that is very easy to access and move elsewhere, and ice mines in the rings of Saturn might be quite useful and make good homes. Living inside an iceball might not sound appealing but it is better than it sounds like and we will discuss that more when we reach the Kupier Belt.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

But first we still have two more planets to look at, Uranus and Neptune.

Uranus, and Neptune, are sometimes known as Ice Giants instead of Gas Giants because it has a lot more water. It also has more ammonia and methane and all three get called ices in this context because they make up most of the solid matter when you get this far out in the solar system.

While Jupiter is over a thousand times the mass of Earth, Uranus weighs in at about 15 times the Earth and has only about double the escape velocity of Earth itself, the least of any of the gas giants, and it’s strange rotation, and its strange tilt contributes to it having much less wind than other giants. Additionally the gravity is just a little less than Earth’s in the atmosphere so we have the option for floating habitats again, though it would be a lot more like a submarine than a hot air balloon.

Like Venus, Uranus has very long days, at least in terms of places receiving continual sunlight, the poles get 42 years of perpetual sunlight then 42 of darkness. Sunlight being a relative term, the light is quite minimal especially inside the atmosphere. The low wind in many places makes it a good spot for gas extraction, such as Helium-3, and it’s a good planet to try to scoop gas from or even have permanent installations.

Now Uranus has a large collection of moons as well, useful and colonizable like the other moons we have looked at, but otherwise unremarkable beyond being named for characters from Shakespeare, rather than the more common mythological names. None have atmospheres though there is a possibility Oberon or Titania might have subsurface oceans.

Neptune makes for a brief entry, it is very similar to Uranus except it has the characteristically high winds of gas giants that Uranus’s skewed poles mitigate, meaning it has no advantages over Uranus and the disadvantages of high wind speeds everywhere and being even further from the Sun. It too has moons and one of them, Triton, is thought to have subsurface oceans as well. Triton also presumably has a good amount of nitrogen inside it since it often erupts geysers of nitrogen from its surface.

Neptune's largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

Triton is one of the largest moons in the solar system, coming in seventh just after our Moon, number 5, and Europa at number 6. Meaning that were it not a moon it would probably qualify as a Dwarf Planet and it is often thought Pluto might be an escaped moon Neptune. So Triton might be one that didn’t escape, or didn’t avoid getting captured. In fact there are an awful lot of bodies in this general size range and composition wandering about in the outer regions of our solar system as we get out into the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

The Kuiper Belt is one of those things that has a claim on the somewhat arbitrary and hazy boundary marking the edge of the Solar System. It extends from out past Neptune to beyond Pluto and contains a good deal more mass than the asteroid Belt. It is where a lot of our comets come from and while there is plenty of rocks out there they tend to be covered in ice. In other words it is like our asteroid belt only there’s more of it and the one thing the belt is not very abundant in, water and hydrogen in general, is quite abundant out there. So if you have a power source life fusion they can be easily terraformed and are just as attractive as a source of minerals as the various asteroids and moons closer in.

Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA
Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA

We mentioned the idea of living inside hollowed out asteroids earlier and you can use the same trick for comets. Indeed you could shape them to be much bigger if you like, since they would be hollow and ice isn’t hard to move and shape especially in zero gravity. Same trick as before, you place a spinning cylinder inside it. Not all the objects entirely ice and indeed your average comet is more a frozen ball of mud then ice with rocky cores. We think a lot of near Earth Asteroids are just leftover comets. So they are probably pretty good homes if you have fusion, lots of fuel and raw materials for both life and construction.

This is probably your cheapest interstellar spacecraft too, in terms of effort anyway. People often talk about re-directing comets to Mars to bring it air and water, but you can just as easily re-direct it out of the solar system entirely. Comets tend to have highly eccentric orbits, so if you capture one when it is near the Sun you can accelerate it then, actually benefiting from the Oberth Effect, and drive it out of the solar system into deep space. If you have a fusion power source to live inside one then you also have an interstellar spaceship drive, so you just carve yourself a small colony inside the comet and head out into deep space.

You’ve got supplies that will last you many centuries at least, even if it were home to tens of thousand of people, and while we think of smaller asteroids and comets as tiny, that’s just in comparison to planets. These things tend to be the size of mountain so there is plenty of living space and a kilometer of dirty ice between you and space makes a great shield against even the kinds of radiation and collisions you can experience at relativistic speeds.

Artists' impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, showing both the origin and path of Halley's Comet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
Artists’ impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now the Oort Cloud is much like the Kupier Belt but begins even further out and extends out probably an entire light year or more. We don’t have a firm idea of its exact dimensions or mass, but the current notion is that it has at least several Earth’s worth of mass, mostly in various icy bodies. These will be quite numerous, estimates usually assumes at least trillion icy bodies a kilometer across or bigger, and even more smaller ones. However the volume of space is so large that those kilometer wide bodies might each be a around a billion kilometers distant from neighbors, or about a light hour. So it is spread out quite thinly, and even the inner edge is about 10 light days away.

