Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Wonders of the Worlds

by Perry Pezzolanella

Our Solar System will someday become a wonderful tourist attraction once we master the rocketry to get to other worlds in a reasonable amount of time and perfect the equipment and spacesuits necessary for travel in extreme environments. There are many tourist attractions that are already known just waiting to be explored. The problem besides the cost is these places are too far away and most of them are so deadly that there is no room for failure. Here are some of the most awesome destinations waiting for us.

Mercury may be a scorched and desolate planet but a photogenic location can be found at the base of Discover Rupes. This giant thrust fault formed when Mercury was cooling and contracting. From the base of this cliff its walls tower over a mile into the black, starlit sky and runs from horizon to horizon and nearly 400 miles beyond.

Venus has two areas that are incredibly beautiful in spite of it having the most hostile surface environment anywhere in the Solar System. It has mountains and canyons that rival any found on Earth. Journeying across the torrid lowlands of Sedna Planitia through the sulfuric acid haze where temperatures top 900ºF and air pressure exceeds 95 times that of Earth is a huge plateau that rises dramatically into the searing orange sky. These are the cliffs of Vesta Rupes, which tower up to three miles from the lowland and are a part of the vast plateau of Lakshmi Planum, which is cooler, hovering about 800 degrees F. It a smooth trip across the top of this plateau until a huge mountain range appears, the Maxwell Montes. The highest peak ascends about 37,000 feet and has steep, nearly vertical walls. The mountain range is capped with an exotic frost of bismuth and/or lead sulfide that may give it a curious appearance. Conditions are more pleasant here as it is generally about 700ºF with air pressure down to only 40 times Earth’s. This entire vast region of cliffs, plateau, and mountains in known as Ishtar Terra and appears on maps as a possible continent.

Venus goes to the other extreme with perhaps the most beautiful canyon found anywhere in the Solar System. Diana Chasma beats Earth’s Grand Canyon by far and standing on the rim of this canyon is a sight to behold. In spite of the searing 800º F heat on the rim, the air is clear and clean enough to possibly reveal layered canyon walls that could give clues on Venus’ tortured history. The drop to the bottom is nearly three miles; the canyon is up to several miles wide and over a thousand miles long. Even if our technology becomes superior the canyon bottom may forever be out of reach as temperatures soar to 1000ºF and pressure hits 105 times Earth's. Venus has awesome sights that will someday lure travelers, but the dangers will always be high and there will be no room for error.

Mars has the loftiest volcano in the Solar System, Olympus Mons, towering nearly 16 miles into the dusty sky. The slopes are just shallow enough for an exhilarating climb to the summit. During the ascent it might be possible at the right time to see the two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, in the sky. Like Venus, Mars has its own spectacular canyon and is more approachable than Venus’. Valles Marineris is a canyon up to 3000 miles long and 120 miles wide and up to four miles deep. There are landslides everywhere and walls of stratified deposits. Dust devils swirl dust high into the sky along the canyon bottom. Mars will probably be the first, but hopefully not the only world that will be a popular tourist destination. There are fantastic sights beyond Mars that will lure tourists, and there are also different dangers.

In the realm of Jupiter is Io, the most volcanically active world known. Lava as hot as 3000ºF and plumes towering over 200 miles into the sky pepper this tortured world. A popular destination will be Tvashtar Paterae near the north polar region. Here occasionally a wall of fire erupts near a hot lake of molten sulfur that has a beautiful mesa near its opposite shore. Near the fiery wall a plume shoots up to 250 miles into the sky, the most powerful on Io, and is like looking up into an open umbrella. The challenge of witnessing any of this is the ferocious radiation that can instantly kill anyone and instantly fry electronics. Io may be forever out of reach as a tourist destination as developing effective shielding against the radiation will be costly if not impossible.

Saturn itself would be an attraction but it has two moons that will surely be tourist attractions. People will flock to the south polar region of Enceladus where there are Tiger Stripes: fissures that run across that area of Enceladus. From these fissures spew towering geysers of liquid water up to 100 miles high. The gravity is so low and the geysers are so powerful that the plumes contribute to the E ring around Saturn. The icy particles that fall back to the surface of Enceladus are highly reflective, up to 95%, and cover much of the moon in glittering white ice. Sunglasses will be mandatory.

The most attractive and exciting place in the Solar System has to be Titan. It is the only other place besides Earth that has liquid flowing on its surface. This liquid is not water as it is too cold at -290ºF, but rather a mixture of mainly methane with some ethane that rains from the sky and flows down mountains through canyons and valleys and into lakes and seas, several larger than any on Earth. A steady breeze may create ripples or small waves. This is a dim world to explore, almost like moonlight, as it is about a billion miles from the Sun where everything is bathed in a peach-hue due to the smog and haze. The most scenic spot would probably be the shores of Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare, far larger than Lake Superior and nearly as deep. The midnight sun during the long polar summer, if it can be seen through the haze, would illuminate the dark lake and flat horizon with an unearthly peach-hued light, unlike any sunset seen on Earth as the Sun passes low above the northern horizon. There is probably no other place that can be like Earth and yet be so alien at the same time than standing on the shore of this huge methane sea. Hardy tourists would not only sail these seas, but also explore their depths.

Miranda is Uranus’ strangest moon. It looks like it was shattered and re-assembled, appearing like a messy assembly of various blocks of ice and rock that melted into a more uniform mixture. The most scenic tourist destination on Miranda is Verona Rupes. This is a towering cliff about 12 miles high that stretches to the horizon. The enormity of the great wall would easily make anyone feel like an insignificant speck. During certain times the cliff would be bathed by Uranus’ turquoise light.

Neptune has one exciting moon that is going to be a must-see tourist attraction. Triton will be advertised for its geysers as being the original and the best. Geysers were first discovered by Voyager 2 in 1989 as it flew past Triton. No other world besides Earth was known to have geysers back then. These geysers are more impressive than Old Faithful as the nitrogen gas beneath the frigid ice cap erupts five miles into the sky. Even more incredible is that the winds aloft shear the top off the plume and blow it over 100 miles downwind. Travelers must use extra caution as this is one of the coldest areas in the Solar System at -392ºF. Only on certain occasions is Pluto colder.

Pluto in itself will always be a popular tourist destination. Just its name will beckon everyone to come visit its stark, icy surface and its one oversized moon, Charon. It is at the other extreme from Venus with numbing cold as low as -420ºF when farthest from the Sun. Climbing the 11,000-foot tall icy mountains of Norgay Montes and trekking across the vast nitrogen glacial flows of Sputnik Planum in the feeble sunlight will provide the ultimate challenge of physical stamina.

Centuries from now, probably over 1000 years in the future, touring the worlds of the Solar System will be just like traveling to different countries on Earth. There is a lot of beauty out there, but it is all so deadly and unforgiving, still the human spirit of exploration will prevail.