The Sweet Sights of Outer Space
By Space Coast Daily // August 15, 2023
Here at the Space Coast, we celebrate the legacy of NASA and its many space flights that started at Cape Canaveral. However, we don’t get to see what’s on the other side of those journeys that often.
Fortunately, we can see further into space than ever before from powerful telescopes and other imaging devices. Here’s a gathering of sweet sights from outer space that have been released in the past few years.
Cotton candy … planets? These “super-puffs,” discovered by our @NASAExoplanets Kepler telescope, look as big as Jupiter but are roughly a hundred times lighter in mass. Like real cotton candy, their puffy atmospheres won’t last forever: https://t.co/vJRAMUChHc #CottonCandyDay pic.twitter.com/qHXbAyZYEJ
— NASA Universe (@NASAUniverse) December 7, 2021
Our first example is the sweetest – the cotton candy planet. That’s Kepler-51d, a low-density gas giant that was rendered in pastel pink and was popular for its fluffy appearance. It’s easy to see why – sweet things appeal to everyone, with a lot of marketing using bright colors and symbolism like fruits on a slot machine. Even online spaces like iGaming tap into the appeal of sweetness with games like the Sweet Bonanza slot where candy is the main theme. This planet achieved that without a marketing team, as astronomers and laymen were stricken by how light it was.
The fact is, Kepler-51d isn’t the first of its kind. Even in its system, it’s right next to Kepler-51b and c which are the same. They’re called super-puff planets, where they’re heavier than Earth but larger than Neptune, meaning their mass should be much, much higher. They’re cool and very light, hence their name, and are exclusively gas giants due to this unique makeup.
We discovered the first super-puffs in 2012, though we didn’t pick up on their strange qualities until two years later. It took until 2019 for the Hubble space telescope to provide enough data for NASA to create hypothetical renderings, leading to the cotton candy planets.
The Phobos Jawbreaker
Around the same time we were learning more about what super-puffs look like, we also caught the Martian moon Phobos traveling its entire moon phase. This happened courtesy of the Odyssey orbiter stationed around Mars, which started studying Phobos’ orbit patterns two years earlier in 2017. Then, in 2019, it caught the full cycle (which it does every seven hours).
So, why a jawbreaker? The Odyssey is kitted out with THEMIS – thermal imaging technology. What it captured resembled a bullseye or a jawbreaker cut in half, with clear rings showing how Mars’ temperature influenced the moon in its cycle.
Is that a rainbow-colored jawbreaker? Not quite. For the first time, our Mars Odyssey orbiter has caught the Martian moon Phobos during a full moon phase. Each color represents a temperature range detected by Odyssey’s infrared camera. Take a bite: https://t.co/EtNDoWp3pF pic.twitter.com/UVNxYPsA1P
— NASA (@NASA) May 13, 2019
Phobos is smaller than our moon at just 13 miles in diameter, though it has an irregular shape that has been compared to a potato in the past. Looking at it, it looks more like a rocky asteroid than a moon, that’s because it is. Asteroid capture happens when sun-orbiting asteroids become moons by entering a planet’s orbit, and Phobos exemplifies this phenomenon.
In 2015, a comet previously discovered in 2011 was found to have an interesting chemical makeup. That comet was C/2011 W3, though it’s dubbed Lovejoy after the man who first spotted it. It was celebrated by the European Space Agency, due to its discovery coinciding with the anniversary of their SOHO satellite launch.
Europe’s interest in the comet paid off when the Paris Observatory discovered that it was releasing water. Estimated at about 20 tons every second, the water wasn’t alone – they found ethyl alcohol and a sugar, glycolaldehyde. At peak flow, there was enough alcohol to fill 500 wine bottles every second!
While interesting, it was also a serious step toward proving that extraterrestrial objects can hold basic elements that could create life under the right conditions. The Comet Lovejoy also made headlines in the past for surviving sun contact, against all predictions.