Eyes on The Size

An excellent Fall day, perfect for a brisk walk around the park’s goose-governed lake. Suddenly there’s a goose-like yawp behind me. “Hey Moire, wait up, I got a question!”

“Afternoon, Mr Feder. What’s your question today?”

“You know how the Moon’s huge just after it gets over the horizon but then it gets small? How do they make it do that?”

“Well, ‘they’ is you, Mr Feder, except that nothing physically changes.”

“Whaddaya mean, I seen it change size every time there’s a full moon.”

“That’s what it looks like, but think it through. We’re here in the Midwest, two hours away from your folks back home in Fort Lee. Back when you lived there, did the Moon ever suddenly grow and then shrink when it was two hours up into the sky?”

“Um, no, just at the horizon. So you’re saying it’s one of them optical delusions?”

“Something like that. Here, I’ve got a video on Old Reliable. See how the disk stays the same size but it looks bigger in comparison to the railroad tracks? Your brain expects the tracks to be parallel lines despite the perspective, right, so it compensates by thinking the Moon must be wider when it’s next to them. In the real world you’ve looking at the Moon past trees or buildings, but the false perspective principle applies whether the horizon’s relatively close or far away.”

“Whaddaya mean, close or far horizon? It’s the edge of how far I can see and that’s always the same.”

“Oh, hardly, Mr Feder. You ever visit the Empire State Building’s observation deck?”


“How about deep-sea fishing, out of sight of land?”

“Aw, that’s a blast, when you hook one of those big guys and you’re –“

“I’m sure you enjoyed it, but did you look around while you were waiting for a strike?”

“Yeah, nothin’ else to do but yammer and drink beer.”

“Mm-hm. So could you see as far from the boat’s deck as you could from the building’s deck?”

“Hey, you’re right. A lot farther from high up. They say on a clear day you can see 80 miles from the Empire State Building — nowhere near that from the boat, believe me. ‘S why they put those decks up there, I guess. How far up do I gotta be to see the whole world, I wonder.”

“Quick answer is, infinitely far away.”

“Wait, those astronauts got that ‘Blue Marble’ picture from the Moon and it showed the whole day side.”

“Take a closer look someday. It shows Antarctica but essentially nothing north of the 45th parallel. The limit’s set by the points on the planet where lines from your eye just graze the planet’s surface. The astronauts in this LEM, for instance, are about an Earth-radius away. They’d be able to see the Atlantic Ocean and a little bit of Brazil, but neither of the poles and no part of the USA.”

“Gimme a sec … yeah, I see how that works. So that ‘how high up you are‘ thing keeps going all the way out into space. There’s probably some complicated formula for it, right?”

“Not that complicated, just d=(h²+2Rh), where h is your height above the surface and R is the radius of the planet you’re looking at. Plug in the numbers and d gives you your distance to the horizon. For that LEM, for example, h is one Earth radius and R is one radius, so those straight lines are 3=1.73 Earth radii long.”

“How about the line on top of the ocean?”

“That’s a little more complicated.” <more tapping on Old Reliable> “Says here that line stretches exactly one-third of the Earth’s circumference.”

“You can do that with other planets?”

“Sure. Mars, for instance. It has the tallest volcano in the Solar System, Olympus Mons. Depending on where you’re measuring from it’s about 22 kilometers high. I’ll put that into the formula with Mars’ radius, 3389 kilometers, and … OK, if you’re standing on top, your horizon is 387 kilometers away. That’s like looking halfway across France. Mars’ big canyon Vallis Marinaris has 7-kilometer cliffs. There are places where the opposite wall is way beyond the cliff-top’s 96-mile horizon.”

“That beats the Empire State Building.”

~~ Rich Olcott


Where would you put it all?

Vinnie’s a big guy but he’s good at fading into the background. I hadn’t even noticed him standing in the back corner of Cathleen’s impromptu seminar room until he spoke up. “That’s a great theory, Professor, but I wanna see numbers for it.”

“Which part of it don’t you like, Vinnie?”

“You made it seem so easy for all those little sea thingies to scrub the carbon dioxide out of Earth’s early atmosphere and just leave the nitrogen and oxygen behind. I mean, that’d be a lot of CO2. Where’d they put it all?”

“That’s a reasonable question, Vinnie. Lenore, could you put your Chemistry background to work on it for us?”

“Oh, this’ll be fun, but I don’t want to do it in my head. Mr Moire, could you fire up Old Reliable for the calculations?”

“No problem. OK, what do you want to calculate?”

“Here’s my plan. Rather than work with the number of tons of carbon in the whole atmosphere, I’ll just look at the sky-high column of air sitting on a square meter of Earth’s surface. We’ll figure out how many moles of CO2 would have been in that column back then and then work on how thick a layer of carbon stuff it would make on the surface. Does that sound like a good attack, Professor?”

