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The Universe Review

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by Simon Crust Mar 10, 2011 at 7:42 AM

    The universe is big. Seriously huge. So vast in magnitude that our minds cannot even comprehend its size. Put it this way, in 1995 the Hubble telescope captured an image of space that Earth-bound telescopes see as ‘nothing’ (i.e. no light can reach them). That image, known as the Hubble Deep Field revealed something like fifteen hundred galaxies (consider each galaxy contains millions of stars, and each star has its own array of planets) which were previously unknown and unseen. Ten years later the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image was captured; same principle – point the detector at ‘nothing’ and capture an image to see what is there – the resultant picture is utterly astonishing, revealing something like ten thousand additional galaxies (remember each galaxy contains millions of stars, and each star has its own array of planets) all in an area of space previously described as void. It’s a humbling thought, no? However, as astronomers delve deeper and deeper into space to discover the very beginnings of our Universe, there is as much wonder to be found in our own solar system, and, extrapolating from the findings, a model for all such systems can be constructed and thus the potential for that most sought after question can try to be answered – is there life beyond our own planet? Reason dictates that the sheer number of planets means that there must be something somewhere – but the distances are so vast that proving it becomes nearly insurmountable and as for contact, well that is impossible. But there are tantalising clues, any free water being the main one, even within our own solar system, and if extra-terrestrial life can be found within it, be it mere bacteria, then that will be a discovery of immeasurable magnitude, and call into question existence and belief reaching far beyond that of the science.

    Whilst such fundamental questions are somewhat beyond tonight’s feature, the first chapter, Enceladus, does look at the possibility of free water within this moon’s core; the vast geysers of ice that erupt from the Southern Polar surface as the moon rotates on its elliptical orbit around Saturn, must come from somewhere, and the supposition is the moon’s core. However, since it is so far from the sun where does the heat come from to allow free water (free water being the liquid form)? The answer is gravitational pull from Saturn coupled with the elliptical orbit, which has the effect of squeezing and pulling on the moon’s surface, which, in turn, transfers that energy into the planet as friction causing heat – thus free water – and the same cause forces this water out of the huge fissures on the moon’s Polar surface; space being near absolute zero instantaneously freezes the water as it leaves the surface and the result is the plumes of ice and dust that we describe as geysers from their hot water equivalent on Earth. The Cassini spacecraft, from NASA, went into orbit around Saturn in July 2004 and has had the opportunity of close examination of this phenomenon; so much so that in addition to the water (ice) vapour, complex hydrocarbons have been discovered – all the right ingredients for the formation of life – it’s little wonder this moon is the subject of such close scrutiny and is rightly regarded as the first ‘Wonder of the Solar System’.

    Sticking with Saturn, and the Cassini mission, although this discovery was first made by Galileo in 1610, is that truly awe inspiring sight; the Rings of Saturn. For hundreds of years these rings have inspired debate, not just about what they are made of, but how they formed. Of course the former question has now largely been answered due to the various satellite missions and close observational data. The question of their formation, however, is still the subject of debate with theories about an exploding moon, or meteoric dust, or the favourite (for the moment) partials of dust and ice that form larger clumps and then break apart, still in orbit, giving rise to the ‘youthful’ nature of the Rings. But however they were truly formed they are indeed a wonder to behold, and are one of the few astronomical bodies that can be seen from Earth with a basic reflecting telescope. It does, however, take orbiting satellites to fully appreciate their geometric wonder, how they are not ‘flat’ but have a complex pattern in three dimensions and, as such, are regarded as the second ‘Wonder of the Solar System’.

    Moving slightly closer to home, the third Wonder is also visible from Earth-bound telescopes and has had much the same debate as the Rings above; Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Jupiter is the Solar System’s largest planet and its presence ensured the emergence of life on our planet; in short it’s gravitational ‘shield’ deflects pretty much everything from Earth’s orbit ensuring that it isn't hit by any roaming comets that, as we know, devastate the planet – it’s not perfect as some have clearly managed to get through, and there is also discussion that as well as it’s protective nature, it’s very presence and orbit, in fact, put us in harm’s way from the asteroid belt as Jupiter can pluck one and send it hurtling in our direction. But that is another story. The Great Red Spot is a storm on Jupiter’s surface that has been raging for over one hundred and eighty years, although some think it has been at least twice that long. Its observation, again from passing satellites, has highlighted its red colouring and, perhaps more fascinating, its anti-cyclone nature; in that it rotates against the natural flow of the planet, as well as its great size – enough to engulf planet Earth! Due to close observations we now know a great deal about the Spot, from wind speed to temperature; but it is its very presence and enigmatic nature that places it as the third ‘Wonder of the Solar System’.

