Friday, November 30, 2012

Some Nice Planets You've Missed

By J.S. Holland

It was almost three years ago that I penned, on my Steampunk blog, a travelogue of little-known planets in our solar system that should be household words but probably aren't in yours. Read the article I just linked to there - it's a grabber - but in a nutshell, in bold strokes, the gist is that in the last 20 years our solar system has turned out to be filled with all kinds of crazy planet-like objects.

So many, in fact, that it's totally thrown a monkeywrench into NASA's arbitrary and archaic classification system. Facing potentially having to allow hundreds of thousands of objects to become classified as planets, NASA hastily cobbled together a new system that demoted Pluto's planet status to that of "dwarf planet". Scrambling to deal with newly-discovered objects that didn't quite fit the expectations of a planet, a comet, or an asteroid (a term that, by the way, is essentially meaningless), NASA has had to conjure up an entire new lexicon of silly terms like "centaurs", "SDOs", "trans-Neptunian objects", "Kuiper Belt objects", "cubewanos", etc. until it's all broken down and the point gets lost.

What is the point? It's this: our position here is that all these pieces of outer-space effluvia should simply be called PLANETS and leave it at that, no muss no fuss. Lab-coated wonks in the back can still have their infinitely recapitulative exercises in arranging things in word-boxes, quietly, amongst themselves, behind closed doors in the mighty halls of science.

"But most of these minor planets aren't perfectly spherical like a 'real' planet", you might say. Except it was discovered that Pluto is actually kinda lumpy, and in fact even the Earth is not the perfect sphere we once believed it to be. Pallas (pictured at left above) and Vesta (pictured at right below) are round enough for me. "But some of them aren't really held together solidly and are just loose rubble piles", you might say. So what? Jupiter is just a bubble of freaking gas, okay, so don't even play that card. Even a tiny potato-shaped rock like the planet Eros is more of a planet to me in a classical sense than gassy giants like Jupiter and Saturn.

And even without swallowing that philosophical meatball whole, come on, man, there's a kazillion planets like Object #225088 - it's round, it orbits the sun, it has water ice, and it even has an atmosphere. What the freak more do you want? It's a planet. End of discussion. 'Cept it ain't, because there's more:

Now, in what seems almost like another life since I blogged that original "Don't Panic" rant, I sit here pondering the moons of all these wonderful planets, and thinking to myself that there's really no reason we should not be calling, say, Europa (pictured at top) a planet even though it's also a moon of Saturn. Since we now know that "minor planets" can have moons of their own, and that sometimes the moon can be almost the same size as the planet itself, and that sometimes they're binary objects both orbiting a single center of gravity together, then heck, let's open the floodgates and let 'em in to planet status.

Here's just a smattering:

Enceladus. Did you know Saturn has 62 moons? Things have certainly changed since we were in high school! And one of the most fascinating ones is Enceladus, which actually has volcanoes of ice water spewing so high into the atmosphere you can see it from space. Why, oh why aren't we colonizing this rock - scuse me, planet - right now?

Umbriel. My bucket list of planets to see includes the planet Umbriel (you may still be calling it a "moon of Uranus". There's 27 moons of Uranus known to exist so far, by the way) There's a crater on Umbriel called Wunda that appears in photos to have a mysterious whitish impact deposit of God-knows-what, which is not something you see every day in this here solar system. Road trip!!

Dysnomia. The planet Dysnomia is orbiting the planet Eris (you're getting the hang of this now, aren't you?) and is by some accounts as large as 490 km. That's big enough, I think, to qualify for a Starbucks, don't you?

Io. Jupiter has a whopping 67 moons. (As a kid in the 1970s I was taught that there were only 13 of them. Imagine what we'll know tomorrow.) Forget labels a second, we're talking about 67 unexplored worlds relatively close to us in Jupiter's influence. Let that sink in and then chew on the fact that there's a grand total of at least 174 moons in our solar system. That's a heck of a lot of real estate that we know very little about. What we do know is that the planet Io is a very active hotspot, with over 400 volcanoes. Unlike most satellites - which are mostly made of water/ice - Io is primarily silicate rock surrounding a molten iron or iron sulfide core.

Lately a recurring feature on my Twitter has been my own #JSHSS hashtag, in which I expound on my deconstructionist and reductionist plans to simplify the nomenclature of our heavenly bodies; check it out. In case you're wondering why all the renewed hubbub and foofaraw about this, I'll drop you a hint: it might be my little way of softening you up, dear reader, for the setting of my upcoming as-yet-untitled sci-fi novel of which for now I can say no more.

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