“Sure, but I see a couple of puzzled looks in the class. You’d better say something about moles first.”

“Hey, I know about moles. Sy and me talked about ’em when he was on that SI kick. They’re like a super dozen, right, Sy?”

“Right, Vinnie. A mole of anything is 6.02×1023 of that thing. Eggs, atoms, gas molecules, even stars if that’d be useful.”

“Back to my plan. First thing is the CO2 was in that column back when. Maria, your chart showed that Venus’ atmospheric pressure is 100 times ours and Mars’ is 1/100 ours and each of them is nearly pure CO2, right? So I’m going to assume that Earth’s atmosphere was what we have now plus a dose of CO2 that’s the geometric mean of Venus and Mars. OK, Professor?”

“That’d be a good starting point, Lenore.”

“Good. Now we need the mass of that CO2, which we can get from the weight of the column, which we can get from the air pressure, which is what?”

Every car buff in the room, in chorus — “14½ pounds per square inch.”

“I need that in kilograms per square meter.”

“Strictly speaking, pressure’s in newtons per square meter. There’s a difference between weight and force, but for this analysis we can ignore that. Keep going, Lenore.”

“Thanks, Professor. Sy?”

“Old Reliable says 10194 kg/m².”

“So we’ve got like ten-thousand kilograms of CO2 in that really tall meter-square column of ancient air. Now divide that by, um, 44 to get the number of moles of CO2. No, wait, then multiply by 1000 because we’ve got kilograms and it’s 44 grams per mole for CO2.”

“232 thousand moles. Still sounds like a lot.”

“I’m not done. Now we take that carbon and turn it into coal which is solid carbon mostly. One mole of carbon from each mole of CO2. Take the 232 thousand moles, multiply by 12 grams, no make that 0.012 kilogram per mole –“

“2786 kilograms”

“Right. Density of coal is about 2 grams per cc or … 2000 kilograms per cubic meter. So. Divide the kilograms by 2000 to get cubic meters.”

“1.39 meters stacked on that square-meter base.”

“About what I guessed it’d be. Vinnie, if Earth once had a carbon-heavy atmosphere log-halfway between Venus and Mars, and if the sea-plankton reduced all its CO2 down to coal, it’d make a layer all over the planet not quite as tall as I am. If it was chalk it’d be thicker because of the additional calcium and oxygen atoms. A petroleum layer would be thicker, too, with the hydrogens and all, but still.”

Jeremy’s nodding vigorously. “Yeah. We’ve dug up some of the coal and oil and put it back into the atmosphere, but there’s mountains of limestone all over the place.”

Cathleen’s gathering up her papers. “Add in the ocean-bottom carbonate ooze that plate tectonics has conveyor-belted down beneath the continents over the eons. Plenty of room, Vinnie, plenty of room.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Moon And Chalk

Cathleen’s talking faster near the end of the class. “OK, we’ve seen how Venus, Earth and Mars all formed in the same region of the protosolar disk and have similar overall compositions. We’ve accounted for differences in their trace gasses. So how come Earth’s nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere is so different from the CO2-nitrogen environments on Venus and Mars? Let’s brainstorm — shout out non-atmospheric ways that Earth is unique. I’ll record your list on Al’s whiteboard.”


“Plate tectonics!”



“The Moon!”

“Wombats!” (That suggestion gets a glare from Cathleen. She doesn’t write it down.)

“Goldilocks zone!”

“Magnetic field!”


She registers the last one but puts parentheses around it. “This one’s literally a quickie — real-world proof that human activity affects the atmosphere. Since the 1900s gaseous halogen-carbon compounds have seen wide use as refrigerants and solvents. Lab-work shows that these halocarbons catalyze conversion of ozone to molecular oxygen. In the 1970s satellite data showed a steady decrease in the upper-atmosphere ozone that blocks dangerous solar UV light from reaching us on Earth’s surface. A 1987 international pact banned most halocarbon production. Since then we’ve seen upper-level ozone concentrations gradually recovering. That shows that things we do in quantity have an impact.”

“How about carbon dioxide and methane?”

“That’s a whole ‘nother topic we’ll get to some other day. Right now I want to stay on the Mars-Venus-Earth track. Every item on our list has been cited as a possible contributor to Earth’s atmospheric specialness. Which ones link together and how?”

