Super-Earth spells doom; Venus has oxygen and don’t panic about solar flares – whacky solar system science from 2023

The last year brought us some interesting new science and perspectives on our solar system. Let’s take a look back at some of the stories covered by Cosmos in 2023 on our planet’s backyard.

Venus has oxygen all over

German astronomers revealed that Venus – the second planet from the Sun – has oxygen on its atmosphere on both its day and night sides.

Illustration of the planet venus from space
Illustration of Venus with elements furnished by NASA. Credit: buradaki / iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Venus is roughly the same size as Earth. But, while our planet is a mild, hospitable one, Venus is hot and hostile. Temperatures reach 460°C on its surface and the atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide due to a “runaway greenhouse effect.”

Past observations revealed a small amount of atomic oxygen (not molecular oxygen, O2) on Venus’s night side.

New research published in Nature Communications shows that Venus actually has atomic oxygen all over. The discovery was made using measurements from the array spectrometer on board NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy aeroplane.

Super-Earth between Mars and Jupiter: What would it mean for us?

One University of California, Riverside astrophysicist took it upon himself to imagine a funky way of destroying the Earth – by finding out what would happen if there were a “super-Earth” between Mars and Jupiter.

Professor Stephen Kane figured there are two gaps in our understanding of the solar system.

One is the gap between the size of the rocky planets and the gas giants. Neptune, the smallest gas giant, is 17 times heavier than Earth, the largest rocky planet. The other is the massive chasm between Mars and Jupiter. This “wasted real estate” is currently filled with an asteroid belt.

Credit: leoimage / Moment / Getty.

Running computer simulations to fill these gaps, Kane found a super-Earth between Mars and Jupiter would have catastrophic effects for life on Earth.

Such a planet’s gravitational pull could see Mercury, Venus and Earth and even Uranus and Neptune ejected from the solar system entirely. Alternatively, a slightly smaller super-Earth could shift our orbit, making Earth uninhabitable.

“This fictional planet gives a nudge to Jupiter that is just enough to destabilise everything else,” Kane says. “Things would go poorly.”

Rings being funny around Saturn and dwarf planet

Rings around planets like Saturn are among the most stunning sights in our solar system.

The Hubble Space Telescope revealed that “smudges” or “spokes” have appeared on Saturn’s rings. The phenomenon was first witnessed in the early 1980s and is believed to be related to the planet’s variable magnetic field.

A new ring system, not rivalling Saturn’s in size or brilliance, was discovered this year around dwarf planet Quaoar.

Artist impress of Quaoar. Credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

But the ring around Quaoar orbits much further than is typical – 7 times the dwarf planet’s radius – challenging previous ideas about how rings form. Normally, material so far out should form a moon, not a ring system.

Jupiter’s brilliance and new moons

Jupiter threw up some beauty and curveballs this year.

A never-before-seen jet stream was spotted gushing out of the planet’s equator. The confounding stream was pictured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Jupiter jet stream head image
Jupiter by JWST

Astronomers who published the work in Nature Astronomy have more questions than answers. But they believe the jet, travelling 515 km per hour, might help uncover the mysteries of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere.

Oh, and they found 12 new moons orbiting Jupiter, taking its count to 92 natural satellites. It has overtaken Saturn for now but expect that to change any month as astronomers continue their competition to find moons in the solar system.

Solar maximum is coming…

The Sun has been getting more active throughout 2023.

Swirling ejections from sun coloured yellow
An M2 solar flare and coronal mass ejection erupted on July 14, 2017. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Cosmos spoke with scientists who explained the 11-year cycle of the Sun which is expected to reach its peak somewhere in 2024–25. With this peak, known as solar maximum, the Sun has its highest number of sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Solar flares have caused radio blackouts over parts of the world in 2023, raising concern that solar maximum might see our modern technology-driven lives to all come crashing down. Satellites, GPS and radio outages caused by an angry Sun could spell disaster.

But the astronomers advised taking a deep breath and not panicking. Apparently, this solar maximum is not going to be too bad and there’s a lot of redundancy in our technology. But the next big solar storm could be just around the corner…

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