Space

The Most Extreme Weather In the Solar System

November 11, 2013 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Björn Jónsson (IAAA)

“Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars…” 

Spoiler alert: The weather on Earth is far nicer than on any other planet in our solar system. You might have to carry an umbrella sometimes but you definitely don't have to worry about sulfuric acid falling out of the sky, which is nice.

Our solar system is home to some fairly extreme weather. Here are our top picks.

Mercury

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Mercury has incredible temperature swings from 480 degrees C down to -180 degrees C. Credit: MESSENGER Teams, JHU APL, NASA

Mercury almost completely lacks an atmosphere, which actually contributes to its extreme physical conditions. As the closest planet to the sun, it's no surprise that the planet can get extremely hot. However, the lack of atmosphere means that it is unable to retain the heat and as a result, it exhibits incredible temperature fluctuations.

In addition to barely having an atmosphere, Mercury doesn't have much in the way of axial tilt. Because of this, there are no seasonal changes in weather. It also rotates incredibly slowly, as it only completes about three “days” every two years. When Mercury is closest to the sun, the surface temperature can reach over 430º C (approx. 800ºC ). During nighttime, temperatures can drop down to -180ºC (-290ºF).

If a human were to visit Mercury, he or she would either burst into flames or freeze solid depending on where the spaceship landed.

Venus

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Venus is pure hell with extremely hot temperatures, crushing pressure, and sulfuric acid rain. Credit: SSV, MIPL, Magellan Team, NASA

Our neighbor Venus is essentially the poster child for how greenhouse gasses can create a completely hellish environment. With a super-thick atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, Venus is able to trap more of the sun’s radiation than Mercury, which allows it to reach (and retain) much higher temperatures. The surface temperature stays relatively consistent all year at 480ºC (900º  F). The pressure on Venus is approximately 90 times higher than sea level on Earth. In order to recreate that pressure here, a diver would need to go 1000 meters underwater. 

Rain on Venus is almost purely sulfuric acid, which is extremely corrosive. Sulfuric acid can erode clothing nearly instantly and produce severe burns on flesh. However, the surface temperature of Venus is so great, the rain evaporates before hitting the ground. There is a little water in the atmosphere, which can produce violent explosions when it meets the sulfuric acid. Though Venus is only slightly smaller than Earth, it takes only four hours for the atmosphere to completely rotate around the planet. In contrast, it it takes about 243 days to accomplish the same task on Earth.

Even with these extremely high temperatures, there is snow on Venus. Well, not snow as we know it. It's a basalt frost remnant of metals that vaporized in the atmosphere.

Forget what would happen if a human were to visit Venus; we haven’t even sent probes that lasted longer than a couple hours on the surface due to the intense conditions.

Mars

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NASA scientists spied this 20 km tall dust devil on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

Mars is currently under a lot of investigation as some believe it may have harbored life in the past and could give clues to the origin of life on Earth. Because it once was home to flowing water, there must have been an atmosphere capable of holding it there. Now the surface is dry and huge cyclones of dust can tear apart the landscape. 

Mars’ missing atmosphere is a mystery but there is still plenty of bizarre weather happening on the planet. The poles are covered in ice caps and there are intense snowstorms. While our snow is made of frozen water, Martian snow is actually made from frozen carbon dioxide, which we know as “dry ice.”

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Mars has dry ice caps covering the north and south poles. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

Like Mercury, Mars’ super-thin atmosphere has a hard time trapping heat from the sun. Temperatures at the equator can be a comfortable 20ºC (70ºF) in the sun, but at night, the same spot can dip to -50ºC (-58ºF).

Massive dust storms can take over Mars quite easily. While dust devils occur in dry areas on Earth, the ones on Mars can envelop the entire planet over the course of a few days. 

As for what it might look like for a human to visit Mars, we might not have to wait too much longer. Some are hoping to send the first astronauts to Mars within the next few decades.

Jupiter

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Jupiter has dozens of jet streams, ammonia clouds, and hurricane-like storms large enough to swallow the Earth multiple times over. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

It doesn’t take a particularly large telescope to see that Jupiter has a lot of gigantic storms. The most famous of these storms is known as the Great Red Spot (GRS), which has been raging on like a hurricane for at least 400 years. This storm is so massive, three Earths could fit inside it easily. There is another spot known as the Oval BA, which was discovered about seven years ago and is now moving as fast as its larger counterpart. It even appears to be increasing in size!