Adopted from image by Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronomer-in-training Jim volunteers. “The Moon has to come first. Moon-rock isotope data strongly implies it condensed from debris thrown out by a huge interplanetary collision that ripped away a lot of what was then Earth’s crust. Among other things that explains why the Moon’s density is in the range for silicates — only 60% of Earth’s density — and maybe even why Earth is more dense than Venus. Such a violent event would have boiled off whatever atmosphere we had at the time, so no surprise the atmosphere we have now doesn’t match our neighbors.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes takes it from there. “That could also account for why only Earth has plate tectonics. I ran the numbers once to see how the Moon’s volume matches up with the 70% of Earth’s surface that’s ocean. Assuming meteor impacts grew the Moon by 10% after it formed, I divided 90% of the Moon’s present volume by 70% of Earth’s surface area and got a depth of 28 miles. That’s nicely within the accepted 20-30 mile range for depth of Earth’s continental crust. It sure looks like our continental plates are what’s left of the Earth’s original crust, floating about on top of the metallic magma that Earth held onto.”

Jeremy gets excited. “And the oceans filled up what the continents couldn’t spread over.”

“That’s the general idea.”

Al’s not letting go. “But why does Earth have so much water and why is it the only one of the three with a substantial magnetic field?”

Cathleen breaks in. “The geologists are still arguing about whether Earth’s surface water was delivered by billions of incoming meteorites or was expelled from deep subterranean sources. Everyone agrees, though, that our water is liquid because we’re in the Goldilocks zone. The water didn’t steam away as it probably did on Venus, or freeze below the surface as it may have on Mars. Why the magnetic field? That’s another ‘we’re still arguing‘ issue, but we do know that magnetic fields protect Earth and only Earth from incoming solar wind.”

“So we’re down to photosynthesis and … limestone?”

“Photosynthesis was critical. Somewhere around two billion years ago, Earth’s sea-borne life-forms developed a metabolic pathway that converted CO2 to oxygen. They’ve been running that engine ever since. If Earth ever did have CO2 like Venus has, green things ate most of it. Some of the oxygen went to oxidizing iron but a lot was left over for animals to breathe.”

“But what happened to the carbon? Wouldn’t life’s molecules just become CO2 again?”

“Life captures carbon and buries it. Chalky limestone, for instance — it’s calcium carbonate formed from plankton shells.”

Jim grins. “We owe it all to the Moon.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Traces of Disparity

Cathleen’s an experienced teacher — she knows when off-topic class discussion is a good thing, and when to get back to the lesson plan. “My challenge question remains — why isn’t Earth’s atmosphere some average of the Mars and Venus ones? Thanks to Jeremy and Newt and Lenore we have reason to expect the planets to resemble each other, but in fact their atmospheres don’t. Maria, tell us what you’ve found about how Earth compares with the others.”

“Yes, Profesora. I found numbers for many of the gasses on each planet and put them into this chart. One thing Earth is right in the middle, most things not.”

“That’s a complicated chart. Read it out to us.”

“Of course. I had to make the vertical scales logarithmic to get the big numbers and small numbers on the same chart. First is the pressure which is the black dotted line. Venus pressure at the surface is nearly 100 times ours but Mars pressure is a bit less than 1/100th of ours. Does that count as Earth being in the middle?”

“That’d be a geometric average. It could be significant, we’ll see. Go on.”

“The gas that is almost the same everywhere is helium, the grey diamonds. That surprised me, because I thought the giant planets got all of that.”

Al’s been listening in. Nothing else going on in his coffee shop, I guess. “I’ll bet most of that helium came from radioactive rocks, not from space. Alpha particles, right, Cathleen?”

Cathleen takes unexpected interruptions in stride. “Bad bet, Al. Uranium and other heavy elements do emit alphas which pick up electrons to become helium atoms. You probably remembered Cleve and Langlet, who first isolated helium from uranium ore. However, the major source of atmospheric alphas is the solar wind. Solar wind interception and atmosphere mass are both proportional to planetary surface area so a constant concentration like this is reasonable. Continue, Maria.”

“The major gasses follow a pattern — about the same fractions on Venus and Mars but much higher or lower than on Earth. Look at carbon dioxide, nitrogen, even oxygen.”

Astronomer-in-training Jim has been doing some mental arithmetic. “Our atmosphere is 100 times denser than on Mars, and Venus is another factor of 100 beyond that. That’s a factor of 104 between them — for every molecule of CO2 on Mars there’s 10,000 on Venus. Oh, but Venus has four times Mars’ surface area so make that 40,000.”

“Good points, both of you. Jim’s approximation leads into something we can learn from Maria’s trace gas numbers. Why do you suppose the concentration of SO2 is about the same for Earth and Mars but 100 times higher on Venus, but the reverse is true for argon? Where do they each come from?”

Jeremy finally has something he can contribute. “Volcanoes! They told us in Geology class that most of our SO2 comes from volcanoes. Before the Industrial Revolution, I mean, when we started burning high-sulfur coal and fuel oils and made things worse. Venus has to be the same. Except for the industry, of course.”