That means that from a practical standpoint there is no source of power out there, the sun is simply too diffuse for even massive collections of mirrors and solar panels to be of use. It also means light-speed messages home or to neighbors are quite delayed. So in terms of communication it is a lot more like pre-modern times in sparsely settled lands where talking with your nearest neighbors might require an hour long walk over to their farm, and any news from the big cities might take months to percolate out to you.

There’s probably uranium and thorium out there to be found, maybe a decent amount of it, so fission as a power source is not ruled out. If you have fusion instead though each of these kilometer wide icy bodies is like a giant tank of gasoline, and as with the Kupier Belt, ice makes a nice shield against impacts and radiation.

And while there might be trillions of kilometer wide chunks of ice out there, and many more smaller bodies, you would have quite a few larger ones too. There are almost certainly tons of planets in the Pluto size-range out these, and maybe even larger ones. Even after the Oort cloud you would still have a lot of these deep space rogue planets which could bridge the gap to another solar system’s Oort Cloud. So if you have fusion you have no shortage of energy, and could colonize trillions of these bodies. There probably is a decent amount of rock and metal out there too, but that could be your major import/export option shipping home ice and shipping out metals.

That’s the edge of the Solar System so that’s the end of this article. If you haven’t already read the other half, colonizing the inner Solar System, head on over now.

What Is The Interplanetary Transport Network?

What is the Interplanetary Transport Network?
What is the Interplanetary Transport Network?

It was with great fanfare that Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars with the Interplanetary Transport System.

I really wish they’d stuck to their original name, the BFR, the Big Fabulous Rocket, or something like that.

The problem is that Interplanetary Transport System is way too close a name to another really cool idea, the Interplanetary Transport Network, which gives you an almost energy free way to travel across the entire Solar System. Assuming you’re not in any kind of rush.

When you imagine rockets blasting off for distant destinations, you probably envision pointing your rocket at your destination, firing the thrusters until you get there. Maybe turning around and slowing down again to land on the alien world. It’s how you might drive your car, or fly a plane to get from here to there.

But if you’ve played any Kerbal Space Program, you know that’s not how it works in space. Instead, it’s all about orbits and velocity. In order to get off planet Earth, you have be travelling about 8 km/s or 28,000 km/h sideways.

Artist's concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

So now, you’re orbiting the Earth, which is orbiting the Sun. If you want to get to Mars, you have raise your orbit so that it matches Mars. The absolute minimum energy needed to make that transfer is known as the Hohmann transfer orbit. To get to Mars, you need to fire your thrusters until you’re going about 11.3 km/s.

Then you escape the pull of Earth, follow a nice curved trajectory, and intercept the trajectory of Mars. Assuming you timed everything right, that means you intercept Mars and go into orbit, or land on its surface, or discover a portal to hell dug into a research station on Phobos.

If you want to expend more energy, go ahead, you’ll get there faster.

But it turns out there’s another way you can travel from planet to planet in the Solar System, using a fraction of the energy you would use with the traditional Hohmann transfer, and that’s using Lagrange points.

We did a whole article on Lagrange points, but here’s a quick refresher. The Lagrange points are places in the Solar System where the gravity between two objects balances out in five places. There are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Sun, and there are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Moon. And there are points between the Sun and Jupiter, etc.

Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA
Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA

Three of these points are unstable. Imagine a boulder at the top of a mountain. It doesn’t take much energy to keep it in place, but it’s easy to knock it out of balance so it comes rolling down.

Now, imagine the whole Solar System with all these Lagrange points for all the objects gravitationally interacting with each other. As planets go around the Sun, these Lagrange points get close to each other and even overlap.

And if you time things right, you can ride along in one gravitationally balanced point, and the roll down the gravity hill into the grasp of a different planet. Hang out there for a little bit and then jump orbits to another planet.

In fact, you can use this technique to traverse the entire Solar System, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond, relying only on the interacting gravity of all these worlds to provide you with the velocity you need to make the journey.

Welcome to the Interplanetary Transport Network, or Interplanetary Superhighway.

Unlike a normal highway, though, the actual shape and direction these pathways take changes all the time, depending on the current configuration of the Solar System.

A stylized example of one of the many, ever-changing routes along the ITN. Credit: NASA

If you think this sounds like science fiction, you’ll be glad to hear that space agencies have already used a version of this network to get some serious science done.

NASA greatly extended the mission of the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, using these low energy transfers, it was able to perform its primary mission and then investigate a couple of comets.

The Japanese Hiten spacecraft was supposed to travel to the Moon, but its rocket failed to get enough velocity to put it into the right orbit. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated a trajectory that used the Lagrange points to help it move slowly and get to the Moon any way.

NASA’s Genesis Mission used the technique to capture particles from the solar wind and bring them back to the Earth.

