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Every ball is an odd ball December 16, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Earth, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Neptune, Saturn, Uranus, Venus.
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No, this isn’t going to be a more or less pythonesque version of that famous song that goes “every sperm is sacred”. It’s a reaction to this article, that claims that Venus and Uranus are “the Solar System’s oddballs”. Had it been written a handful of years ago, it would have been Pluto to get the honor. Now, it’s Venus and Uranus.

Well, with my apologies to this Christopher Sirola, who wrote the article and should really know better, but it’s dead wrong.

Dead.

Wrong.

The thing is: every ball is an odd ball.

Mercury is an oddball because it’s way denser than anything else of similar size in the Solar System and has a day (a solar day, that is) which is twice as long as its year. Yes, you need two mercurian years to complete only one mercurian day, which means that Mercury has the simplest calendar in the Solar System.

Venus is an oddball because, as mr. Sirola states in his article, rotates backwards. The Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, a long 58 or so (Earth) days later. If you could see it, that is, because Venus has a dense atmosphere with hellish temperatures and is permanently overcast by clouds of sulfuric acid, among other migraine-inducing compounds.

The Earth is an oddball because its surface is largely covered by a several-km deep layer of liquid water. And because of that green stuff that gets everywhere, that chlorophyl or whatever its name is. And because it’s dotted with strange lights in its night side. And… hell, there are so many unique characteristics about it that the Earth is the oddball of oddballs. ‘Nuff said.

Mars is an oddball because of those gigantic pimples it shows, those enormous volcanos in Tharsis and, of course, that behemoth 27 km high known as Olympus Mons. It’s also an oddball because of another behemoth in the canyon department, known as Valles Marineris. Because of its global dust storms. And, of course, because of all that rust.

Jupiter is an oddball because it has a red hurricane that has been going round in its atmosphere for centuries. Because it’s by far the most massive object in the system after the Sun. Because it emits more radiation than it absorbs. Because of all those multicoloured cloud bands, whirling at different speeds around and blurring its oh-so-short day.

Saturn is an oddball because of its rings. One could speak of many other features (polar hexagon, anyone?) but, really, the rings are more than enough.

Uranus is an oddball because it’s laying down on its orbit, of course. And Neptune is an oddball because it’s the only one left, apart from all those planets we still know too little about to really understand how oddballish they are: Ceres, Pluto, Eris, Makemake, etc., etc., etc. And don’t get me started on the secondary ones. One is yellow with sulfuric volcanos everywhere, another is orange with a thick atmosphere and lakes of hydrocarbons, another has jets of ice in its south pole, another is white and cracked and has a subsurface ocean, another is half pitch-black, half snow-white, another… pfuah! Let me breathe here!

The truth is, in the Solar System each world is unique. One of a kind and full of surprises. They are all oddballs, each in its own way, shaped by its own unique history to become what we see today. Maybe one day, when the number of known and well-studied extrasolar planets becomes as mindboggling as the number of stars is, we’ll find close twins to all of them, but I’d bet that we’ll be finding surprises just about everywhere, subtle differences that make all the difference.

I’d bet that we’ll end up discovering that, indeed, every ball is an odd ball. Everywhere, not only in the Solar System.

How about hot jupiters and super-earths? December 5, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Extrasolar planets, Giant planets, Terminology, Terrestrial planets.
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A few more pistachios in the belly, and some more ideas coming out of both the posts themselves and the comment boxes. Particularly this comment by Bob Shepard, where he proposes a very detailed classification scheme for the planets, inspired by the spectral classification of stars.

As I told him, with less than 500 known planets (primary and secondary, belt and main, solar and extrasolar) I don’t really see the need for such a detailed scheme for the moment. But I certainly admit that it may be useful in the future, when the number of known planets starts getting astronomical, pun definitely indended. And I may even be wrong right now about this lack of necessity. You see, a more detailed classification scheme is already emerging in exoplanetology. Organically, kind of .

If you browse the literature you’ll find terms such as hot and cold jupiters, cold and hot neptunes, super-earths, etc. These classes of planets are usually not very precisely defined, but that doesn’t stop them from being profusely used, which is a clear indicator that it is felt that they are needed. A “jupiter”, for instance, is defined as a planet whose mass “is close to or exceeds that of Jupiter”, and Jupiter and Saturn are usually indicated as Solar System examples of such planets. Since Saturn’s mass is less than 30% of that of Jupiter, this means that this category might range from some 0.25 MJ to the limit of brown dwarfs (or, as I prefer calling them, planetars as in “intermediate object between planets and stars”), which is about 13 MJ.

