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Science: News Under the Sun

3 minute read

The Book of Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. Scientists exploring the solar system disagree —and with good reason. Each week their telescopes, radar screens, sampling devices and satellites uncover new information about the sun and its planets. Among their latest findings:

JUPITER’S TAIL. Because their cores are molten metal, both Jupiter and the earth possess mighty magnetic fields. Both planets also carry magnetic tails —or bulges in their magnetic fields —caused by exposure to the million-mile-per-hour solar wind, a flow of highly charged particles from the sun. Satellites of the Pioneer series determined in 1966 that the earth’s magnetic tail extends some 395,000,000 miles “down solar wind” of the planet. The Pioneer 10 satellite, which recently passed Jupiter on its way out of the solar system, proved that Jupiter’s tail is even longer. Pioneer’s solar-wind gauges were shut down for at least 24 hours by a powerful magnetic field, indicating that the satellite was passing through the planet’s tail. According to scientists at NASA’S Ames Research Center, Jupiter’s tail must now be considered in planning any future space probes. The tail stretches for 430 million miles and spans the distance between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn.

NEW VIEW OF VENUS. Most cosmologists consider earth to be the only planet in the solar system that is still being altered by geologic processes. But Michael Malin of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., believes Venus may also be active. The researcher bases his thoughts about the dynamism of Venus on observations made by others through the huge radio telescope at Goldstone, Calif. One series of shots of Venus’ surface shows a vast, troughlike depression about three-quarters of a mile long and 200 yds. wide; another shows, on an otherwise smooth plain, a cluster of 15 to 20 peaks in a pattern strongly reminiscent of volcanoes on earth. A third view further strengthens suspicions that Venus, whose high temperatures (around 900° F.) suggest a medieval theologian’s idea of hell, may possess a recently active volcano. It shows a mountain measuring 279 miles by 186 miles at its base; at its summit is a 90-yd. depression that some believe may have been made by a meteor but Malin speculates is the crater of a volcano.

FROZEN HELL. The planet named for the Greek god of the underworld is considerably colder than Venus. Ever since Pluto was first discovered in 1930, scientists have wondered why the planet, which lies on the outermost reaches of the solar system, shines so brightly. Three scientists from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy have now come up with an answer. Theorizing that Pluto is far enough from the sun to escape its heat and thus likely to be covered by ice, the trio used the telescope at Kitt Peak, Ariz., to study the planet through different filters. One filter passed light waves characteristic of those reflected by water ice; the other, the wave lengths intensely reflected by methane ice. The tests showed that Pluto is largely covered by frozen methane. They also give an idea of how cold it is on the distant planet. Methane, the basic ingredient of natural gas on earth, will not freeze unless the temperature is nearly — 300° Fahrenheit.

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