Everybody talks about the weather knowing its beyond our control, and that goes double for the few bodies in our Solar System where you can stand and tell which way the wind blows.
Snow in New England, ice in the South and blizzards across the Midwest have been making headlines while the heat is on in Florida and California.
Such is winter in North America—unpredictable as a roll of dice.
And throughout our Solar System there are plenty of reports from icy bodies and windy clouds. But there are just a few bodies where you can stand up and experience weather as a serious matter.
Of the eight planets, five or so dwarf planets and 181 moons in the Sun’s family only four others besides Earth have enough atmosphere to create weather patterns. But, oh, does that produce some extreme forecasts.
Venus, Mars and Pluto truly have surface weather and climate patterns. And so does Saturn’s giant moon Titan. But that’s it.
Venus, the second planet, might be Earth’s twin in size, but it is certainly the “evil” twin. A thick, 30-mile cloud deck of carbon dioxide has created run-away greenhouse effect that makes Venus a hellish world on the surface.
How about a forecast of 900 F. degrees with a gentle, hot Sulphur breeze? Acid rain squeezed from the deadly clouds evaporates thousands of feet above the ground. Rocks are pressed flat by the pressure weight of the clouds, almost like putty in the incredible heat.
It’s unlikely anybody will set foot on Venus, heat and crushing atmospheric weight being so intense that three Soviet landers could only last a few hours.
Mars will someday see human boot prints, but not without a spacesuit to breath and protection from the Sun’s deadly radiation.
Yes, Mars has an atmosphere that supports wind, dust devils, thin clouds and even some snow on the tops of its giant volcanoes. But it is so thin the air is about like where commercial airplanes fly.
If you could stand on Mars in your Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops, your feet might be 50 F. degrees, but your belly would be 30 F. and the top of your head 0 F degrees! That’s because the thin Martian atmosphere is a terrible insulator.
And because the super-thin Mars atmosphere has no ozone layer to block most of the harmful radiation for the Sun, anything on the surface is fried to complete sterilization. Ugh!
The next Solar System body that has weather looks a lot like the great lakes of North Americas. Saturn’s giant moon Titan has an organic-laced envelope of atmospheric gases that support the bizarre weather on the surface below.
Rain from the clouds falls into a complex landscape of thousands of lakes connected by flowing waterways, the liquid evaporating back into the atmosphere.
And that liquid? Methane and ethane: which is a gas on warm Earth but wet and wild in the -300 F. degree environs of Titan.
Mankind knows what that surface looks like thanks to NASA’s auto-tire sized space probed called Huygens that parachuted to a soft-landing at the shores of a methane lake in 2005. The incredible view was foot-level of round, eroded rocks and a distant, orange-haze horizon.
Maybe of the biggest surprises of this golden era of exploring our Solar System is dwarf planet Pluto. And what is going on there makes many old-time stargazers like me believe it deserves to be re-planetized!
Four billion miles from the Sun, a bright day shines like deep twilight on Earth, yet this near -400 F. degree world half the size of our Moon is every bit as dynamic as anywhere in the Solar System.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto and its large moon Charon in July 2016, sending back unbelievable images of a globe enveloped with a dozen layers of nitrogen atmosphere. And then there is a surface of frozen hydrogen seas that might be slushy, barely supporting mountain-size ice bergs.
So far away is New Horizons traveling at 30,000 mph that it slowly transmitted back its data for more than a year. There are wispy clouds tossed in a Plutonian wind, thin and thick global atmospheric bands that might be created by outgassing from the surface—even evidence of falling snow.
With more than 180 moons and asteroids of all sizes in the Sun’s family, only Venus, Earth, Mars, Titan and Pluto actually have a surface where weather is a real phenomenon.
The “gas giants” Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all have active weather patterns in their dense and complex atmosphere. But there is no surface to enjoy a cloudy day, their interiors being an exotic metallic hydrogen and maybe a rock core.
Among all the moons in the Solar System there are several large ones covered with ice like Jupiter’s Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. They might have occasional ice volcanoes and fissures. And on Jupiter’s Io there are a hundred Sulphur volcanos and vents expelling that poisonous gas into space. But these worlds don’t have the gravity to retain a permanent atmosphere, so weather is transient and brief.
Given all the places we can stand and experience the weather, there certainly is no place like our home, Earth.
After all, on our beautiful planet you don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind blows!