However, the “neptune” class of planets gets more definitive limits, ranging from 10 to 30 Earth masses (or ME). In our system, Neptune and Uranus are included in this class and, unless someone comes up with an intermediate class between jupiters and neptunes, this means that jupiters in fact range from 0.0945 MJ to 13 MJ. It’s quite a large interval, including the vast majority of extrasolar planets discovered so far, so it’s possible that intermediate class will indeed appear.

Both the neptunes and the jupiters would fit under my giant planets category, but the next class that has emerged organically in extrasolar studies, the “super-earth” class, would belong to the medium-sized planets. This one, however, is very poorly defined indeed. Although the upper limit is pretty solidly set at 10 ME, some astronomers set the lower limit at 5 ME, wereas for others any planet that is more massive than the Earth is a super-earth. Personally, I think these two perspectives may be a bit too extreme. An interval of 5-10 ME seems too restrictive, while starting super-earths with planets that are basically Earth twins, only slightly more massive, seems to stretch the term a bit too much. I’d call super-earth to planets of no less than 2 or 3 Earth masses, with a slight preference to a range of 3-10 ME.

And that’s it, really. No other size-based classes of planet have been widely used outside theoretical studies of planetary formation, i.e., with real exoplanets, which is, of course, explained by the fact that the first planets to be spotted are always the larger ones and also the closest to their stars. With the exception of pulsar planets, only one planet has been found below 2 ME: Gliese 581 e, a terrestrial planet of 1.94 ME, so close to its star that a year out there lasts little more than 3 days. So there’s no subgroupings below that.

But these three groups are definitely a start in the kind of thing Bob Shepard suggests, only in an ad-hoc, unplanned way. They have the advantage of being born out of necessity and therefore being immediately adapted to the real world, and the disadvantage of not being very orderly.

Hey, nothing is perfect.

Grouping the planets December 4, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet, Dwarf planets, Giant planets, Sedna, Terminology.
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Thoughts are like pistachios: you put one in your mouth (or in your head… doesn’t matter) and you’re on for a long ride. So, when I ranted about the terminology astronomers come up with, that sent my head spinning in new directions. However, as often happens, I’ll have to take a step back in order to explain it all properly.

As most people who deeply dislike the definition of planet the IAU came up with, particularly those who aren’t obsessed with Pluto (yeah, I know, there should be more of us), I think that a planet, like a human, a tree or a cloud, should be defined by what it is, i.e. by its own characteristics, and not by where it is. You don’t say that a human in space or under water is no longer a member of the human race, trees are trees no matter if they belong to a forest, are planted in urban streets or grow isolated in some field somewhere, and if something is composed by countless liquid or solid particles suspended in a gaseous medium, it’s a cloud, be it on Earth, on Venus or on 47 Ursae Majoris b. By the same kind of reasoning, to define what a planet is, where it is should matter not at all.

And the single most obvious thing that sets planets apart from other substellar objects is shape. Despite all their differences, they all show the same overall shape, a shape we know is due to a fundamental physical process that rounds them up if their mass is high enough to crunch them into a relatively low-energy state. Hence my definition for planet.

This means that all planets have differentiated and at least partially layered interiors, which implies the presence of geological processes going on at some point in their history (although you may have a tough time if you try to study the geology of gas giants. Still, they are differentiated like the others).

And this is where we come back to my little rant below.

So. Let’s suppose astronomers have the sense to start calling belt planets to what they currently call dwarf planets, using a location qualificative to set a subcategory that is based on location, and saving a size qualificative for another subcategory based on size. If they do, all of the planets that are currently known as dwarf planets would be both belt planets and dwarf planets, but you can use the term “dwarf planet” with other small planets that, as far as is known, do not reside in belts. Sedna, for instance, which is almost certainly a dwarf planet although it hasn’t yet been declared as such, was in that situation for a while. Its discovery was somewhat surprising, because it was too far to be a Kuiper Belt object but too close to be a denizen of the Oort Cloud… and for a while it was alone in its area. Actually, it still is very much alone out there. Sedna is dinamically classified as a detached object, together with only a dozen or so other known objects. If you consider that the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt lies at about 55 AU from the Sun and the theoretical inner limit of the Oort Cloud (also pretty much theoretical at this point) lies at about 2,000 AU, you can get a pretty good idea of how isolated Sedna really is out there. Even if you throw in the scattered disc objects to the mix, a relatively small population of objects with very elliptical orbits that make them travel from within the Kuiper Belt to large distances, sometimes well beyond 100 AU. Eris among them.