There have been other missions to use the technique, and missions have been proposed that might exploit this technique to fully explore all the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, for example. Traveling from moon to moon when the gravity points line up.

It all sounds too good to be true, so here’s the downside. It’s slow. Really, painfully slow.

Like it can take years and even decades to move from world to world.

Imagine in the far future, there are space stations positioned at the major Lagrange points around the planets in the Solar System. Maybe they’re giant rotating space stations, like in 2001, or maybe they’re hollowed out asteroids or comets which have been maneuvered into place.

Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis
Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis

They hang out at the Lagrange points using minimal fuel for station keeping. If you want to travel from one planet to another, you dock your spacecraft at the space station, refuel, and then wait for one of these low-energy trajectories to open up.

Then you just kick away from the Lagrange point, fall into the gravity well of your destination, and you’re on your way.

In the far future, we could have space stations at all the Lagrange points, and slow ferries that move from world to world along low energy trajectories, bringing cargo from world to world. Or taking passengers who can’t afford the high velocity Hohmann transfer technique.

You could imagine the space stations equipped with powerful lasers that fill your ship’s solar sails with the photons it needs to take you to the next destination. But then, I’m a sailor, so maybe I’m overly romanticizing it.

Here’s another, even more mind-bending concept. Astronomers have observed these networks open up between interacting galaxies. Want to transfer from the Milky Way to Andromeda? Just get your spacecraft to the galactic Lagrange point in a few billion years as they pass through each other. With very little energy, you’ll be able to join the cool kids in Andromeda.

I love this idea that colonizing and traveling across the Solar System doesn’t actually need to take enormous amounts of energy. If you’re patient, you can just ride the gravitational currents from world to world. This might be one of the greatest gifts the Solar System has made available to us.

What Are The Lagrange Points?

What Are The Lagrange Points?

Being stuck here on Earth, at the bottom of this enormous gravity well really sucks. The amount of energy it takes to escape into the black would make even Captain Reynolds curse up a gorram storm.

But gravity has a funny way of evening the score, giving and taking in equal measure.

There are special places in the Universe, where the forces of gravity nicely balance out. Places that a clever and ambitious Solar System spanning civilization could use to get a toehold on the exploration of the Universe.

The five Sun-Earth Lagrange points. Credit: NOAA
The five Sun-Earth Lagrange points. Credit: NOAA

These are known as the Lagrange Points, or Lagrangian Points, or libration points, or just L-Points. They’re named after the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who wrote an “Essay on the Three Body Problem” in 1772. He was actually extending the mathematics of Leonhard Euler.

Euler discovered the first three Lagrangian Points, even though they’re not named after him, and then Lagrange turned up the next two.

But what are they?

When you consider the gravitational interaction between two massive objects, like the Earth and the Sun, or the Earth and the Moon, or the Death Star and Alderaan. Actually, strike that last example…

As I was saying, when you’ve got two massive objects, their gravitational forces balance out perfectly in 5 places. In each of these 5 places you could position a relatively low mass satellite, and maintain its position with very little effort.

Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: Xander89/Wikimedia Commons
Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: Xander89/Wikimedia Commons

For example, you could park a space telescope or an orbital colony, and you’d need very little, or even zero energy to maintain its position.

The most famous and obvious of these is L1. This is the point that’s balanced between the gravitational pull of the two objects. For example, you could position a satellite a little above the surface of the Moon. The Earth’s gravity is pulling it towards the Moon, but the Moon’s gravity is counteracting the pull of the Earth, and the satellite doesn’t need to use much fuel to maintain position.

There’s an L1 point between the Earth and the Moon, and a different spot between the Earth and the Sun, and a different spot between the Sun and Jupiter, etc. There are L1 points everywhere.

L2 is located on the same line as the mass but on the far side. So, you’d get Sun, Earth, L2 point. At this point, you’re probably wondering why the combined gravity of the two massive objects doesn’t just pull that poor satellite down to Earth.

It’s important to think about orbital trajectories. The satellite at that L2 point will be in a higher orbit and would be expected to fall behind the Earth, as it’s moving more slowly around the Sun. But the gravitational pull of the Earth pulls it forward, helping to keep it in this stable position.

Animation showing the relationship between the five Lagrangian points (red) of a planet (blue) orbiting a star (yellow), and the gravitational potential in the plane containing the orbit (grey surface with purple contours of equal potential). Credit: cmglee (CC-SA 3.0)
Animation showing the relationship between the Lagrangian points (red) of a planet (blue) orbiting a star (yellow), and the gravitational potential in the plane containing the orbit (grey surface with purple contours of equal potential). Credit: cmglee (CC-SA 3.0)

You’ll want to play a lot of Kerbal Space Program to really wrap your head around it. Sadly, your No Man’s Sky time isn’t helping you at all, except to teach you that hyperdrives are notoriously finicky and you’ll never have enough inventory space.