“Probably correct, Jeremy. From radar mapping of Venus we know that it has over 150 large volcanoes. We don’t know how many of them are active, but the Venus Express spacecraft sent back evidence of active vulcanism. In fact, Venus’ SO2 score would probably be even higher if much of its production didn’t oxidize to SO3. That combines with water to form the clouds of sulfuric acid that hide the planet’s surface and reflect sunlight so brightly.”

Maria’s hand is up again. “I don’t understand argon’s purple diamonds, profesora. I know it’s one of the inert gasses so it doesn’t have much chemistry and can’t react into a mineral like CO2 and SO2 can. Shouldn’t argon be about the same on all three planets, like helium?”

“Mm-hm, argon does have a simple chemistry, but its radiochemistry isn’t so simple. Nearly 100% of natural argon is the argon-40 isotope created by radioactive decay of potassium-40. Potassium is tied up in the rocks, so the atmospheric load of argon-40 depends on rocky surface erosion. Not much erosion, not much argon.”

Al’s on tenterhooks. “All this is nice, but you still haven’t said why Earth’s atmosphere is so different.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Still of The Night

Lenore raises her hand. “Maybe it’s my Chemistry background, but to me that protosolar disk model for the early Solar System looks like a distillation process. You heat up a mixture in the pot and then run the resulting vapors through a multi-stage condenser. Different components of the mixture collect at different points in the condenser depending on the local temperature or maybe something about the condenser’s surface. I got some fun correlations from data I dug up related to that idea.”

“Interesting perspective, Lenore You’re got the floor.”

“Thanks, Professor. Like Newt said, hydrogen and helium atoms are so light that even a low-energy photon or solar wind particle can give them a healthy kick away from the Sun and they wind up orbiting where the gas planets grew up. But there was more sorting than that. Check out this chart.”

“What’re the bubbles?”

“Each bubble represents one planet. I’ve scaled the bubble to show what fraction of the planet is its nickel-iron core. Mercury, for instance, is two-thirds core; the other third is its silicate crust and that’s why its overall density is up there between iron and silicates. Then you go through Venus and Earth, all apparently in the zone where gravity’s inward pull on heavy dust particles is balanced by the solar wind’s intense outward push. From the chart I’d say that outbound metallic and rocky materials are mostly gone by the asteroid belt. Big Jupiter grabs most of the the hydrogen and helium; its little brothers get the leavings. Mars looks like it’s right on the edge of the depletion zone — the numbers suggest that its core, if it has one, is only 12% of its mass.”

Jeremy’s ears prick up. “If it has one?”

“Yeah, the sources I checked couldn’t say for sure whether or not it does. That’s part of why we sent the Insight lander up there. Its seismic data should help decide the matter. With such a small iron content the planet could conceivably have cooled like silicate raisin bread. It might have isolated pockets of iron here and there instead of gathered in at the center.”

“Weird. So the giant planets are all — wait, what’s Saturn doing with a density below water’s?”

“You noticed that. Theoretically, if you could put Saturn on a really big pool of water in a gravity field it’d float.”

Meanwhile, astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes has been inspecting the chart. “Uranus and Neptune don’t fit the pattern, Lenore. If it’s just a matter of ‘hydrogen flees farthest,’ then those two ought to be as light as Saturn, maybe lighter.”

“Yeah, that bothered me, too. Uranus and Neptune are giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, but they’re not ‘gas giants,’ they’re ‘ice giants.’ All four of them seem to have a junky nickel-iron-silicate core, maybe 1-to-10 times Earth’s mass, but aside from that the gas giants are mainly elemental hydrogen and helium whereas Uranus and Neptune are mostly compounds of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon with hydrogen.”

“How’d all those light atoms get so far out beyond the big guys?”

“Not a clue. Can you help, Professor?”

Cathleen draws ellipses on Al’s whiteboard. “Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t — the jury’s still out. We’re used to our nice neat modern Solar System where almost everything follows nearly circular orbits. It took a while to evolve there starting from the chaotic protosolar disk. Many of the early planetesimals probably had narrow elliptical orbits if they had an orbit at all, considering how often they collided with each other. Astromechanics modelers have burned years of computer time trying to account for what we know of the planets, asteroids, comets and the Kuiper and Oort formations we’ve barely begun to learn about. Some popular ‘Jumping Jupiter‘ models show Jupiter and Saturn migrating in towards the Sun and out again, playing hob with Uranus, Neptune and maybe a third ice giant before that one was ejected from the system altogether. It’s entirely possible that the ice giants grew up Sunward of the hydrogen-rich gas giants. We just don’t know.”

“That’s a challenge.”

“Yes, and my challenge question remains — why isn’t Earth’s atmosphere some average of the Mars and Venus ones?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Should These Three Be Alike?