So, as far as we know for a fact, Sedna is not a belt planet because there’s no belt out there. And none is thought to exist. Astronomers think that is a very scarcely populated area, although they also say that discoveries out there are mostly a thing of the future. And yet, Sedna is undoubtedly a dwarf planet: with a diameter estimated at more than 1000 km, it’s definitely massive enough to have been rounded by its own gravity… and with a diameter of no more than 1600 km (yeah, the uncertainties are large), it’s definitely a small planet. Therefore a dwarf planet.

And then, of course, there’s PSR B1257+12 D. Also a dwarf planet which is not a belt planet, as far as we know.

But hang on: how can we draw a border between what’s an average sized planet as our own and a dwarf planet?

Well, ideally, we’d look at other planetary characteristics and find a suitable one. For instance, the presence of an atmosphere capable of creating all sorts of processes that transform the planet’s surface and of protecting it against at least some of the impactors. In other words, yet another layer of geology that sets living planets such as the Earth, Mars or Titan apart from pretty dead worlds like the Moon, Mercury or Mimas.

This, however, won’t work, because there’s a whole range of gases that remain gaseous at the various temperatures the distance from the Sun creates and that don’t get blown away to space, especially at large distances. As a consequence, Pluto has an atmosphere, at least during part of its orbit (temporary atmospheres are another reason why this is not a good criterion for the same reason the barycenter criterion is bad to define double planets. See below), Triton, also smallish, too, and Mercury, much larger, does not. And all the other criteria that were thrown back and forth during the early times of the planet redefinition debate (presence of satellites, presence of volcanism, etc.) are so flawed that I’m afraid we’d only have one alternative: go arbitrary on this. As I wrote several times, I really hate arbitrary groupings, but I have to admit that sometimes we just don’t have any good choice. This is one of them.

So the problem becomes finding a number that suits us well. Let’s see… I’m sure most people would want to keep Mercury as a medium planet, for all sorts of reasons, which gives us a maximum diameter for the limit of 4879 km. Most people would also want all the belt planets to fall in the dwarf planet category, which means that the limit has to be superior to the diameter of Eris: 2600 km. It would be nice to be a neat, round number, which leaves us with 4000 or 3000 km. Just pick one.

Personally, I prefer 4000. If you do it my way and add satellites to the mix as secondary planets (in italics), you end up with these three size-based subcategories of planet in the Solar system:

  1. Giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. 4 in total.
  2. Medium planets: Earth, Venus, Mars, Ganymede, Titan, Mercury, Callisto. 7 in total, 3 of which secondary.
  3. Dwarf planets: Io, Moon, Europa, Triton, Eris, Pluto, Titania, Rhea, Oberon, Makemake, Iapetus, Charon, Umbriel, Ariel, Haumea, Dione, Tethys, Ceres, Enceladus, Miranda, Mimas plus a large number of other objects that are still in the lists of dwarf planet candidates. 21 for the time being, 16 of which secondary, a few dozens more already discovered (Sedna, Quaoar, etc.) and maybe many hundreds to be discovered.

(If you prefer setting the limit at 3000 km, Io, Moon and Europa go up to the medium planet zone, increading their numbers to 10; Dwarfs remain in the hundreds.)

And, according to location (in italics the belt planets except Charon, the only secondary, in bold the main planets):

  1. Inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Moon, Mars. 5 in total, one secondary.
  2. Asteroid belt planet: Ceres. 1 in total.
  3. Outer planets: Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Saturn, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Iapetus, Uranus, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, Neptune, Triton. 21 in total, 17 of which secondary.
  4. Kuiper belt planets: Pluto, Charon, Haumea, Makemake. 4 for the time being, 1 secondary, more already discovered and waiting for classification, probably more yet to discover.
  5. Scattered disc planet: Eris. 1 for the time being, a couple more already discovered, pretty certainly more to discover.
  6. Detached planets: none as yet, but at least Sedna will most certainly make the list, sooner or later. And more discoveries are likely.

Workable? I think so. And much better than what we have today because not only this planet subdivision keeps the actual structure of the Solar System visible (small number of large objects, increasingly larger numbers of increasingly smaller objects; each zone has its own planets in the list), instead of simplifying it to the extreme as the 8-planet approach does, but it can also be neatly used with extrasolar planets, demanding very little information to start with. Which is good.

How about hiring a linguist? December 1, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Terminology.
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Warning: this post will be a wee bit ranty. Well, perhaps more than just a wee bit.