L3 is located on the direct opposite side of the system. Again, the forces of gravity between the two masses balance out so that the third object maintains the same orbital velocity. For example, a satellite in the L3 point would always remain exactly hidden by the Sun.

Hold on, hold on, I know there are a million thoughts going through your brain right now, but bear with me.

There are two more points, the L4 and L5 points. These are located ahead and behind the lower mass object in orbit. You form an equilateral triangle between the two masses, and the third point of the triangle is the L4 point, flip the triangle upside down and there’s L5.

Now, it’s important to note that the first 3 Lagrange points are gravitationally unstable. Any satellite positioned there will eventually drift away from stability. So they need some kind of thrusters to maintain this position.

Imagine a tall smooth mountain, with a sharp peak. Put a bowling ball at the very top and you’re not going to need a lot of energy to keep it in that location. But the blowing wind will eventually knock it out of place, and down the mountain. That’s L1, L2 and L3, and it’s why we don’t see any natural objects located in those places.

But L4 and L5 are actually stable. It’s the opposite situation, a deep valley where a bowling ball will tend to fall down into. And we find asteroids in the natural L4 and L5 positions in the larger planets, like Jupiter. These are the Trojan asteroids, trapped in these natural gravity wells though the gravitational interaction of Jupiter and the Sun.

Artist's diagram of Jupiter and some Trojan asteroids nearby the gas giant. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s diagram of Jupiter and some Trojan asteroids nearby the gas giant. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So what can we use Lagrange points for? There are all kinds of space exploration applications, and there are already a handful of satellites in the various Earth-Sun and Earth-Moon points.

Sun-Earth L1 is a great place to station a solar telescope, where it’s a little closer to the Sun, but can always communicate with us back on Earth.

The James Webb Space Telescope is destined for Sun-Earth L2, located about 1.5 million km from Earth. From here, the bright Sun, Earth and Moon are huddled up in a tiny location in the sky, leaving the rest of the Universe free for observation.

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist’s conception, will provide more information about previously detected exoplanets. It will be at Sun-Earth L2.

Earth-Moon L1 is a perfect place to put a lunar refueling station, a place that can get to either the Earth or the Moon with minimal fuel.

Perhaps the most science fictiony idea is to put huge rotating O’Neill Cylinder space stations at the L4 and L5 points. They’d be perfectly stable in orbit, and relatively easy to get to. They’d be the perfect places to begin the colonization of the Solar System.

Thanks gravity. Thanks for interacting in all the strange ways that you do, and creating these stepping stones that we can use as we reach up and out from our planet to become a true Solar System spanning civilization.

The Planet Neptune

Neptune photographed by Voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Neptune photographed by Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Neptune is the eight planet from our Sun, one of the four gas giants, and one of the four outer planets in our Solar System. Since the “demotion” of Pluto by the IAU to the status of a dwarf planet – and/or Plutoid and Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – Neptune is now considered to be the farthest planet in our Solar System.

As one of the planets that cannot be seen with the naked eye, Neptune was not discovered until relatively recently. And given its distance, it has only been observed up close on one occasion – in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spaceprobe. Nevertheless, what we’ve come to know about this gas (and ice) giant in that time has taught us much about the outer Solar System and the history of its formation.

Discovery and Naming:

Neptune’s discovery did not take place until the 19th century, though there are indications that it was observed before long that. For instance, Galileo’s drawings from December 28th, 1612, and January 27th, 1613, contained plotted points which are now known to match up with the positions of Neptune on those dates. However, in both cases, Galileo appeared to have mistaken it for a star.

1821, French astronomer Alexis Bouvard published astronomical tables for the orbit of Uranus. Subsequent observations revealed substantial deviations from the tables, which led Bouvard to hypothesize that an unknown body was perturbing Uranus’ orbit through gravitational interaction.

New Berlin Observatory at Linden Street, where Neptune was discovered observationally. Credit: Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam
New Berlin Observatory at Linden Street, where Neptune was discovered observationally. Credit: Leibniz-Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam

In 1843, English astronomer John Couch Adams began work on the orbit of Uranus using the data he had and produced several different estimates in the following years of the planet’s orbit. In 1845–46, Urbain Le Verrier, independently of Adams, developed his own calculations, which he shared with Johann Gottfried Galle of the Berlin Observatory. Galle confirmed the presence of a planet at the coordinates specified by Le Verrier on September 23rd, 1846.

The announcement of the discovery was met with controversy, as both Le Verrier and Adams claimed responsibility. Eventually, an international consensus emerged that both Le Verrier and Adams jointly deserved credit. However, a re-evaluation by historians in 1998 of the relevant historical documents led to the conclusion that Le Verrier was more directly responsible for the discovery and deserves the greater share of the credit.

Claiming the right of discovery, Le Verrier suggested the planet be named after himself, but this met with stiff resistance outside of France. He also suggested the name Neptune, which was gradually accepted by the international community. This was largely because it was consistent with the nomenclature of the other planets, all of which were named after deities from Greco-Roman mythology.