“What’s all the hubbub in the back room, Al? I’m a little early for my afternoon coffee break and your shop’s usually pretty quiet about now.”

“It’s Cathleen’s Astronomy class, Sy. The department double-booked their seminar room so she asked to use my space until it’s straightened out.”

“Think I’ll eavesdrop.” I slide in just as she’s getting started.

“OK, folks, settle. Last class I challenged you with a question. Venus and Mars both have atmospheres that are dominated by carbon dioxide with a little bit of nitrogen. Earth is right in between them. How come its atmosphere is so different? I gave each of you a piece of that to research. Jeremy, you had the null question. Should we expect Earth’s atmosphere to be about the same as the other two?”

Venus coudtops image by Damia Bouic
JAXA / ISAS / DARTS / Damia Bouic

“I think so, ma’am, on the basis of the protosolar nebula hypothesis. The –“

“Wait a minute, Jeremy. Sy, I saw you sneak in. Jeremy, explain that term to him.”

“Yes’m. Uh, a nebula is a cloud of gas and dust out in space. It could be what got shot out of an exploding star or it could be just a twist in a stream of stuff drifting through the Galaxy. If the twist kinks up, gravity pulls the material on either side of the kink towards the middle and you get a rotating disk. Most of what’s in the disk falls towards its center. The accumulated mass at the center lights up to be a star. Meanwhile, what’s left in the disk keeps most of the original angular momentum but it doesn’t whirl smoothly. There’s going to be local vortices and they attract more stuff and grow up to be planets. That’s what we think happens, anyway.”

“Good summary. So what does that mean for Mars, Venus and the Earth?”

“Their orbits are pretty close together, relative to the disk’s radius, so they ought to have encountered about the same mixture of heavy particles and light ones while they were getting up to size. The light ones would be gas atoms, mostly hydrogen and helium. Half the other atoms are oxygen and they’d react to produce oxides — water, carbon monoxide, grains of silica and iron oxide. And oxygen and nitrogen molecules, of course.”

“Of course. Was gravity the only actor in play there?”

“No-o-o, once the star lit up its photons and solar wind would have pushed against gravity.”

“So three actors. Would photons and solar wind have the same effect? Anybody?”

Silence, until astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes speaks up. “No, they’d have different effects. The solar wind is heavy artillery — electrons, protons, alpha particles. They’ll transfer momentum to anything they hit, but they’re more likely to hit a large particle like a dust grain than a small one like an atom. On average, the big particles would be pushed away more.”

“And the photons?”

“A photon is selective — it can only transfer momentum to an atom or molecule that can absorb exactly the photon’s energy. But each kind of atom has its own set of emission and absorption energies. Most light emitted by transitions within hydrogen atoms won’t be absorbed by anything but another hydrogen atom. Same thing for helium. The Sun’s virtually all hydrogen and helium. The photons they emit would move just those disk atoms and leave the heavier stuff in place.”

“That’s only part of the photon story.”

“Oh? Oh, yeah. The Sun’s continuous spectrum. The Sun is hot. Heat jiggles whole ions. Those moving charges produce electromagnetic waves just like charge moving within an atom, but heat-generated waves can have any wavelength and interact with anything. They can bake dust particles and decompose compounds that contain volatile atoms. Then those atoms get swept away in the general rush.”

“Which has the greater effect, solar wind or photons?”

“Hard to say without doing the numbers, but I’d bet on the photons. The metal-and-silicate terrestrial planets are close to the Sun, but the mostly-hydrogen giants are further out.”

“All that said, Jeremy, what’s your conclusion?”

“It sure looks like Earth’s atmosphere should be intermediate between Mars and Venus. How come it’s not?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Red Velvet with Icing

“So Jupiter’s white stripes are huge updrafts of ammonia snow and its dark stripes are weird chemicals we only see when downdrafted ammonia snow evaporates. Fine, but how does that account for my buddy the Great Red Spot? Have another lemon scone.”

“Thanks, Al, don’t mind if I do. Well, those ideas only sort-of account for Spot. The bad news is that they may not have to for much longer.”

“Huh? Why not?”

“Because it seems to be going away.”

“Hey, Sy, don’t mess with me. You know it’s been there for 400 years, why should it go away now?”

“I don’t know anything of the kind. Sure, the early telescope users saw a spot 350 years ago but there’s reason to think that it wasn’t in the same location as your buddy. Then there was a century-long gap when no-one recorded seeing anything special on Jupiter. Without good evidence either way, I think it’s entirely possible we’ve had two different spots. Anyway, the new one has been shrinking for the past 150 years.”

“The big hole must be filling in, then.”

“What hole?”

Juno GRS image, NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

“The Spot. If the dark-colored stripes are what we see when the bright ammonia ice evaporates, then the Spot’s gotta be a hole.”