Last chance to go read something else. No?

OK, you were warned. Here goes.

Often, I get the feeling that astronomers should be kept under a tight leash when it comes to naming things. Even when they do it kinda right, given what they know at the time of the naming, they usually show an appaling lack of vision, and then we’re stuck for all eternity with all these oh-so-misleading terms.

Take “asteroid”, for instance. OK, fine, at the time of naming, they looked through their telescopes and saw only an unresolved point of light, like a star, hence “asteroid” (which means “star-like” for those who don’t know). But they did already know that those objects were circling the sun, they did know that telescopes were constantly getting better, couldn’t they have, you know, forseen that one day we would probably be able to actually see asteroidal shapes? And that once we did, they would not look anything like stars anymore?

Another instance is planetary nebulae. Someone peeked at a telescope, saw a diffuse and faint disc and decided to make an association with the planets, despite the fact that nebulae were fixed in the sky, not at all wandering around as planets are inclined to do. And then, inevitably, it was found that planetary nebulae have absolutely nothing to do with planets. Obviously.

Stars don’t come in intermediate sizes, you know?, although they actually do. In astronomerland, they are either giants or dwarfs, no middle term. And who was the genius that came up with a name such as “brown dwarf”? Brown isn’t even a spectroscopic colour, for Pete’s sake!

And now, we have the dwarf planets. Oh, where to start with the dwarf planets? Well, here, for instance: they want to persuade us that dwarf planets are not planets. Beauty! But it actually gets much better. One would think that they are dwarfs because they are small, right? Oops: wrong. They are dwarfs because they belong to donut-shaped swarms of objects called “belts”. So, since the term dwarf doesn’t have anything to do with size, despite having, some day we’ll inevitably discover a non-dwarf planet which is smaller than part of the dwarfs.

Actually, we may have already found one: PSR B1257+12 D is the fourth planet discovered around pulsar PSR B1257+12 and, despite what wikipedia says, is not a dwarf planet because it’s the only body in its orbital zone, speculations of a Kuiper belt analogue notwithstanding. Yet, at some 0.0004 Earth masses it’s much smaller than Eris, which is about 0,0028 Earth masses.

Yeah, that’s right. PSR B1257+12 D, a non-dwarf planet, isn’t even 15% as massive as Eris, a dwarf planet. It’s your cue to facepalm.

Dwarfs, however, aren’t set in stone, unlike asteroids. Yet. We’re stuck with asteroids, but to avoid the dwarf disaster there’s still time. So how about this: want to have a term designating planets (or planet-like objects, if you prefer) that reside in belts? Fine, I think it’s a good idea. But if you are naming them after where they are for the sake of the holy FSM don’t choose a name that has to do with their size. A dwarf planet should be a small planet, regardless of where it is. Oh, but there’s that terrible question about what to call a planet that resides in a belt! Gosh! Hell, I hadn’t thought of tha… oh, wait! I know! How about belt planet?

Sometimes I scare myself. Eerie.

End rant. You can come back now.

So you want to talk about double planets? No sweat. November 30, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet, double and multiple planets.
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The post where I explain why 8 planets are bad science has been generating both good traffic and a rather interesting discussion in the comment boxes. Part if it is about double planets.

If you check the page, on this blog, where I present the current (and highly flawed) definition of planet and my alternative, you’ll find two things. One is that my alternative is quite simple and quite radical. Those long posts I keep mentioning but never get the time to write are mostly meant to explain all the reasoning behind that simplicity and radicality, along with why I think so poorly of the IAU’s definition. But I have been lacking the time to dive in those waters, and the best you may find for now are some hints spread here and there. One of the places where hints are to be found is the thread of comments in that post.

But maybe it’s time to actually write something a bit more solid than mere comments. And, since any place is good to start, why not taking the lead from the visitors to this blog and write about double planets?

The concept of double planet is very similar in its essence to that of a double star: two objects that share, more or less, the same characteristics, and that are gravitationally bound to eachother. However, whereas a double (or its extension: a multiple) planet has no definition anywhere, there is no question about what a double (or multiple) star is. A star is multiple if there is more than one star revolving about the same center of mass, the system’s baricenter. Note that nowhere is there any reference to where that barycenter lies. A small-mass star may be so close to a heavy star that the system’s barycenter lies inside the heavy one, and the system is still a double star. Undoubtedly.