Neptune’s Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 24,622 ± 19 km, Neptune is the fourth largest planet in the Solar System and four times as large as Earth. But with a mass of 1.0243×1026 kg – which is roughly 17 times that of Earth – it is the third most massive, outranking Uranus. The planet has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0086, and orbits the Sun at a distance of 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion and 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion.

A size comparison of Neptune and Earth. Credit: NASA
A size comparison of Neptune and Earth. Credit: NASA

Neptune takes 16 h 6 min 36 s (0.6713 days) to complete a single sidereal rotation, and 164.8 Earth years to complete a single orbit around the Sun. This means that a single day lasts 67% as long on Neptune, whereas a year is the equivalent of approximately 60,190 Earth days (or 89,666 Neptunian days).

Because Neptune’s axial tilt (28.32°) is similar to that of Earth (~23°) and Mars (~25°), the planet experiences similar seasonal changes. Combined with its long orbital period, this means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. Also owing to its axial tilt being comparable to Earth’s is the fact that the variation in the length of its day over the course of the year is not any more extreme than it on Earth.

Neptune’s orbit also has a profound impact on the region directly beyond it, known as the Kuiper Belt (otherwise known as the “Trans-Neptunian Region”). Much in the same way that Jupiter’s gravity dominates the Asteroid Belt, shaping its structure, so Neptune’s gravity dominates the Kuiper Belt. Over the age of the Solar System, certain regions of the Kuiper belt became destabilised by Neptune’s gravity, creating gaps in the Kuiper belt’s structure.

There also exists orbits within these empty regions where objects can survive for the age of the Solar System. These resonances occur when Neptune’s orbital period is a precise fraction of that of the object – meaning they complete a fraction of an orbit for every orbit made by Neptune. The most heavily populated resonance in the Kuiper belt, with over 200 known objects, is the 2:3 resonance.

Objects in this resonance complete 2 orbits for every 3 of Neptune, and are known as plutinos because the largest of the known Kuiper belt objects, Pluto, is among them. Although Pluto crosses Neptune’s orbit regularly, the 2:3 resonance ensures they can never collide.

Neptune has a number of known trojan objects occupying both the Sun–Neptune L4 and L5 Lagrangian Points – regions of gravitational stability leading and trailing Neptune in its orbit. Some Neptune trojans are remarkably stable in their orbits, and are likely to have formed alongside Neptune rather than being captured.

Neptune’s Composition:

Due to its smaller size and higher concentrations of volatiles relative to Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune (much like Uranus) is often referred to as an “ice giant” – a subclass of a giant planet. Also like Uranus, Neptune’s internal structure is differentiated between a rocky core consisting of silicates and metals; a mantle consisting of water, ammonia and methane ices; and an atmosphere consisting of hydrogen, helium and methane gas.

The core of Neptune is composed of iron, nickel and silicates, with an interior model giving it a mass about 1.2 times that of Earth. The pressure at the center is estimated to be 7 Mbar (700 GPa), about twice as high as that at the center of Earth, and with temperatures as high as 5,400 K. At a depth of 7000 km, the conditions may be such that methane decomposes into diamond crystals that rain downwards like hailstones.

The mantle is equivalent to 10 – 15 Earth masses and is rich in water, ammonia and methane. This mixture is referred to as icy even though it is a hot, dense fluid, and is sometimes called a “water-ammonia ocean”.  Meanwhile, the atmosphere forms about 5% to 10% of its mass and extends perhaps 10% to 20% of the way towards the core, where it reaches pressures of about 10 GPa – or about 100,000 times that of Earth’s atmosphere.

Composition of Neptune. Image credit: NASA
Composition of Neptune. Image credit: NASA

Increasing concentrations of methane, ammonia and water are found in the lower regions of the atmosphere. Unlike Uranus, Neptune’s composition has a higher volume of ocean, whereas Uranus has a smaller mantle.

Neptune’s Atmosphere:

At high altitudes, Neptune’s atmosphere is 80% hydrogen and 19% helium, with a trace amount of methane. As with Uranus, this absorption of red light by the atmospheric methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune’s is darker and more vivid. Because Neptune’s atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown atmospheric constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune’s more intense coloring.

Neptune’s atmosphere is subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere (where temperature decreases with altitude), and the stratosphere (where temperature increases with altitude). The boundary between the two, the tropopause, lies at a pressure of 0.1 bars (10 kPa). The stratosphere then gives way to the thermosphere at a pressure lower than 10-5 to 10-4 microbars (1 to 10 Pa), which gradually transitions to the exosphere.

Neptune’s spectra suggest that its lower stratosphere is hazy due to condensation of products caused by the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane (i.e. photolysis), which produces compounds such as ethane and ethyne. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which are responsible for Neptune’s stratosphere being warmer than that of Uranus.

