Curious Kids: is the sky blue on other planets?



Unlike Earth’s atmosphere, Jupiter’s ‘sky’ hosts magnificent shades of orange, white, brown and blue.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt, CC BY-SA

Jake Clark, University of Southern Queensland


Is the sky blue on other planets, like on Earth? What is an atmosphere, and do other planets have one? – Charlie, age 10



G’day Charlie, and thank you so much for your incredibly curious question.

Before I get too excited talking about the atmospheres of other planets, first we have to talk about what an atmosphere actually is.

Earth’s atmosphere is split into different layers.
ESA

The atmosphere is normally the outermost layer of a planet. On rocky worlds like Earth it is usually the lightest and thinnest layer.

The thing that makes an atmosphere an atmosphere is what it’s made of. It’s not made up of big lumps of rocks or huge swirling oceans; it is made up of gases.

What’s in an atmosphere?

Atmospheres can contain a wide variety of gases. Most of Earth’s atmosphere is a gas called nitrogen that doesn’t really react with anything. There’s also a fair bit of oxygen, which is what we need to breathe. There are also two other important gases called argon and carbon dioxide, and tiny amounts of lots of other ones.

The mix of gases is what gives a planet’s atmosphere its colour.




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Earth’s atmosphere is made up of gases that tend to bounce blue light in all directions (known as “scattering”) but let most other colours of light straight through. This scattered light is what gives Earth’s atmosphere its blue colour.

Do other planets have blue atmospheres? Some of them sure do!

The blue “haze” surrounding Earth in space is caused by the scattering of light from Earth’s atmosphere.

Other worlds

The atmospheres of the two ice giants in our solar system, Neptune and Uranus, are both beautiful shades of blue.

However, these atmospheres are a different blue than ours. It’s caused by the huge amounts of a gas called methane swirling around.

(Side note: methane is also the main component of farts. That’s right, there’s a layer of farts on Uranus.)

The atmosphere of Uranus (left) is slightly greener than Neptune’s (right).
NASA / JPL-Caltech / Björn Jónsson

Jupiter and Saturn, however, have completely different-coloured atmospheres.

Ice crystals made of a chemical called ammonia in Saturn’s upper atmosphere make it a pale shade of yellow.

Uranus’ atmosphere also contains some ammonia, which makes the planet a slightly greener shade than the deep blue we see on Neptune.

Jupiter’s atmosphere has distinctive brown and orange bands, thanks to gases that may contain the elements phosphorus and sulfur, and possibly even more complicated chemicals called hydrocarbons.**

The Juno spacecraft flying past Jupiter in 2017.

In some extreme cases, the entire planet might just be a huge atmosphere with no rocky surface at all. Astronomers and planetary scientists like myself are still trying to work out whether Jupiter and Saturn have rocky surfaces, deep down in their atmosphere, or whether they’re both simply huge balls of gas.

The Cassini spacecraft took this cracking image of Saturn back in 2010.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

However, there are some planets that have no atmosphere at all! The Sun’s closest and smallest neighbour, Mercury, is one example. Its surface is exposed to the vastness of space.

Beyond our solar system

So far I’ve been talking about the atmospheres of planets in our Solar system. But what about planets in other planetary systems, orbiting other stars?

Well, astronomers have been detecting the atmospheres of these planets (which we call “exoplanets”) for the past 20 years! It wasn’t until last year, however, that astronomers managed to detect the atmosphere of a rocky exoplanet. The planet is called LHS 3844b and it’s so far away that the light takes almost 50 years to reach us!

LHS 3844b weighs twice as much as Earth, and we astronomers thought it would have a pretty thick atmosphere. But, to our surprise, it has little to no atmosphere at all! So it might be more like Mercury than Earth.

Animation showing an artist’s impression on what LHS 3844b’s surface may look like.

We still have a lot to learn about far-off planets and discovering one with an Earth-like atmosphere that’s ripe for life is still many years away.

Maybe, Charlie, you could be the first astronomer to detect an Earth-like atmosphere on another world!The Conversation

Jake Clark, PhD Candidate, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What caused the fireballs that lit up the sky over Australia?



