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Classifying the Solar System
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Makemake, like Pluto, shows a red hue in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The near-infrared spectrum is marked by the existence of the broad methane absorption bands--and methane has also been observed on Pluto. Spectral analysis of Makemake's surface shows that its methane must be present in the form of large grains that are at least one centimeter in size. In addition to methane, there appears to be large quantities of ethane and tholins as well as smaller quantities of ethylene, acetylene, and high-mass alkanes (like propane)--most likely formed as a result of the photolysis of methane by solar radiation. The tholins are thought to be the source of the red color of the visible spectrum. Even though there is some evidence for the existence of nitrogen ice on Makemake's frozen surface, at least combined with other ices, it is probably not close to the same abundance of nitrogen seen on Pluto and on Triton. Triton is a large moon of the planet Neptune that sports a retrograde orbit indicating that it is a captured object. Many astronomers think that Triton is a wandering refugee from the Kuiper Belt that was captured by the gravity of its large, gaseous planet. It is possible that eventually the doomed Triton will plunge into the immense, deep blue world that it has circled for so long as an adopted member of its family. Nitrogen accounts for more than 98 percent of the crust of both Pluto and Triton. The relative lack of nitrogen ice on Makemake hints that its supply of nitrogen has somehow been depleted over the age of our Solar System.
Jupiter, along with its beautiful ringed sister planet, Saturn, are the gas-giant duo of our Sun's family of eight major planets. The other two giant planets--that dwell in our Solar System's outer limits--are Uranus and Neptune. Uranus and Neptune are classified as ice giants, because they carry within them larger cores than Jupiter and Saturn, as well as thinner gaseous envelopes. Jupiter and Saturn may (or may not) contain small, hidden cores, that are heavily veiled by extremely massive, dense gaseous envelopes.
Ganymede, and four other moons dwelling in our Sun's family, possess liquid water beneath their frigid crusts of ice. The others are Saturn's moons, Titan and Enceladus, and two other Galilean moons of Jupiter--Europa and Callisto. Planetary scientists think the oceans of Europa and Enceladus are in contact with rock--thus making these two moons high-priority targets for future astrobiology missions.
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Dr. Thomas and his team at Cornell University have tried to peer into the mysterious interior of the weird little Space egg that is Methone. They started out with the hypothesis that Saturn's relentless strong gravity pulls the little moon into an elongated shape, just like Earth's own large Moon raises ocean tides on our own planet. Then the team went on to calculate how dense the little moon would have to be for its own gravity to counteract those intense tidal forces and create its strange egg-shape.
When the American astronomer James Christy discovered Pluto's largest moon Charon back in 1978, astronomers were quick to calculate the mass of the system. Pluto's mass was hundreds of times smaller than the mass originally estimated for it when it was first discovered in 1930. With Charon's discovery, astronomers suddenly acquired a new understanding that something was fundamentally different about Pluto.
If you want to measure our solar system, how would you do it? This simplest way is to measure it in light years. For those not familiar with the term, a light-year is the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one year. This is because the distances between stars is so huge that it is otherwise very challenging to imagine them. A light year is exactly 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers. Putting this into real world distances, the Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light-years across.