In this image, the colors and contrasts were modified to emphasize the planet’s atmospheric features. The winds in Neptune’s atmosphere can reach the speed of sound or more. Neptune’s Great Dark Spot stands out as the most prominent feature on the left. Several features, including the fainter Dark Spot 2 and the South Polar Feature, are locked to the planet’s rotation, which allowed Karkoschka to precisely determine how long a day lasts on Neptune. (Image: Erich Karkoschka)
A modified color/contrast image emphasizing Neptune’s atmospheric features, including wind speed. Credit Erich Karkoschka)

For reasons that remain obscure, the planet’s thermosphere experiences unusually high temperatures of about 750 K (476.85 °C/890 °F). The planet is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated by ultraviolet radiation, which means another heating mechanism is involved – which could be the atmosphere’s interaction with ion’s in the planet’s magnetic field, or gravity waves from the planet’s interior that dissipate in the atmosphere.

Because Neptune is not a solid body, its atmosphere undergoes differential rotation. The wide equatorial zone rotates with a period of about 18 hours, which is slower than the 16.1-hour rotation of the planet’s magnetic field. By contrast, the reverse is true for the polar regions where the rotation period is 12 hours.

This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and results in strong latitudinal wind shear and violent storms. The three most impressive were all spotted in 1989 by the Voyager 2 space probe, and then named based on their appearances.

The first to be spotted was a massive anticyclonic storm measuring 13,000 x 6,600 km and resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Known as the Great Dark Spot, this storm was not spotted five later (Nov. 2nd, 1994) when the Hubble Space Telescope looked for it. Instead, a new storm that was very similar in appearance was found in the planet’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms have a shorter life span than Jupiter’s.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL
Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

The Scooter is another storm, a white cloud group located farther south than the Great Dark Spot. This nickname first arose during the months leading up to the Voyager 2 encounter in 1989, when the cloud group was observed moving at speeds faster than the Great Dark Spot.

The Small Dark Spot, a southern cyclonic storm, was the second-most-intense storm observed during the 1989 encounter. It was initially completely dark; but as Voyager 2 approached the planet, a bright core developed and could be seen in most of the highest-resolution images.

Neptune’s Moons:

Neptune has 14 known satellites, all but one of which are named after Greek and Roman deities of the sea (S/2004 N 1 is currently unnamed). These moons are divided into two groups – the regular and irregular moons – based on their orbit and proximity to Neptune. Neptune’s Regular Moons – Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, S/2004 N 1, and Proteus – are those that are closest to the planet and which follow circular, prograde orbits that lie in the planet’s equatorial plane.

They range in distance from 48,227 km (Naiad) to 117,646 km (Proteus) from Neptune, and all but the outermost two (S/2004 N 1, and Proteus) orbit Neptune slower than its orbital period of 0.6713 days. Based on observational data and assumed densities, these moons range in size and mass from 96 x 60 x 52 km and 1.9 x 1017 kg (Naiad) to 436 x 416 x 402 km and 50.35 x 1017 kg (Proteus).

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting the giant planet Neptune, nearly 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).
This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting the giant planet Neptune, nearly 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).

With the exception of Larissa and Proteus (which are largely rounded) all of Neptune’s inner moons are believed to be elongated in shape. Their spectra also indicates that they are made from water ice contaminated by some very dark material, probably organic compounds. In this respect, the inner Neptunian moons are similar to the inner moons of Uranus.

Neptune’s irregular moons consist of the planet’s remaining satellites (including Triton). They generally follow inclined eccentric and often retrograde orbits far from Neptune. The only exception is Triton, which orbits close to the planet, following a circular orbit, though retrograde and inclined.

In order of their distance from the planet, the irregular moons are Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Neso and Psamathe – a group that includes both prograde and retrograde objects. With the exception of Triton and Nereid, Neptune’s irregular moons are similar to those of other giant planets and are believed to have been gravitationally captured by Neptune.

In terms of size and mass, the irregular moons are relatively consistent, ranging from approximately 40 km in diameter and 4 x 1016 kg in mass (Psamathe) to 62 km and 16 x 1016 kg for Halimede. Triton and Nereid are unusual irregular satellites and are thus treated separately from the other five irregular Neptunian moons. Between these two and the other irregular moons, four major differences have been noted.

First of all, they are the largest two known irregular moons in the Solar System. Triton itself is almost an order of magnitude larger than all other known irregular moons and comprises more than 99.5% of all the mass known to orbit Neptune (including the planet’s rings and thirteen other known moons).

Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

Secondly, they both have atypically small semi-major axes, with Triton’s being over an order of magnitude smaller than those of all other known irregular moons. Thirdly, they both have unusual orbital eccentricities: Nereid has one of the most eccentric orbits of any known irregular satellite, and Triton’s orbit is a nearly perfect circle. Finally, Nereid also has the lowest inclination of any known irregular satellite

With a mean diameter of around 2700 km and a mass of 214080 ± 520 x 1017 kg, Triton is the largest of Neptune’s moons, and the only one large enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. is spherical in shape). At a distance of 354,759 km from Neptune, it also sits between the planet’s inner and outer moons.

