Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Fright Night

by Perry Pezzolanella

The nights are growing longer and frosty. A bright Moon shines between the barren branches of gnarly old trees that rustle and groan in the chilly wind. It is not only the season of cider and pumpkins, but also of witches, ghosts, and anything imaginable that sends a chill up the spine. The Earth may be a bit more of a frightening place during October, but there are real places in the Solar System that are even more frightening and downright deadly where even fear itself could be deadly.

Venus looks innocent upon approach wrapped in its brilliant white clouds stained slightly yellow. A descent into the clouds explains why the clouds have a yellow tint: pure sulfuric acid! The surface is probably one of the most frightening places imaginable. Temperatures average 870ºF day and night everywhere while atmospheric pressure is 92 times Earth’s. An eerie orange light bathes everything. A fine haze of sulfuric acid completes the deadly cauldron. Venus is a true representation of Hades, and it lives next door! It is a frightening thought that a world that is so earth-like in size and chemical composition went so very wrong.

Io is another world where the slightest error guarantees certain death. Bathed in the deadly radiation of Jupiter it is the most volcanically active world known. Volcanic plumes of sulfur, sulfur dioxide, and dust shoot up to 300 miles into the sky, and nearly 3000ºF molten sulfur glowing red lava flows across the surface ponding into fiery lakes. The scary sight and power of these volcanic eruptions is overwhelming as the ground shakes making it feel like Io is about to blow to smithereens.

Jupiter is the largest planet and everything about it is huge: hurricanes that can swallow Earth, lightning that can span Asia and vaporize a city, 400 miles per hour jet stream winds, crushing pressure and intense heat deep down. A descent through Jupiter’s clouds would be just like plunging through a violent thunderstorm. Powerful updrafts and downdrafts create turbulence that can last years, decades, and even centuries while powerful lightning bolts flash everywhere. The scenery amid such turbulence is frightening as mushroom clouds boil rapidly upward laced with lightning and giant funnel clouds spin violently trying to extend down into the depths.

Rain falls from thick clouds and runs downhill into rivers that feed dark seas. No big deal it seems, it is just another rainy day, but this place is not Earth. The rain is liquid methane flowing into rivers that feed into dark methane seas. This strange world is Saturn’s moon, Titan. It is a frigid -290ºF, which is cold enough for methane gas to liquefy at Titan. Out in the middle of a vast, deep black methane sea it is frightening with no land visible anywhere, just the black line of the horizon that separates the dark sea from the dim orange sky. Titan is nearly one billion miles from the Sun so it is a dark world where daylight is not much brighter than a bright moonlit night on Earth. The scenery is made even more frightening by thick persistent smog that hides the Sun. The seas are at least 500 feet deep and the depths never see sunlight or starlight and are probably the darkest places known anywhere in the Solar System.

There may be other worlds that are frightening but there is beauty among the diversity on how it was created and came together to be what it is today. Back here on Earth during those frightful nights of the Halloween season there is beauty to behold among the decorations set against the backdrop of the autumn landscape; there is no fear of dying from fright here.