The problem with planets arises because the only objects that are considered planets are those that revolve around stars (according to the IAU, it’s even worse: only the Sun can have planets, which is the most ridiculous aspect in that definition, but let’s forget about that particular nonsense for now). The fact that every planet that is part of a multiple-body system (i.e., the planet and its satellites) also revolves around that system’s center of mass murks the waters. True, in most situations the planet is much larger than its satellites, and the system’s center of mass lies deeply within it. But what if some day we’ll find two bodies of very similar sizes revolving around a center of mass that lies outside the planet? Which one is the planet then? Both? None?

And what to you mean “what if”? We already know one such system: Pluto-Charon. Even the Earth-Moon system may one day be in that scenario, for the Moon is constantly drifting away from our planet, which means that the system’s center of mass gets closer and closer to the Earth’s surface. But so far, it’s only Pluto-Charon. Pluto has traditionally been considered the planet and Charon the moon, but Pluto’s traditional standings have been getting a serious beating recently, and that one is no exception. In the first draft of the IAU definition of planet, swiftly defeated, Charon was to be “promoted” to the condition of planet and, together with Pluto, would form a double planet. The criterion was the position of the system’s barycenter.

That criterion is, however, just plain awful. Since the position of a system’s barycenter depends on the mass of the system’s components and on the distance between them, such a criterion could result in absolutely ridiculous situations. Imagine we find some fine day a system where the satellite’s mass is close to the planet’s and it’s on a highly eccentric orbit, meaning that the distance between the two objects varies a lot during an orbit. With the right masses and distances, when the two bodies get closer, the barycenter dips within the heaviest of the two bodies, and when they drift apart, the barycenter jumps from within the heaviest, hovers for a while above its surface only to dip again in the next orbit. Or, in other words, using that criterion, for part of each orbit the system would be composed of one planet and one satellite, and for the rest of each orbit it would be a double planet, obviously composed of two planets.

Sheer nonsense, don’t you agree? You do. I’m sure you do.

There are ways to solve this problem, of course. One is to say that there is no such thing as double planets: the heaviest of the set is a planet; the others are satellites and that’s it. Another one came up in the discussion of that post of mine: just establish an arbitrary limit of mass ratio between the two, above which the system would be considered a double planet, and below which it would just be a planet-satellite system. Since I’m very strongly opposed to establishing arbitrary limits (which is one of the reasons why I really hate the current IAU definition, but that’s for subsequent posts), I dislike the second option almost as much as I dislike the barycenter criterion. The first one is not arbitrary, so it’s fine with me.

Except that I have a better idea.

Let’s cover every part of the sizes’ scale. We’ve talked about stars and saw no problem there, we’ve talked about planets and saw a complete mess, let’s now see what happens in the lowest area, the asteroid, or small body, zone. Asteroids have also been found in associations of two or more gravitationally bound sets. The first asteroid found to be a binary was Ida, when Galileo (the probe, not the astronomer) photographed its moonlet Dactyl, in 1993, but in the last 16 years we’ve found almost 200 more such systems. Including systems with more than two components, the first of which was Sylvia, which has two (much) smaller companions: Remus and Romulus. What’s the terminology there?

Unsurprisingly for such a new set of concepts, it’s also a mess. People talk about asteroids and their moons, or moonlets, like they talk about planets and their satellites. However they also talk about binary asteroids and triple asteroids, without taking mass into account. The Ida-Dactyl system is a binary asteroid, despite the large difference in sizes between the two bodies. Hermes, number 69230 in the asteroid list, and composed of two components of almost the same size, is also a binary. That’s because, if taken independently, they both would surely be considered asteroids, so there’s no ambiguity. An asteroid moon is also an asteroid.

And that’s my great idea. If you look at my definition of planet, you’ll see that it only mentions roundness caused by self-gravity, not the position each body occupies in the great merry-go-round in the sky. This means that, yes, the Pluto sistem is a double planet, with two planets and two smaller bodies. An ice dwarf / ice dwarf kind of double planet. The Earth system is also a double planet, this time a terrestrial / terrestrial dwarf kind of double planet. Mars, on the contrary, is a single planet, despite being accompanied by two small bodies. Jupiter isn’t single and isn’t double: it’s a multiple planet, with 5 planets belonging to different categories (gas giant, terrestrial dwarf, maybe also ice dwarf) and a lot of smaller bodies. Saturn and Uranus are the “multiplest” of the planets, the first composed of 8 planets and a lot (really, a lot) of smaller bodies, the second comprising 6 planets plus debris. And Neptune is, again, a double planet. A gas giant / ice dwarf kind of double planet. Or perhaps an ice giant / ice dwarf. Plus small worlds, of course.

