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Virginia’s Living Museum: A Journey Through Our Solar System

Satellite View Of Planet At Sunrise

One of Virginia’s many treasures is the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News. On July 14, 2021, Dr. Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Museum, took attendees on a trip through our solar system in a presentation of AARP’s Virginia Treasures series.

Using a special software program that utilizes information gained from space exploration research. Herbst was able to zoom in on various planets. The first on the tour was Mercury, which is visually similar to Earth’s moon. As the closest planet to the sun, Mercury has been the victim of numerous hits from space rocks drawn by the sun’s gravity, which has caused deep craters on the planet. Mercury is a hot planet, about 800 degrees on the sun side, but in contrast, the night side is quite cold because there is no atmosphere to hold in the sun’s heat.

Venus, the next planet from the sun, is often considered Earth’s twin sister, as there are some similarities. Venus’ atmosphere is very dense and cloudy, about 100 times denser than Earth. The surface itself is very hot at about 900 degrees.  In the 1990s, the Magellan spacecraft mapped the surface of Venus using radar. No craft can actually land on the planet because it is hot enough to melt lead. Venus is unique among planets because it rotates backward, from west to east instead of east to west. Scientists speculate at some point Venus was hit so hard by space rocks that it was tipped upside down.

Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, is considered the most explored planet in our solar system – after Earth, of course. About half the size of Earth, Mars contains several interesting features. One is the volcano Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the universe. Mars also has several other volcanos, now extinct. Another interesting feature is the Tarsus Bulge, a huge canyon that stretches the length from about New York City to Los Angeles, putting our Grand Canyon to shame. Explorations of Mars, including information learned from the current spacecraft Perseverance, have found evidence of water on the planet, and exploration continues for evidence of life, either past or current.

Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun, is about ten times the size of Earth. Jupiter boasts a beautiful and colorful cloud pattern due to chemicals in its atmosphere, such as sulfur, ammonia, and methane. Like Jupiter, Saturn is mostly gas, though it’s slightly smaller. Saturn is known for its many prominent rings, which consist of mostly ice. Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune also have rings, though not as noticeable. It is unknown how the rings were formed.

Very little is known about the last two planets, Uranus and Neptune. Thanks to exploration by the Voyager II spacecraft, scientists do know that on Uranus, the North Pole is tipped, so it appears sideways. Neptune’s atmosphere is very cold, although the interior of the planet appears warmer.

And what of Pluto? In 2006, Pluto was classified as a dwarf, rather than a major, planet. One key difference is that unlike the other planets in the solar system, which all rotate around the sun in the same linear pattern, Pluto’s rotation is tilted.

Herbst noted that NASA has several new missions planned to continue the exploration of our solar system. For more information about the Virginia Living Museum, including information about solar events over Virginia skies, visit their website.

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