The stripes on Jupiter are caused by jet streams. Jet streams on Earth vary, though we usually only have 1 or 2 in each hemisphere. Jupiter is home to at least 30 that tear across the planet in opposite directions, reaching speeds of over 482 km/h (300 mph). Two of these jet streams are responsible for holding the GRS in its present location. The clouds that appear as stripes are composed of frozen ammonia, as the temperature at that part of the atmosphere is -140ºC (-220ºF). Earlier this year, it was discovered that Jupiter can form diamonds in its atmosphere

Europa

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Europa's surface is covered with 100-meter-thick ice, enclosing a saltwater ocean that could have ingredients for life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of Jupiter’s 67 moons can also have pretty intense weather. The surface of Europa is covered in a 100 km deep (62 mile) saltwater ocean, which is enclosed in a layer of ice. Europa may even have some of the chemical compounds needed for life, which has many astrobiologists excited.

Io

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Io has hundreds of volcanos that can erupt hundreds of kilometers above the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL

Io has hundreds volcanoes on its surface that respond to gravitational fluctuations from Jupiter. While these active spots can exceed 1700ºC (3092ºF), other patches of the moon are freezing. Because of the moon’s low gravity, these eruptions can shoot over 402 km (250 miles) above the surface. Earlier this year, it was discovered that the volcanoes aren’t even where they should be, according to temperature models. 

Saturn

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Saturn has an amazing hexagonal storm at the north pole. Each side is the diameter of the Earth! Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Cornell

Like Jupiter, Saturn’s atmosphere is composed mostly of hydrogen. Wind speeds can reach as high as 1609 km/h (1000 mph) which is just about as fast as a speeding bullet. The highest wind speed ever recorded on Earth during a hurricane was in 1996, during Tropical Cyclone Cynthia when gusts reached 408 km/h (253 mph). 

At Saturn’s North Pole there is an extremely cool storm going on. It isn’t circular or rounded like most extreme weather systems, but it is actually shaped like a hexagon. The clearest image of this storm can be seen in a composite that was released last month. Each side of the hexagon is 8,600 miles (13,800 km) long, which is very close to the diameter of Earth.

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Saturn has a storm 10,000 km long. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Univ. of Arizona/Univ. of Wisconsin

Though the atmosphere is very thin and cold, there is plenty of heat down towards the surface that can generate some extreme storms. In the northern hemisphere, there is a storm which is 10,000 km across. If that were on Earth, it would be like starting in Los Angeles and traveling due east all the way to Beijing, China.

Toward Saturn’s surface the carbon in the air can be pressed into graphite. Yes, Saturn has pencil lead flying around. Even closer to the core, the carbon is pressed into diamonds. If a human were to travel to Saturn, the diamonds would cut through their body like countless little bullets.

Titan

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has huge lakes which initially look promising for a spring break vacation spot. However, the temperature is about -162ºC (-260ºF), and the lakes aren’t made of water - they're actually liquid methane!

Uranus 

Uranus is the coldest planet in the solar system, with temperatures hitting −224ºC (-371ºF). Uranus is quite odd in that it is tipped entirely on its side, with its north pole facing the sun. This may have been the result of a massive collision, as its magnetic field does not align with its poles. 

At first glance, Uranus looks like a plain blue ball with not a lot going on, but the planet has a fairly active weather system and enormous hurricanes that can only be seen with infrared telescopes. Like Jupiter, Uranus also has diamonds raining down on its surface.

Neptune

Our most distant planet, Neptune, is home to extreme weather similar to the other gas giants. While it has storms large enough to swallow the entire Earth and bands of weather that mark the planet’s latitude, it also has the most violent wind in the solar system which can reach an astonishing 2414 km/h (1,500 mph). Because Neptune’s topography is fairly flat, there is no friction to slow down these incredible gusts of wind. Like all of the other gas planets, atmospheric carbon compresses into diamond rain.

Triton

Neptune has over a dozen moons, the largest of which is Triton. This moon has an average temperature of -192ºC (-315ºF). If you wanted to visit, the trip would have to happen in the next 10 to 100 million years. Triton is slowly getting closer to Neptune and will most likely be ripped up into a Saturn-like ring system.

A trip to Neptune would also include listening to the sound barrier break as the wind blows, though the visitor would freeze solid almost instantly.

Pluto

Pluto experiences MASSIVE swings in temperature due to its highly elliptical orbit. When Pluto is farthest away from the sun, it is completely frozen over. As it gets closer to the sun, the gas heats up and it produces a gassy atmosphere, which also hurts its planetary status, as it acts more like a comet. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "If you slid Pluto to where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate that ice, and it would grow a tail. Now, that's no kind of behavior for a planet.”

 

Our solar system is home to some pretty extreme weather. Learning about how these systems work can increase our knowledge of how some of these planets were formed and even give clues about possible life on other planets. But when it comes down to actually spending time on the surface of some of these planets, there’s no place like home.

 

Correction: The saltwater ocean on Europa is 62 miles (100 km) deep, not the layer of ice.

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