This way you get coherence along the whole scale of celestial objects. And solve easily and without ambiguity the whole double planet controversy. That’s on the plus side. On the minus side, it would make us change radically the way we look at these things. But maybe that’s not really a minus; you see, there are other reasons to do it.

But that would be for other posts.

A magnificent photo tour November 25, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Blogroll, Planets.
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No, my friends, unfortunately I still lack the time to feed this blog properly, with the long posts I plan to write. But in the meanwhile I may as well call your attention to a couple of posts in a blog called Daily Kos, which gather together a very, very nice set of photos (mostly) of pretty much all of the Solar System planets, satellites and minor bodies that have been imaged by spacecraft thus far.

You can find the first part here, showing us the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter and Saturn, the planetary moons Luna, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Titan, the minor moons Phobos, Deimos, Amalthea, Thebe, Pan, Daphnis, Atlas, Prometheus, Pandora, Epimetheus, Janus, Telesto, Calypso and Helene, and the minor bodies Itokawa, Eros, Ida (and Dactyl), Gaspra, Mathilde, Šteins, Annefrank, Borrelly, Wild 2, Tempel 1 and Halley.

The second part, found here, features the planets Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Eris, the planetary moons Iapetus, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, Triton and Charon, the minor moons Hyperion, Phoebe, Puck, Larissa and Proteus and the minor body (albeit dwarf planet candidate) Quaoar, plus a bunch of schematics and plots.

Wonderful stuff. Enjoy.

Wrapping our head around proportions August 24, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Planets.
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After writing the previous post, I was left with this uneasy feeling of not having been entirely fair towards not only placemats, but Solar System skematics in general. The truth is, it’s impossible to draw the Solar System to scale. The distances between the various bodies are so mind-boggingly vast, that something just has to be distorted, usually planet sizes. The only way to actually have everything to scale and to convey a real sense of sizes and distances is to scatter planet models over vast areas, and travel around the Solar System model thus created. Never in a skematic to be found online, in publications or in placemats.

We can also, of course, use numbers that are closer to our day-to-day experience. Inches, feet and miles for the americans; centimeters, meters and kilometers for the rest of the world. Shrink everything to fit into something a bit more palpable than thousands of kilometers and astronomical units. We all know what a meter is, more or less; we can stand up, put a hand somewhere along our torso and say “it’s about this high”, and we shouldn’t be wrong by much. So, if we divide all the true Solar System numbers by the same constant, we can provide a much more palpable notion of the real proportions out there. For instance…

Say the Sun’s diameter is not more than a million km (1 392 000 km, to be exact), but 100 meters. That’s still a pretty big ball: higher than the first level of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, and wider than the tower, too. Still, if the Sun is that big, the first of the planets is another ball… with a diameter of 35 centimeters. That’s not even twice the size of a football ball (americans: I’m referring to soccer here). And to find that 35-centimeter ball called Mercury, you’d have to walk more than 8 kilometers!

Next is Venus. To find it, you’d have to travel another 7 km, and when you finally do, you’d see a largeish 87 cm wide ball. You are now 15.5 km from your starting point already and your trek is just beginning. Next, the Earth, another largeish 92 cm-wide ball, is found 6 km further along the road, 21.5 km from your starting point. See a pattern here? Centimeter-wide balls separated by kilometers? Yeah, that’s how things will be till the end. Only more so.

Next: Mars. Mars is, of course, smaller, only 49 centimeters in diameter, and to reach it from the Earth you have to travel 11 km more, away from your 100 m Sun ball. You are now 32 km from it, and unless you have been climbing a mountain of some sort, you probably won’t be able to see it anymore. And you’re still in the inner Solar System.

The next planet, Ceres, is also the smallest. At only 7 centimeters in diameter, you can pick it up with ease, but you’ll probably have a real hard time finding it, after travelling almost 27 km from your last stop. The Sun, almost 60 km away, is nowhere to be spotted already.

Now you have a long travel to make: 52 km. That’s about half an hour if you have a car and a highway handy, but a neverending hike if you try to go on foot. At the end, you’ll find the second largest ball of all, a 10 meter wide cliff of a thing, which dwarfs you for the first time since you left the sun behind. That was, remember, almost 112 km ago.

