This House Is Full Of Wonder

If you’re looking around for a good reason to be alive, consider how many things there are to appreciate in this world. I’m sure you can list a few off the top of your head, but I’m going to give you five more today that show how incredibly beautiful and laden with wonder our universe is. Sit back and take a look.

Credit (top and below): NASA
This image of Saturn was taken by the Cassini probe last summer around the time of equinox, when the rings were edge-on to the sun. From the perspective of someone standing on a chunk of icy ring material, the sun was at a very low angle to the ring plane, nearly touching it. That’s why the rings cast a narrow shadow on the planet’s upper cloud deck. It’s also the reason why they appear so dark – sunlight is barely grazing across the surface of the rings instead of shining straight down on them.

As long as we’re in Saturn’s neighborhood, let’s stop by its moon Enceladus to look at a more recent photo taken by Cassini. There’s something almost comical in the moon’s appearance – it reminds me of gas escaping from a popped balloon. What you’re seeing are at least four plumes of water ice spewing from cracks in Enceladus’ crust near its south pole. Light from Saturn illuminates the front of the moon, while the sun, which is behind Enceladus, backlights the plumes.  I’ve posted at least a handful of photos of Enceladus’ icy jets in this blog, but this one shows better than most what strange “creatures” inhabit this solar system of ours.

Credit: Bob King
Next we go from the very big to the very small. While this may look like a new world made of stained glass, it’s really a thin, translucent slice of a small spherical grain called a chondrule. Chondrules were among the very first solid matter to form in the disk of gas and dust that eventually evolved into the sun, planets and asteroids. They’re composed of minerals like olivine (peridot) and pyroxene, which are very common in certain types of meteorites. This chondrule, measuring 5.5mm across, is from a meteorite found in the Sahara Desert. Its spherical shape implies that it was once raw solar system dust that was heated to the melting point. In gravity-less space, the liquid minerals crystallized into a sphere. No one is certain exactly how chondrules formed but likely origins include heat from the newly- forming sun, shock waves within the disk or lightning / static electricity discharge. Like a house built of Legos, chondrules eventually were gathered into the early asteroids, many of which were  incorporated into the planets we know today. Those that weren’t still fall to Earth to this day as meteorites.

Credit: NASA/ESA
Talk about dust and new stars, take a look at those tendrils of gas and dust in this photo of the Lagoon Nebula in Sagittarius. Radiation from young, hot stars deep within the Lagoon are sculpting the gas and dust of their birthplace into fantastic curdled and billowy masses. This nebula is located about 4100 light years from Earth and stretches across 100 light years. In the densest parts of the clouds, new stars are forming as the material collapses under the influence of gravity. When those stars “light up”, their powerful ultraviolet light will continue to erode and sculpt the clouds until one day in the far future, the Lagoon will be a rich cluster of stars. Its dust and gas, either used up in star formation or dispersed by UV light, will all be gone. Would that we could live live long enough to watch it happen before our eyes.

A solar prominence eruption. Be sure to watch to the end. Credit: NASA

I find myself taking the sun for granted. It’s been there so many days of my life, I forget how amazing it is to have a star – the only star we can see and feel up close – right here in our neighborhood. It pours out the equivalent of I-don’t-know-how-many-thermonuclear bombs worth of energy every second, yet it usually stays on stable and friendly terms with us earthlings. The video gives us a hint of the sun’s real power. It was made by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 30 this year and records the eruption of a solar prominence, a loop of incandescent hydrogen gas many times the size of the Earth. Instabilities in the writhing and twisting magnetic fields on the sun’s surface and in its atmosphere occasionally cause a prominence to blast out into space. Often, some of the material falls back to the surface, but a portion leaves and heads out into the solar system where it can trigger auroras on Earth. For more videos of the sun in action, click HERE.