    Between the inner rocky planets and the outer gas giants there is a debris field of silicified rock and metallic minerals, from dust partials all the way up to dwarf-planet size bodies (one thousand km diameter) collectively called the ‘Asteroid Belt’. The study of these bodies is deemed extremely relevant due to their age and composition; they are considered remnants of the building blocks of not only the Solar System, but the very Universe itself. The field is made up of possibly millions of larger bodies, but they are extremely well spaced out meaning that the Solar exploration satellites routinely make it through without incident. It is barely possible to study these asteroids in situ, but their orbit is disturbed by Jupiter meaning that it is not that uncommon for bodies to be driven towards and even hit the Earth. This enables study of the formation of the bodies and by extension that of the solar system and universe, when there is enough left to study, the concern comes when larger bodies fall into that collision course .... However, that too is out of the realms of this review. The significance of these asteroids, as well as their nature within the Solar system makes the Asteroid Belt the fourth ‘Wonder of the Solar System’.

    What is the largest mountain on Earth? If you answered Everest you are wrong, in pure height, from ground to summit it is Hawaii (more specifically Mauna Loa), which is some two hundred metres taller. However, even that is dwarfed by Olympus Mons, an extinct volcano found on Mars, which is some three times the size of Hawaii! It is significant because its very existence proves that Mars once had a molten core; that along with the many deltaic tracks of extinct rivers point to a world that, at one time, may have been very Earth like, and thus the possibility of life outside our own planet may exist. However, Mars is smaller than Earth, too small to hold the heat required to keep the core molten and thus as it cooled, so too did Mars and eventually lost everything to the coldness of space. Olympus Mons, though, represents the last hurrah of a dying world, a gigantic bulge reaching out to the heavens in defiance of its own existence; with no atmosphere to erode it, this mountain is the largest in the Solar System and, as such, grants itself as the fifth ‘Wonder of the Solar System’.

    Our sun being the centre of our Solar System is the source of everything, not just life, but the very planet on which we stand. Its gravitational pull now holds the Solar System together, but its original pull and collapse spontaneously created itself in the first place; eddies in the swirling mass of cosmic dust orbiting it then formed the planets. It is just the right size and burns at just the right heat to hold everything in cosmic balance. And its surface is a seething mass of wonder, punctuated by plasma bursts, vast ejections of burning matter, complex magnetic fields and dark cyclic sun spots; and not a smooth bright surface as one might imagine it might be. All these are visible using a telescope from Earth; NEVER look directly at the sun, but project the image onto card and view how mobile and energetic the surface of the sun is, sun spots, the corona and other surface attributes are clearly visible and go some way towards determining quite how dynamic the sun really is. It truly is life. And because of that, the sun’s surface is the second ‘Wonder of the Solar System’.

    Bringing us to the final and greatest wonder of the Solar System – our home planet of Earth. So far, although we’re continually looking, it is unique not only in the Solar System, not only in the galaxy, but also in the Universe, as the only planet with sustainable life. There is so much that is needed for life to exist and it all works perfectly here; the size and heat radiation of the sun, the distance from it, the size of the planet, the shape of the Solar System and the outer gas giants form the basis of supporting life as without them there would be no free water and without that there will be no life – free carbon, heat, light, water and, most importantly of all, time – these are the main ingredients needed and our planet had them in abundance. When the first amino acids formed, be it by cosmic attributes or the Earth’s own black smokers, little did they know that it was a small step to creating something so wonderful as living breathing life, in all its incredible diversity. Once bacteria formed, and from then the algal mats able to produce oxygen, without which there would be no complex life, and the formation of the ozone layer (the protection needed from the sun (cosmic radiation), who brought life in the first place) to the ‘sudden’ explosion of vertebrate life six hundred and fifty million years ago (a mere blip considering the life of the planet) giving rise to the Earth’s most magnificent wonder – Human kind. Our planet truly is a wonder and rightly deserves its place as the seventh ‘Wonder of the Solar System’.

    The Seven Wonders of the Solar System explores each of these Wonders, by using state of the art computer graphics to take us up to and through these astonishing wonders of nature and with the benefit of 3D these really come alive to explore. The narration and allegory may be a tad simplistic but that does mean it can be enjoyed by both young and old and by those without any scientific background. It does not attempt to answer whether our world is unique in the universe, but it does pose the question, and considering the vast amount of space, stars and solar systems there are, it would be nice to think that we are not alone.