Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Top 3 Planets in Our Solar System (Excluding Earth)

I was a total space geek when I was a kid. I liked reading about black holes and quasars, and looking at pictures of galaxies and nebulae, but my biggest fascination was always with the planets. While all those other things were fascinating and amazing, they were also unfathomably huge and distant. Planets, on the other hand, were so tantalizingly close, yet still out of our reach. I could imagine walking on them, orbiting them, or watching them from their moons. And they were all so weird and different, despite being so (relatively) close to home.

I had a ton of books about space, but my favorite was the Space Atlas. It was an absolutely wonderful book with a huge two-page spread dedicated to each planet, packed with pictures and drawings and tons of information. I must have read that book a hundred times in bed and had every fact about every planet memorized. Naturally, I had my favorites, and they have remained mostly unchanged over the years.

3. Jupiter
Besides being the biggest and weirdest looking planet, Jupiter is especially awesome because of its incredible moons. With Europa and Io, it was almost like loving three amazing and strange planets for the price of one! That three or four Earths could fit in the Great Red Spot blew my mind, and the prospect of life under Europa's icy surface kept me up thinking late into many nights.

For lack of a better segue, now check out the most amazing animated GIF ever! That's one photo every Jupiter day for an Earth month, as Voyager 1 approached the planet. This is what the internet is for, folks.

2. Venus
The radar image of Venus above was first released when I was a kid, and was the first time that we ever got to see the surface of the planet in detail. Both aspects of that fact made me love Venus. First, I loved the intrigue, that our closest (and in many ways most similar) planetary sibling spent most of human existence shrouded in mysterious clouds. Second, I felt like I was on the cutting edge of new knowledge. Here I was, a space-loving kid, and one of the first people in all of human history to see the surface of our fiery neighbor. Not only that, but these new pictures led to all sorts of crazy new theories, like that the whole surface of the planet melts once every few hundred million years. Cool!

1. Neptune
Like Venus, my love of Neptune is partly related to astronomical events from my childhood. I grew up during a 20 year period where Neptune was actually further from the sun than Pluto, and I loved to smugly correct people when they said Pluto was the most distant planet.

Even more significant was when they started finding other Kuiper Belt objects (not yet named as such) in the outer solar system. I absolutely ate this news up, making my mom buy Astronomy magazine every time "New Planet Discovered!" appeared at the top. These distant worlds were almost impossible to imagine and the fuzzy dots absolutely did not satisfy me. Then I learned that astronomers suspected Neptune's moon Triton was a captured one of these distant icy "planets"; I had great pictures of Triton in my Space Atlas! This gave my imagination all the fodder it needed.

Other fascinating tidbits were that Triton, like Europa, had a (much smaller) chance of life beneath its icy surface. And that Neptune had a Great Dark Spot of its own--though this turned out later to be sadly just a transient storm.

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  1. Poor Pluto :(


  2. Eh, Pluto had it coming. You can't expect to fit in with an orbit like that.