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Admiring the mysteries of the universe

Outer space can be a pretty fascinating place. Perhaps it’s not full of the strange phenomena and unexplainable oddities shown in Star Trek or any other space-based sci-fi series, but there are still plenty of mysteries to uncover and fantastic beauty to marvel at.

Here are several interesting things I’ve read in news articles this week about what’s going on in the rest of the universe while we’re stuck with all the craziness here on Earth:

Can you imagine a glow-in-the-dark moon? Scientists studying Jupiter recently have found evidence that one of the planet’s moons, Europa, may visibly glow green in the dark. Unlike our own moon, Europa is covered in ice with an ocean underneath its frozen crust. Evidence shows that radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field interacts with the moon’s ice in a way that makes it glow green.

The glow could be part of the key to figuring out what Europa’s oceans are made of, such as how high or low the salt content is. It’s been theorized that the conditions on the moon might potentially be habitable to some form of molecular life. If so, that would be another fascinating thing scientists could study, especially since the temperatures on Europa range a couple hundred degrees lower than humans can handle.

A scientific probe will be launched and sent to get some up-close readings of Europa in a few years, so it’ll be a while before we get to learn more about this mystery. But in the meantime, we can simply appreciate the fact that Jupiter has one moon that glows like a little nightlight for the planet. That’s pretty cool!

Another weird quirk of the universe, at least compared to our own world: researchers have discovered a planet 210 light-years from Earth which is covered almost entirely in lava. And if you think the lava is bad, the planet also regularly has rocks raining down from the sky and winds that howl at speeds averaging 3,100 miles per hour. (For some unknown reason, however, the extreme wind is only on one side of the planet!)

Lava planets are apparently pretty rare, at least from what’s been observed of the universe so far. This planet, known as K2-141b, is located very close to its sun, which would explain all the really hot lava everywhere. Since it’s so close, that also means about two-thirds of the planet is illuminated almost all the time and the other third is dark and frigid.

“It’s a planet that doesn’t make much sense at all,” said researcher Nicolas Cowan in the article about the discovery.

I’d agree. A planet where I’d have to play “the floor is literally lava” and would need to use a heavy duty umbrella for the rock rain doesn’t sound like a fun place to visit. But isn’t it fascinating how varied the universe can be?

While K2-141b isn’t suitable at all for human life, NASA has estimated there are at least 300 million potentially habitable planets in our galaxy. “Habitable” here means a rocky planet capable of supporting liquid water on the surface, and it needs to be just the right distance from the sun so the temperatures don’t swing too hot or too cold.

NASA scientists gathered their data for the estimate from the Kepler Space Telescope which floated out through the galaxy on a “planet-hunting mission” for nine years until it ran out of fuel.

Some of those planets could be called our “interstellar neighbors” since they’re relatively close to our solar system. Of course, it’d still take several decades to reach even one of those planets if we were to hop in a space shuttle and visit.

Seeing a number as big as 300 million (which is a “conservative estimate”) really puts into perspective the size of our galaxy. It’s so vast we’ll probably never be able to explore it all.

But we don’t have to have a NASA telescope in order to appreciate the wonders of the universe. We can simply step outside and take a look up at the sky. If you’re away from city lights and it’s not cloudy, you can always see the stars and even some planets shining brightly. And sometimes you can even see “shooting stars” or meteors in the sky.

By the time this column comes out, the peak of the annual Northern Taurid meteor shower will have passed but the shower will continue into December. You’ll just have to spend more time looking up at the sky to catch a glimpse of a fireball streaking through the atmosphere.

Meteor showers happen whenever Earth passes through debris from a comet. The debris burns up in the atmosphere, giving the people below a brief dazzling flash of light to enjoy.

Even though we’ll miss the best part of this meteor shower, the Geminids meteor shower will peak in mid-December.

But even with no meteor shower, it’s always a good time to look up at the sky and appreciate the wonders of the universe. There are plenty of strange mysteries yet to be discovered.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.