“A reasonable conclusion from what we’ve said so far, but the Juno orbiter has given us more information. The Spot actually reaches 500 miles further up than the surrounding cloud tops.”

“But higher-up means colder, right? How come we don’t see the white snow?”

“That higher-is-colder rule does apply within Jupiter’s weather layer, mostly, but the Spot’s different. There seems to be a LOT of heat pouring straight up out of it, enough to warm the overlying atmosphere by several hundred degrees compared to the planetary average. That suppresses the ammonia ice, lifts whatever makes the red color and may even promote chemical reactions to make more.”

“But Sy, even I know heat spreads out. You’ve just described something that acts like a searchlight. How could it work like that?”

“Here’s one hypothesis. You’ve got your sound system here rigged up so the back of the shop is quiet, right? How’d you do that?”

“Oh, I bought a couple of directional speakers. They’re deeper than the regular kind and they’ve got this parabolic shape. I aimed them up here to the front where the traffic is. Work pretty good, don’t they?”

“Yes, indeed, and I’m grateful for that. See, they focus sound energy just like you can focus light. Now, to us the Spot just looks like an oval. But it’s probably the big end of a deep cone, spinning like mad and turning turbulent wind energy into white noise that’s focused out like one of your speakers. Wouldn’t that do the trick?”

“Like a huge trombone. Yeah, I suppose, but what keeps the cone cone-shaped?”

“The same thing that keeps it spinning — it’s trapped between two currents that are zipping along in opposite directions. The Spot’s northern boundary is the fastest westbound windstream on the planet. Its southern boundary is an eastbound windstream. The Spot’s trapped between two bands screaming past each other at the speed of sound.”

“Wow. Sounds violent.”

“Incredibly violent, much more than Earth hurricanes. At a hurricane’s eye-wall the wind speeds generally peak below 200 miles per hour. The Great Red Spot’s outermost winds that we can see are 50 miles per hour faster but those triangular regions just east and west must be far worse. When I think about adding in the updrafts and downdrafts I just shudder.”

“Does that have anything to do with the shrinking you told me about?”

“Almost certainly — we simply don’t have enough data to tell. But the new news is that your buddy’s uncorked a fresh shrinkage mode. Since the mid-1800s it’s been contracting along the east-west line, getting more circular. Now it seems to be flaking, too. Big, continent-size regions break away and mix into the dark belt above it. Meanwhile, the white equatorial zone is getting darker, sort of a yellow-green-orange mix.”

GRS image courtesy of Sharin Ahmad

“Yucky-colored. Does that mean the Spot’s draining into it?”

“Who knows? We certainly don’t. Only time will tell.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Icing on The Brownie

“So what you’re saying, Sy, is that Jupiter’s white stripes are ammonia snow clouds that go way up above a lower layer of brown clouds like the white icing stripes I put on my brownies.”

“That’s what I’m saying, Al.”

“But why stripes? We got white clouds here on Earth and sometimes they’re in layers but they don’t make stripes.”

“Well, actually they do, but you need the long-term picture to see it. Ever notice that Earth’s forests and deserts make stripes?”

“How ’bout that? I guess they do, sorta. How’s that work?”

“It took us five hundred years to figure out the details. Quick summary. Sunlight does its best year-round heating job at the Equator, where the oceans humidify the air. Warm air rises. Rising warm air cools, releases its moisture as rain, and you get a rainforest belt. The cooled, dried air spreads out until it sinks at about the 30th parallels north and south. Dry air sucks moisture out of the land as it returns to the Equator and you get desert belts. Repeat the cycle. More loops like that center around both 60th parallels. The pattern’s not completely uniform because of things like mountain ranges that block some of the flows. Basically, though, as the years accumulate you get stripes.”

“Jupiter does that, too, huh?”

“On steroids. In one way it’s simpler — no underlying continents mess things up. On the other hand, Jupiter’s got more than a hundred times Earth’s surface area so there’s room for more loops. Also, Jupiter’s interior is still shedding a lot of heat, almost as much as the planet gets from the Sun. Here’s a diagram on Old Reliable.”

“So you’re saying that the upward loops push Jupiter’s atmosphere to where it’s colder and those white ammonia snow clouds form. Then the downward loops move the clouds to where it’s warmer and the ammonia evaporates to show us the brown stuff. Makes sense. But what’re those side-to-side arrows about? We got anything like those on Earth?”

“Sort of, a little bit. Remember the Coriolis force?”

“Uhh, that’s what makes hurricanes go round and round, right? Something to do with the Equator running faster than places further north or south?”