One of the fireballs (highlighted by the red circle) captured over the Northern Territory.
NT Emergency Services

Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

Over the past few days a pair of spectacular fireballs have graced Australia’s skies.

The first, in the early hours of Monday, May 20, flashed across the Northern Territory, and was seen from both Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, more than 500km apart.

The second came two days later, streaking over South Australia and Victoria.

Such fireballs are not rare events, and serve as yet another reminder that Earth sits in a celestial shooting gallery. In addition to their spectacle, they hold the key to understanding the Solar system’s formation and history.

Crash, bang, boom!

On any clear night, if you gaze skyward long enough, you will see meteors. These flashes of light are the result of objects impacting on our planet’s atmosphere.




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Specks of debris vaporise harmlessly in the atmosphere, 80-100km above our heads, all the time – about 100 tons of the stuff per day.

The larger the object, the more spectacular the flash. Where your typical meteor is caused by an object the size of a grain of dust (or, for a particularly bright one, a grain of rice), fireballs like those seen this week are caused by much larger bodies – the size of a grapefruit, a melon or even a car.

Such impacts are rarer than their tiny siblings because there are many more small objects in the Solar system than larger bodies.

Moving to still larger objects, you get truly spectacular but rare events like the incredible Chelyabinsk fireball in February 2013.

That was probably the largest impact on Earth for 100 years, and caused plenty of damage and injuries. It was the result of the explosion of an object 10,000 tonnes in mass, around 20 metres in diameter.

On longer timescales, the largest impacts are truly enormous. Some 66 million years ago, a comet or asteroid around 10km in diameter ploughed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The result? A crater some 200km across, and a mass extinction that included the dinosaurs.

Even that is not the largest impact Earth has experienced. Back in our planet’s youth, it was victim to a truly cataclysmic event, when it collided with an object the size of Mars.

When the dust and debris cleared, our once solitary planet was accompanied by the Moon.

The story behind the formation of the Moon.

Impacts that could threaten life on Earth are, thankfully, very rare. While scientists are actively searching to make sure no extinction-level impacts are coming in the near future, it really isn’t something we should lose too much sleep about.

Smaller impacts, like those seen earlier this week, come far more frequently – indeed, footage of another fireball was reported earlier this month over Illinois in the United States.

In other words, it is not that unusual to have two bright fireballs in the space of a couple of days over a country as vast as Australia.

Pristine relics of planet formation

These bright fireballs can be an incredible boon to our understanding of the formation and evolution of the Solar system. When an object is large enough, it is possible for fragments (or the whole thing) to penetrate the atmosphere intact, delivering a new meteorite to our planet’s surface.

Meteorites are incredibly valuable to scientists. They are celestial time capsules – relatively pristine fragments of asteroids and comets that formed when the Solar system was young.

Most meteorites we find have lain on Earth for long periods of time before their discovery. These are termed “finds” and while still valuable, are often degraded and weathered, chemically altered by our planet’s wet, warm environment.

By contrast, “falls” (meteorites whose fall has been observed and that are recovered within hours or days of the event) are far more precious. When we study their composition, we can be confident we are studying something ancient and pristine, rather than worrying that we’re seeing the effect of Earth’s influence.

Tracking the fireballs

For this reason, the Australian Desert Fireball Network has set up an enormous network of cameras across our vast continent. These cameras are designed to scour the skies, all night, every night, watching for fireballs like those seen earlier this week.

If we can observe such a fireball from multiple directions, we can triangulate its path, calculate its motion through the atmosphere, and work out whether it is likely to have dropped a meteorite. Using that data, we can even work out where to look.

A successful meteorite search by the Australian Desert Fireball Network.

In addition to these cameras, the project can make use of any data provided by people who saw the event. For that reason, the Fireballs team developed a free app, Fireballs in the Sky.




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It contains great information about fireballs and meteor showers, and has links to experiments tied into the national curriculum. More importantly, it also allows its users to submit their own fireball reports.

As for this week’s fireball over southern Australia, NASA says it was probably caused by an object the size of a small car. As for finding any remains, they are now likely lost in the waters of the Great Australian Bight.The Conversation

NASA’s record on the location marked in the Great Australian Bight of one of the fireballs over Australia this week.
NASA

Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.