miniver Let's have sex in space.

We ARE having sex in space!

Strideo Mercury has been known since at least the time of the Sumerians (3rd millennium BC). It was given two names by the Greeks: Apollo for its apparition as a morning star and Hermes as an evening star. Greek astronomers knew, however, that the two names referred to the same body. Heraclitus even believed that Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun, not the Earth.

Mercury has been visited by only one spacecraft, Mariner 10. It flew by three times in 1974 and 1975. Only 45% of the surface was mapped (and, unfortunately, it is too close to the Sun to be safely imaged by HST).


The pressure of Venus' atmosphere at the surface is 90 atmospheres (about the same as the pressure at a depth of 1 km in Earth's oceans). It is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. There are several layers of clouds many kilometers thick composed of sulfuric acid. These clouds completely obscure our view of the surface. This dense atmosphere produces a run-away greenhouse effect that raises Venus' surface temperature by about 400 degrees to over 740 K (hot enough to melt lead). Venus' surface is actually hotter than Mercury's despite being nearly twice as far from the Sun.


It was not until the time of Copernicus (the sixteenth century) that it was understood that the Earth is just another planet.

Earth, of course, can be studied without the aid of spacecraft. Nevertheless it was not until the twentieth century that we had maps of the entire planet. Pictures of the planet taken from space are of considerable importance; for example, they are an enormous help in weather prediction and especially in tracking and predicting hurricanes. And they are extraordinarily beautiful.


Mars has been known since prehistoric times. It is still a favorite of science fiction writers as the most favorable place in the Solar System (other than Earth!) for human habitation. But the famous "canals" "seen" by Lowell and others were, unfortunately, just as imaginary as Barsoomian princesses.

The first spacecraft to visit Mars was Mariner 4 in 1965. Several others followed including Mars 2, the first spacecraft to land on Mars and the two Viking landers in 1976 (left). Ending a long 20 year hiatus, Mars Pathfinder landed successfully on Mars on 1997 July 4 (right).

Mars' orbit is significantly elliptical. One result of this is a temperature variation of about 30 C at the subsolar point between aphelion and perihelion. This has a major influence on Mars' climate. While the average temperature on Mars is about 218 K (-55 C, -67 F), Martian surface temperatures range widely from as little as 140 K (-133 C, -207 F) at the winter pole to almost 300 K (27 C, 80 F) on the day side during summer.

Though Mars is much smaller than Earth, its surface area is about the same as the land surface area of Earth.


Jupiter and the other gas planets have high velocity winds which are confined in wide bands of latitude. The winds blow in opposite directions in adjacent bands. Slight chemical and temperature differences between these bands are responsible for the colored bands that dominate the planet's appearance. The light colored bands are called zones; the dark ones belts. The bands have been known for some time on Jupiter, but the complex vortices in the boundary regions between the bands were first seen by Voyager. The data from the Galileo probe indicate that the winds are even faster than expected (more than 400 mph) and extend down into as far as the probe was able to observe; they may extend down thousands of kilometers into the interior. Jupiter's atmosphere was also found to be quite turbulent. This indicates that Jupiter's winds are driven in large part by its internal heat rather than from solar input as on Earth.

The vivid colors seen in Jupiter's clouds are probably the result of subtle chemical reactions of the trace elements in Jupiter's atmosphere, perhaps involving sulfur whose compounds take on a wide variety of colors, but the details are unknown.

The colors correlate with the cloud's altitude: blue lowest, followed by browns and whites, with reds highest. Sometimes we see the lower layers through holes in the upper ones.


Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. Galileo was the first to observe it with a telescope in 1610; he noted its odd appearance but was confused by it. Early observations of Saturn were complicated by the fact that the Earth passes through the plane of Saturn's rings every few years as Saturn moves in its orbit. A low resolution image of Saturn therefore changes drastically. It was not until 1659 that Christiaan Huygens correctly inferred the geometry of the rings. Saturn's rings remained unique in the known solar system until 1977 when very faint rings were discovered around Uranus (and shortly thereafter around Jupiter and Neptune).

Saturn was first visited by Pioneer 11 in 1979 and later by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Cassini, now on its way, will arrive in 2004.

Saturn is visibly flattened (oblate) when viewed through a small telescope; its equatorial and polar diameters vary by almost 10% (120,536 km vs. 108,728 km). This is the result of its rapid rotation and fluid state. The other gas planets are also oblate, but not so much so.


Uranus, the first planet discovered in modern times, was discovered by William Herschel while systematically searching the sky with his telescope on March 13, 1781. It had actually been seen many times before but ignored as simply another star (the earliest recorded sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed cataloged it as 34 Tauri). Herschel named it "the Georgium Sidus" (the Georgian Planet) in honor of his patron, the infamous (to Americans) King George III of England; others called it "Herschel". The name "Uranus" was first proposed by Bode in conformity with the other planetary names from classical mythology but didn't come into common use until 1850.

Uranus has been visited by only one spacecraft, Voyager 2 on Jan 24 1986.


Neptune has been visited by only one spacecraft, Voyager 2 on Aug 25 1989. Much of we know about Neptune comes from this single encounter. But fortunately, recent ground-based and HST observations have added a great deal, too.

Because Pluto's orbit is so eccentric, it sometimes crosses the orbit of Neptune making Neptune the most distant planet from the Sun for a few years.

Neptune's composition is probably similar to Uranus': various "ices" and rock with about 15% hydrogen and a little helium. Like Uranus, but unlike Jupiter and Saturn, it may not have a distinct internal layering but rather to be more or less uniform in composition. But there is most likely a small core (about the mass of the Earth) of rocky material. Its atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium with a small amount of methane.


Pluto is the only planet that has not been visited by a spacecraft. Even the Hubble Space Telescope can resolve only the largest features on its surface (left and above). There is a planned mission called New Horizons that will launch in 2006 if it gets funded.

Fortunately, Pluto has a satellite, Charon. By good fortune, Charon was discovered (in 1978) just before its orbital plane moved edge-on toward the inner solar system. It was therefore possible to observe many transits of Pluto over Charon and vice versa. By carefully calculating which portions of which body would be covered at what times, and watching brightness curves, astronomers were able to construct a rough map of light and dark areas on both bodies.

Pluto's radius is not well known. JPL's value of 1137 is given with an error of +/-8, almost one percent.

Though the sum of the masses of Pluto and Charon is known pretty well (it can be determined from careful measurements of the period and radius of Charon's orbit and basic physics) the individual masses of Pluto and Charon are difficult to determine because that requires determining their mutual motions around the center of mass of the system which requires much finer measurements -- they're so small and far away that even HST has difficulty. The ratio of their masses is probably somewhere between 0.084 and 0.157; more observations are underway but we won't get really accurate data until a spacecraft is sent.
jane see: nebula 021217
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