“That’s the start of it. The Earth as a whole rotates 360° eastward in 24 hours, but how many miles per hour that is depends on where you are. The Equator’s about 25000 miles long so Quito, Ecuador on the Equator does a bit more than 1000 miles per hour. Forty-five degrees away, the 45th parallels are only 70% as long as that, so Salem, Oregon and Queenstown, New Zealand circle 70% slower in miles per hour. Suppose a balloon from Salem travels south as seen from space. As seen from the Equator, the balloon appears in the northeast rather than straight north. Winds work the way that balloon would. All around the world, winds between 10° and 30° north and south come from an east-ish direction most of the time.”

“What about the winds right at the Equator? You’d think the northerly part and the southerly part would cancel each other out.”

“That’s exactly what happens, Al. We’ve got a more-or-less equatorial belt of thunderstorms from humid air cooling off as it goes straight up, but not much of a prevailing wind in any direction — that’s why the old sea captains called the region ‘the doldrums’.”

“An equator belt like Jupiter’s, eh?”

“Not quite. Jupiter has a lovely white equatorial zone all right, but that one doesn’t stand still. It roars eastward, 300 miles per hour faster than the equator’s own 28000 miles per hour. All Jupiter’s white zones move east at a pretty good clip. Its dark belts sprint westward at their own hundred-mile pace. Then there’s the jet streams that run between neighboring bands, and lots of big and little vortices carried along for the ride. The planet’s way too segmented and violent for Coriolis forces to build up enough to play a part. The scientists have a couple of heavily-simplified models, but nowhere near enough data or computer time to fill them in.”

“Earth’s atmosphere is messy enough, thanks. My brain’s hurting.”

Voyager I video of Jupiter, processed by JPL,
from Wikimedia Commons

~~ Rich Olcott

Lemon, Vanilla, Cinnamon

Al claims that lemon’s a Summertime flavor, which is why his coffee shop’s Scone Flavor of the Month in July is lemon even though it doesn’t go well with his coffee. “Give me one of those lemon scones, Al, and an iced tea. It’s a little warm out there this morning.”

“Sure thing, Sy. Say, what’s the latest science-y thing up in the sky?”

“Oh, there’s a bunch, Al. The Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft collected another sample from asteroid Ryugu. NASA’s gravity-sniffer GRAIL lunar orbiter found evidence for a huge hunk of metallic material five times larger than the Big Island of Hawai’i buried deep under the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin. The Insight Mars lander’s seismometer heard its first Marsquake —“

“Quit yanking my chain, Sy. Anything about Jupiter?”

“Gotcha, Al. I know Jupiter’s your favorite planet. As it happens I do have some Jupiter news for you.”

“The Juno orbiter’s still working, I hope.”

“Sure, sure, far as I know. It’s about to make its 13th close flyby of Jupiter, and NASA administrators have green-lighted the mission to continue until July 2021. Lots of data for the researchers to work on for years. Here’s a clue — what’re the top three things that everyone knows about Jupiter?”

“It’s the biggest planet, of course, and it’s got those stripes and the Great Red Spot. Has the planet gotten smaller somehow?”

“No, but the stripes and the Red Spot are acting weird. Had you heard about that?”

“No, just that the Spot’s huge and red and been there for 400 years.”

“Mmm, we’re not sure about the 400 years. But yes, it’s huge.”

“Four times wider than Earth, right?”

“Hasn’t been that big for a long time. Back in the 1870s telescope technology gave the astronomers that ‘four Earths wide‘ estimate. But the Spot’s shrunk in the last 150 years.”

“A whole lot?”

“Last measurement I saw, it’s just barely over one Earth wide. Seems to have gotten a bit taller, though, and maybe deeper.”

“Taller and deeper? Huh, that’s a new one. I always thought of the Spot as just this big oval ring on Jupiter’s surface.”

“Everyone has that bogus idea of Jupiter as a big smooth sphere with stripes and ovals and swirls painted on it. Don’t forget, we’re looking down at cloud tops, like those satellite pictures we get looking down at a storm system on Earth. From space, one of our hurricanes looks like a spirally disk centered on a dark spot. That dark spot isn’t in the clouds, it’s actually the top of the ocean, miles below the clouds. If you were a Martian working with photos from a telescope on Phobos, you’d be hard-put to figure that out. You need 3-D perspective to get planets right.”

Jupiter image courtesy ESA/Hubble

“Those stripes and stuff aren’t Jupiter’s surface?”

“As far as we can tell, Jupiter doesn’t have a surface. The hydrogen-helium atmosphere just gets denser and denser until it acts like a liquid. There’s a lot of pressure down there. Juno recently gave us evidence for a core that’s a fuzzy mix of stony material and maybe-metallic maybe-solid hydrogen but if that mush is real it’s only 3% of the planet’s mass. Whatever, it’s thousands of miles below what we see. Jupiter’s anything but smooth.”

