Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Running Scared

by Perry Pezzolanella

This can be a frightful time of year with Halloween approaching and scary decorations everywhere along with the dread of the winter ahead. There is no place to hide as there are other places within the Solar System that are even more frightful than can ever be imagined. How about visiting these terrifying places?

Do not get stung by the scorpion’s tail! A large upland region on Venus reminiscent of a continent is shaped like a scorpion and is called Aphrodite Terra. The tail of this planetary feature also packs a potential deadly sting as a group of suspected active volcanoes cluster near the stinger. The surface of Venus is fiercely hot at nearly 900ºF with an air pressure around 90 times Earth’s and a toxic carbon dioxide atmosphere laced with sulfuric acid. Infrared measurements made with the Venus Express orbiter during 2010 detected hot spots on the peaks of a few mountains and along fissures as hot as 1300ºF that suddenly appeared and then cooled within days along with a surge in sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere adding proof that active volcanoes exist on Venus to this very day. Imagine exploring the peaks and canyons among the scorpion’s tail and witnessing the massive flows of fiery lava pouring into the canyon below as the ground trembles to the deafening blast of an erupting volcano with a billowing, lightning-laced ash plume towering high into the broiling acid sky!

Do not go swimming in that inky black sea! At -290ºF who would entertain that thought? Titan has several seas, two of which, Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare, are bigger than Lake Superior and almost as deep, but these are seas of liquid methane and ethane, not water! At a depth of about 1000 feet deep, beneath a smoggy sky on a world around a billion miles from the Sun, these seas are frighteningly dark even during the daytime. To add to the gloom there may be lake effect squalls! Imagine sailing in the middle of one of these inky black, deep, frigid seas with no land in sight and being caught in a -290ºF methane rain squall!

Tornado warning! Pay attention to the tornadoes that are perpetually swirling in Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. Sailing among the turbulent clouds of Jupiter would be awesome with towering thunderheads everywhere and multiple moons shining above and beyond. The riot of color and swirling, boiling clouds would be mesmerizing, and some of these may spin up into monstrous funnel clouds that try to extend downward into the bottomless depths. These tornadoes are true monsters on the largest of all the planets where everything is supersized. Imagine being helplessly drawn closer to one of these rapidly spinning funnels while lightning more powerful than any on Earth flashes everywhere and feeling the hammering blows of the deafening thunder!

Keep out! That means everyone! It may look like a giant pizza pie in the black sky of outer space, but Io is a true pizza disaster of cosmic proportions as it possesses the deadliest environment anywhere besides the Sun. The surface is wracked by massive tides and quakes from a gravitational tug of war with Jupiter and the other three large moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. This heats Io’s interior so much that it is covered with the most powerful volcanoes found anywhere in the Solar System. The sulfurous lava flows along as hot as 3000ºF and volcanic plumes tower over 250 miles into the sky! Io is so volcanically active that it has turned itself inside out several times during its lifetime! Even worse, and the main reason to keep away, is that Io is immersed in Jupiter’s deadly radiation belt that is so powerful it can kill instantly and permanently disable spacecraft. What a frightening sight to see rivers of fiery lava flow by while the ground heaves and convulses, and plumes of ash tower hundreds of miles into the sky while the radiation alarm blares away!

The nights back here on Earth are getting long and the looming winter may stir a sense of uneasiness but considering the scary sceneries that lurk beyond our world, the spirit of Halloween may truly be more festive than scary after all!