Hop on the car, go back to the highway: you’ll be driving for almost an hour to cover the 93 km that separates you from your next destination: a more than 8 meter wide ball called Saturn. 8 meters would seem a lot, if you weren’t 205 km from your starting point already. That far from the Sun, it strikes you as a positively lonely chunk of planetary real estate. But hey, it’s a beautiful one, with all those rings and stuff, and with many other centimeter-wide balls hundreds of meters distant, in all directions. So it’s fine, kinda. But you have to keep going, so you return to the car, stop at the next gas station and fill your tank, because your next travel is long.

208 km long to be exact. There are capitals in Europe separated by less than that. And yet, it’s simply the distance between Saturn and Uranus in our model. The Sun is 413 km away. And when this long voyage finally ends, what you find is a blue ball with a diameter of three meters and 64 centimeters. You’re tired. But you’re stubborn and you want to reach the end of this, so you go find Neptune. To do it, you’ll have to travel 233 km more, and when you finally reach your destination, you find another blue, 3-meter wide ball. For a moment you may think you went in a circle and returned to Uranus, but when you measure the ball you discover that it’s 10 cm smaller than the previous, so you’re really where you should be. Phew! But where is that? That’s 646 km away from your starting point. In Europe, you’d probably be in another country already. In the Americas, in another state or province.

Now, you know that whoever made the model you’re travelling through didn’t bother with orbits and actual positions in space, only with the average distance to the Sun. Had he taken orbits into the model, you’d be now in big trouble, because the next planet, Pluto, actually gets closer to Uranus than to Neptune due to its orbital resonance with the latter planet. You’d have to make a really long travel to find it. But since the model creator didn’t bother with that, you can go on in a somewhat straight line, and after travelling another 202 km, you’ll find a 17-cm wide ball waiting for you with a slightly smaller one right next to it. You try to get your bearings from the Sun, but it’s no use. It’s now almost 850 km away.

Next stop: Haumea. To reach it, you have to travel another 78 kilometers, and once you do you find a weird ellipsoid some 8-10 cm in diameter. You’ve travelled for so long and so far, that your vision has become blurry, and you begin to have a real hard time seing the planets you’re trying to find. But you push on, travel for another 57 kilometers, and find another ball around 11 centimeters in diameter: Makemake. You think this has to stop somewhere, but you know you’re still to find Eris, so you get back to the car, and start driving.

This time it’s the largest travel of all: 470 km, no less, and when you finally stop, after almost falling asleep during the long hours of driving, you’re a whooping 1455 km from your startng point. You pick up the Eris ball. 19 centimeters in diameter. A foot ball is 22. And it’s cold, oh, so, so cold. You know there’s more. Orcus, Ixion, Varuna, Sedna, Quaoar. But you’re so tired you thank the IAU for its slowness in making officially new dwarf planets. Only one more stop and that’s a wrap. You’ve heard so much about the Oort cloud that you’d like to pay a visit. But when you ckeck your map, you have a surprise: it ain’t there. In fact, you find out you’d have to leave the Earth and almost Earth’s orbit to reach it, for its outer edge is supposedly more than a million km away, almost three times the distance to the Moon. You swear profusely, and all we can hear is a succession of beeps, but you finally give up and go find a hotel. You’ll have a very long way to go back tomorrow. A very long way indeed.

And remember: the Earth is not even one meter wide at this scale.

That’s how huge the Solar System is.

On placemats and other mostly cultural stuff August 24, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet.
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4 comments

Today, Mike Brown (I keep talking about this guy, for some reason) decided to post about placemats. I agree, they’re evil, and promote a very erroneous picture of the planetary fauna that exists out there and of the distances between the large and small chunks of rock, ice, gas and a few liquids that circle the sun. They are far from being unique in that, though. More often than not, even scientific illustrations fall prey to the same kind of reality-bending depictions most solar system skematics show. That’s actually part of the reason why I posted those two size comparisons below, and why I may follow with some more. Thanks to all those non-accurate renditions of planets’ sizes and distances, people are very often left with distorted notions about space. They think they know stuff, but they really don’t.

So he’s right. Mostly. Where he really gets it wrong is in thinking his version of placemat could really make a difference in the public perception of the solar system. People want simplicity: that’s why so many of the people complaining about the notion that evertything in hydrostatic equilibrium should be called a planet did it while brandishing the probable number of planets that would ensue. 200 planets? What an absurd, they said. Eight is much better: kids can learn their names by heart, they said. And, of course, have placemats with eight very incorrectly rendered planets instead of nine, much less 200.

That’s one of the cultural consequences of reducing the number of planets to 8. Instead of learning about the real solar system out there, about the various classes of planets that circle the sun, about how they interact with eachother, people will satisfy themselves with parroting some kind of mnemonic and end up knowing less about the solar system than they did when they thought the planets were 9, and much, much less than they could know with the term planet defined as a vast umbrella where every gravitational ball has its place.