“Lumps and bumps like this bubbly scone, huh?”

“More organized than that, more like corduroy or a coiled garden hose. The white stripes are hundreds of miles higher-up than the brown stripes so north-to-south it’s like a series of extreme mountain ranges and valleys. The Great Red Spot reaches up maybe 500 miles further.”

“Does that have to do with what they’re made of?”

“It has everything to do with that, we think. You know Earth’s atmosphere has layers, right?”

“Yeah, the stratosphere’s on top, then you got the weather layer where the clouds are.”

“Close enough. Jupiter has all that and more. Thanks to the Galileo probe we know that Jupiter’s ‘weather layer’ has a topmost blue-white cloud layer of ammonia ice particles, a middle red-to-brown layer containing compounds of ammonia and sulfur, and a bottommost white-ish layer of water clouds. The colors we see depend on which layer is exposed where.”

“But why’re they stripey?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Why So Big?

“How come so big, kid?”

“Beg pardon, Mr Feder?”

“Mars has the biggest volcanoes and all, like that canyon you can’t even see across.  Earth’s bigger than Mars, right?  How come we don’t have stuff like that?”

“Maybe we do but we’ve not found it yet.  Earth’s land area is only 4% greater than the surface area of Mars.  Our ocean floor and what’s beneath the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are like a whole second planet twice as big as the land we’ve explored so far.  Some people refer to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as a 10000-mile-long volcano.  No-one knows for sure what-all else is down there.  Even on land we’ve probably had enormous landforms like Alba Mons but on the geologic timescale they don’t last long here.”

“So like I said, how come?”

“Because of what we have that Mars doesn’t.  Massive forces of erosion — wind, water, Goldilocks temperatures — that grind down landforms something fierce.”

Watney_s route 420
Mark Watney’s travel route in The Martian.
Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
under Creative Commons license

“Wait, Mars has winds.  What about those dust storms, and that windstorm that damn near destroyed Watney’s spaceship?”

“Um, Watney’s a fictional character.  The dust storms do exist, though —  one of them created a blackout that may have killed the Opportunity rover’s solar power.  But Martian dust grains are about the size of smoke particles.  Doesn’t take much of a wind to get those grains into the air and keep them there even in Martian atmosphere that’s only 1% as thick as Earth’s.  A 120-mph wind on Earth would blow you over, but one on Mars would just give you a gentle push.  Martian winds can barely roll a sand grain along the ground.  They definitely can’t sandblast a volcano like Earth winds can.  Which, by the way is why planetologists panned that storm scene in your The Martian movie.  Couldn’t happen.  The film production team admitted that.  The rest of the science was pretty good, though.”

“OK then, water.  You talking like dripping water can wear a hole in a rock?”

“More like water in quantity — glaciers carving off mountaintops and rivers digging canyons and ocean waves smashing shorelines to sandy powder.  Dripping water works, too — water’s corrosive enough even at low temperatures that it can dissolve most kinds of rock if you give it enough time.  But Mars has no glaciers or rivers or oceans.  Probably no dripping water, either”

“You were kidding about Goldilocks, right?  Talk about fictional characters!”

“Not in this case.  To planetologists, ‘Goldilocks’ is a technical term.  You know, ‘not too cold, not too warm…”

“‘Just right,’ yeah, yeah.  But just right for what?  What’s Mars got that’s Goldilocks-ish?”

“Sorry, it’s Earth that has the Goldilocks magic, not Mars, and what’s just right is that we’re in the right temperature range for water to exist in gas and liquid and solid forms.  Mars’ surface is way too cold for liquid water.”

“Wait, I read that they’d found liquid water there.”

“Not on the surface.  The radar experiment aboard European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft found an indication of liquid water, but it’s a kilometer below the surface.  Twenty kilometers wide, maybe a meter thick — more of a pond than the ‘lake’ the media were talking about.”

“Why should it make a difference that Earth’s Goldilocks-ish?  I mean, we’re comfortable but we’re not rocks.  What’s that got to do with the volcanoes?”

“Recycling, Mr Feder, recycling.  On Mars, if enough gaseous water molecules could get together to make rain, which they can’t, they’d freeze to the ground and stay there for a long, long time.  On Earth, though, most rain stays liquid and you get ground water or run-off which eventually evaporates and rains down again.  The same molecules get many, many chances to grind down a mountain.”

“But Earth water can freeze, too.”

“Remember we’re Goldilocks-ish.  Liquid water soaks into a cracked rock where it freezes, expands to pry off a chip or two, and thaws to freeze again.  Water’s freeze-thaw cycle can do a lot of damage if it gets to repeat often enough.”

“So Mars has big stuff because…”

“The planet’s too cold to wear it away.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Raindrops landing in a red-brown puddle
Adapted image from Clipart-library.com