Triton follows a retrograde and quasi-circular orbit, and is composed largely of nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and water ices. With a geometric albedo of more than 70% and a Bond albedo as high as 90%, it is also one of the brightest objects in the Solar System. The surface has a reddish tint, owning to the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane, causing tholins.

Triton is also one of the coldest moons in the Solar System, with surface temperature of about 38 K (-235.2 °C). However, owing to the moon being geologically active (which results in cryovolcanism) and surface temperature variations that cause sublimation, Triton is one of only two moons in the Solar System that has a substantial atmosphere. Much like it’s surface, this atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen with small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide, and with an estimated pressure of about 14 nanobar.

Triton has a relatively high density of about 2 g/cm3 indicating that rocks constitute about two thirds of its mass, and ices (mainly water ice) the remaining one third. There also may be a layer of liquid water deep inside Triton, forming a subterranean ocean. Surface features include the large southern polar cap, older cratered planes cross-cut by graben and scarps, as well as youthful features caused by endogenic resurfacing.

Because of its retrograde orbit and relative proximity to Neptune (closer than the Moon is to Earth), Triton is grouped with the planet’s irregular moons (see below). In addition, it is believed to be a captured object, possibly a dwarf planet that was once part of the Kuiper Belt. At the same time, these orbital characteristics are the reason why Triton experiences tidal deceleration. and will eventually spiral inward and collide with the planet in about 3.6 billion years.

Nereid is the third-largest moon of Neptune. It has a prograde but very eccentric orbit and is believed to be a former regular satellite that was scattered to its current orbit through gravitational interactions during Triton’s capture. Water ice has been spectroscopically detected on its surface. Nereid shows large, irregular variations in its visible magnitude, which are probably caused by forced precession or chaotic rotation combined with an elongated shape and bright or dark spots on the surface.

Neptune’s Ring System:

Neptune has five rings, all of which are named after astronomers who made important discoveries about the planet – Galle, Le Verrier, Lassell, Arago, and Adams. The rings are composed of at least 20% dust (with some containing as much as 70%) while the rest of the material consists of small rocks. The planet’s rings are difficult to see because they are dark and vary in density and size.

The Galle ring was named after Johann Gottfried Galle, the first person to see the planet using a telescope; and at 41,000–43,000 km, it is the nearest of Neptune’s rings.  The La Verrier ring – which is very narrow at 113 km in width – is named after French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, the planet’s co-founder.

At a distance of between 53,200 and 57,200 km from Neptune (giving it a width of 4,000 km) the Lassell ring is the widest of Neptune’s rings. This ring is named after William Lassell, the English astronomer who discovered Triton just seventeen days after Neptune was discovered. The Arago ring is 57,200 kilometers from the planet and less than 100 kilometers wide. This ring section is named after Francois Arago, Le Verrier’s mentor and the astronomer who played an active role in the dispute over who deserved credit for discovering Neptune.

The outer Adams ring was named after John Couch Adams, who is credited with the co-discovery of Neptune. Although the ring is narrow at only 35 kilometers wide, it is the most famous of the five due to its arcs. These arcs accord with areas in the ring system where the material of the rings is grouped together in a clump, and are the brightest and most easily observed parts of the ring system.

Although the Adams ring has five arcs, the three most famous are the “Liberty”, “Equality”, and “Fraternity” arcs. Scientists have been traditionally unable to explain the existence of these arcs because, according to the laws of motion, they should distribute the material uniformly throughout the rings. However, stronomers now estimate that the arcs are corralled into their current form by the gravitational effects of Galatea, which sits just inward from the ring.

The rings of Neptune as seen from Voyager 2 during the 1989 flyby. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
The rings of Neptune as seen from Voyager 2 during the 1989 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL

The rings of Neptune are very dark, and probably made of organic compounds that have been altered due to exposition to cosmic radiation. This is similar to the rings of Uranus, but very different to the icy rings around Saturn. They seem to contain a large quantity of micrometer-sized dust, similar in size to the particles in the rings of Jupiter.

It’s believed that the rings of Neptune are relatively young – much younger than the age of the Solar System, and much younger than the age of Uranus’ rings. Consistent with the theory that Triton was a KBO that was seized, by Neptune’s gravity, they are believed to be the result of a collision between some of the planet’s original moons.


The Voyager 2 probe is the only spacecraft to have ever visited Neptune. The spacecraft’s closest approach to the planet occurred on August 25th, 1989, which took place at a distance of 4,800 km (3,000 miles) above Neptune’s north pole. Because this was the last major planet the spacecraft could visit, it was decided to make a close flyby of the moon Triton – similar to what had been done for Voyager 1s encounter with Saturn and its moon Titan.