And there’s another, recurrent, error 8-planet advocates fall into: to speak of these things as if the Solar System was the only planetary system of the universe. It most definitely is not.

Here’s a great reason to make dwarfs planets too August 20, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet, Dwarf planets.
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You know, Mike “Plutokiller” Brown estimates that there may be about 200 objects larger than 400 km in diameter in the Kuiper Belt, and guesstimates the number of similar objects beyond the Kuiper Belt to be around two thousand. He thinks all of these should be in hydrostatic equilibrium, and therefore should be considered dwarf planets. I’m not convinced (the smallest body actually known to be in hydrostatic equilibrium is Saturn’s moon Mimas, which is indeed about 400 km in diameter, but I think satellites will probably be found to have lower limits because tidal stresses should help gravity in the process of rounding them up; in the absense of these stresses, they won’t round up that easily), but I ain’t complaining. And I actually think that this should be a great reason to make all of them planets too. Or at least all of those that actually are in hydrostatic equilibrium.

You see, I’m sick and tired of astrological BS. And you just try to imagine the chaos astrologers would find themselves into if they had to deal with more than two thousand planets in order to make their so-called “predictions”. Ha! Wouldn’t that be a blast?

It would be worth it, just to make these guys’ lives considerably harder, methinks.

Disclaimer for the humour-impaired: this is a tongue-in-cheek post, not a scientific one.

Disclaimer PS: The part about Mimas is serious, though.

Odd balls August 15, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Extrasolar planets.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

Here’s something you don’t see every day: last week brought news of not one, but two extrasolar planets that are far more oddballish than anything we have in our Solar System. It started with the announcement that the newly discovered WASP-17b had two very bizarre characteristics. For starters, a planet with its mass, about half that of Jupiter, should be smaller than Jupiter… but that one is much larger. In fact, at twice Jupiter’s diameter (i. e., about 140 000 km), it is the largest planet known so far.

BANG! Strike one.

But what I find really juicy is another fact: WASP-17, the planet’s star, rotates in one direction, and the planet goes round it in the opposite direction.

WHAM! Whoa!

Why is this vastly interesting? Because planets form out of the same rotating clouds of matter that creates stars, which means that the direction of planetary movement around the star, at the time of its formation, has to be the same as the direction the star itself rotates. That’s what happens in the Solar System: not only all the planets go rond the sun in the same direction the sun itself rotates, but the same is true for the vast majority of planet’s moons and smaller objects… all the way down to comets. The only significant exception is Triton, the largest moon of Neptune, whose retrograde orbital motion (it’s the name this phenomenon has) led scientists to believe that at some point it was captured by Neptune from an orbit around the sun. That is: Triton is thought to have been a dwarf planet at some point. Fun fact: it’s about the same size as Eris.

OK, this may be true for almost all Solar System objects but isn’t for WASP-17b.

What this means is that something major happened to it after it was formed. Astronomers don’t seem to be giving much credit to a capture scenario, probably because the planet is so close to its star: it’s a “hot jupiter”. Instead they are speculating that at some point, probably after it was fully formed, it must have had a close encounter (a very close encounter!) with another giant planet that sent it spinning into the traffic, so to speak. The other, unknown, planet, was either sent into a very highly elliptical orbit, or ejected alltogether from the system. This last sentence is me, speculating, so don’t go thinking it’s the truth, OK?

Fascinating stuff!

And it gets better: the very next day, two teams announced the discovery of another retrograde planet, HAT-P-7b. This one wasn’t a new find; the planet was already known. The novelty here lies in the disalignment between the plane of the planet’s orbit and the rotation of its star. In this case, numbers are somewhat conflicting and unclear, so the only thing that is an absolute certainty is that HAT-P-7b does not orbit along the equator of HAT-P-7, as happens with all the major Solar System planets (i. e., all planets excluding most dwarfs): it may be highly inclined, orbiting along the poles or close to them, or, which seems more likely, it’s another retrograde, orbiting along the equator but in the opposite direction, like WASP-17b.

Double Whoa!

Planets, special, orderly, well-behaved objects? Yeah, right…

Addendum: Take a look at Exoplanetology blog, where the method used to make the discovery is very well explained. The only thing I don’t think is correct is where he talks about a violent collision: no collision with an object moving in the same direction could make a planet move in the opposite direction… but a very strong transfer of orbital momentum could.