The spacecraft performed a near-encounter with the moon Nereid before it came to within 4,400 km of Neptune’s atmosphere on August 25th, then passed close to the planet’s largest moon Triton later the same day. The spacecraft verified the existence of a magnetic field surrounding the planet and discovered that the field was offset from the center and tilted in a manner similar to the field around Uranus.

Neptune’s rotation period was determined using measurements of radio emissions and Voyager 2 also showed that Neptune had a surprisingly active weather system. Six new moons were discovered during the flyby, and the planet was shown to have more than one ring.

While no missions to Neptune are currently being planned, some hypothetical missions have been suggested. For instance, a possible Flagship Mission has been envisioned by NASA to take place sometime during the late 2020s or early 2030s. Other proposals include a possible Cassini-Huygens-style “Neptune Orbiter with Probes”, which was suggested back in 2003.

Another, more recent proposal by NASA was for Argo – a flyby spacecraft that would be launched in 2019, which would visit Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and a Kuiper belt object. The focus would be on Neptune and its largest moon Triton, which would be investigated around 2029.

With its icy-blue color, liquid surface, and wavy weather patterns, Neptune was appropriately named after the Roman god of the sea. And given its distance from our planet, there is still a great deal that remains to be learned about it. In the coming decades, one can only hope that a mission to the outer Solar System and/or Kuiper Belt includes a flyby of Neptune.

We have many interesting articles about Neptune here at Universe Today. Below is a comprehensive list for your viewing (and possibly researching) pleasure!

Characteristics of Neptune:

Position and Movement of Neptune:

Neptune’s Moon and Rings:

History of Neptune:

Neptune’s Surface and Structure:

Could There Be Another Planet Behind the Sun?

Could There Be Another Planet Behind the Sun?

If you’ve read your share of sci-fi, and I know you have, you’ve read stories about another Earth-sized planet orbiting on the other side of the Solar System, blocked by the Sun. Could it really be there?

No. Nooooo. No. Just no.

This is a delightful staple in science fiction. There’s a mysterious world that orbits the Sun exactly the same distance as Earth, but it’s directly across the Solar System from us; always hidden by the Sun. Little do we realize they know we’re here, and right now they’re marshalling their attack fleet to invade our planet. We need to invade counter-Earth before they attack us and steal our water, eat all our cheese or kidnap our beloved Nigella Lawson and Alton Brown to rule as their culinary queen and king of Other-Earth.

Well, could this happen? Could there be another planet in a stable orbit, hiding behind the Sun? The answer, as you probably suspect, is NO. No. Nooooo. Just no.

Well, that’s not completely true. If some powerful and mysterious flying spaghetti being magically created another planet and threw it into orbit, it would briefly be hidden from our view because of the Sun. But we don’t exist in a Solar System with just the Sun and the Earth. There are those other planets orbiting the Sun as well. As the Earth orbits the Sun, it’s subtly influenced by those other planets, speeding up or slowing down in its orbit.

So, while we’re being pulled a little forwards in our orbit by Jupiter, that other planet would be on the opposite side of the Sun. And so, we’d speed up a little and catch sight of it around the Sun. Over the years, these various motions would escalate, and that other planet would be seen more and more in the sky as we catch up to it in orbit.

Eventually, our orbits would intersect, and there’d be an encounter. If we were lucky, the planets would miss each other, and be kicked into new, safer, more stable orbits around the Sun. And if we were unlucky, they’d collide with each other, forming a new super-sized Earth, killing everything on both planets, obviously.

Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale.  Credit:  NASA/WMAP Science Team
Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

What if there was originally two half-Earths and they collided and that’s how we got current Earth! Or 4 quarter Earths, each with their own population? And then BAM. One big Earth. Or maybe 64 64th Earths all transforming and converging to form VOLTREARTH.

Now, I’m now going to make things worse, and feed your imagination a little with some actual science. There are a few places where objects can share a stable orbit. These locations are known as Lagrange points, regions where the gravity of two objects create a stable location for a third object. The best of these are known as the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. L4 is about 60-degrees ahead of a planet in its orbit, and L5 is about 60-degrees behind a planet in its orbit.

A small enough body, relative to the planet, could hang out in a stable location for billions of years. Jupiter has a collection of Trojan asteroids at its L4 and L5 points of its orbit, always holding at a stable distance from the planet. Which means, if you had a massive enough gas giant, you could have a less massive terrestrial world in a stable orbit 60-degrees away from the planet.

Grumpy Cat has the correct answer. Credit:
Grumpy Cat has the correct answer. Credit:

Well, it was a pretty clever idea. Unfortunately, the forces of gravity conspire to make this hidden planet idea completely impossible. Most importantly, when someone tells you there’s a hidden planet on the other side of the Sun, just remember these words:

Go ahead and name your favorite sci-fi stories that have used this trope. Tell us in the comments below.

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