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What the Weather Is Like on Other Moons and Planets

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On Earth, we get snow, rain, fog, hail, and sleet, and all of them are basically the same thing: water. For a true change of weather, you need to go to other worlds. Here's a tour of what to expect on a trip through our solar system.

Mars: Dry Ice Snow

Scientists have known for years that the polar caps of Mars are made of a combination of water ice and dry ice (or frozen carbon dioxide—the same stuff that makes fog when you dump it into a pot of water). But how does it get there? The ice caps grow and recede with the seasons (in the Hubble images above, the carbon dioxide is receding with the onset of spring), so either the carbon dioxide is freezing directly out of the atmosphere, or it's snowing. Scientists working with data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently solved the puzzle: MRO detected clouds of carbon dioxide crystals, and clear evidence of snow falling out of them. The snow would not fall as flakes, but as tiny cuboctohedrons (which have eight triangular faces and six square faces). On the surface, Mars snow probably looks like granulated sugar.

Venus: Sulfuric Acid Rain

Once thought to be our sister planet, Venus is, in actuality, a hellhole. The surface is over 462 degrees C (864 degrees F)—easily hot enough to melt lead—and the atmospheric pressure is about 92 times the pressure on Earth at sea level. It's also bone dry (water is baked out of the soil). But high up above the slowly rotating surface, where the winds whip violently, Venus is enshrouded by clouds of sulfuric acid (shown here in ultraviolet light from the Hubble Telescope). When it rains, the acid falls down to about 25 km before evaporating—at these temperatures, even sulfuric acid can't stay liquid. The vapor rises back up to recondense as clouds, giving Venus a liquid cycle confined entirely to the upper atmosphere.

Io: Sulfur Dioxide Snow

Venus isn't the only hellhole in the solar system. Jupiter's moon Io would fit the bill pretty well, too. It's riddled with active volcanoes, covered in brimstone, and hiding a subsurface ocean of lava. And it snows the sort of snow you might get when Hell freezes over, because it too is made of brimstone: sulfur, and, more specifically, sulfur dioxide, which were detected when the Galileo orbiter flew through the volcanic plumes on its kamikaze mission in September 2003. Molten sulfur, heated to the boiling point below the surface of Io by torturous tidal flexing, sprays out of the volcanoes like a geyser would spray water on Earth. In the cold, airless void of space, the sulfur dioxide quickly crystalizes into tiny flakes; most of it falls back to the surface as a fluffy yellow snow. Galileo's sensors indicated that the particles were very small, perhaps 15-20 molecules apiece, so the snow would look extremely fine on the surface.  In the photo above, the broad white semi circle of material is sulfur dioxide snow from a plume called Amirani.

Titan: Methane Rain

Titan is Saturn's largest moon, and the pictures revealed by Cassini and the Huygens lander show a world that looks surprisingly Earthlike, with riverbeds, lakes, and clouds. (The radar image above shows the shores of Kraken Mare, the largest known lake on Titan, with rivers flowing into it.) But this is deceptive. Titan is much colder: What looks like rock is water ice, and what looks like water is natural gas. A methane cycle (much like the water cycle on Earth) exists on Titan, driving seasonal rains that follow patterns (much like the ones tropical monsoons follow on Earth). When the season is right, the rain falls, filling vast but shallow basins bigger than our Great Lakes. As the seasons change, the lakes slowly evaporate. The vapor makes its way up into the atmosphere and condenses into clouds; the clouds drift to the other hemisphere as the weather shifts, and when the rain falls, it starts the next loop of the cycle.

Enceladus: Water and Ammonia Snow

Enceladus is one of the most active moons of Saturn. The south polar region especially is riddled with geysers that shoot water and ammonia hundreds of miles into space. Most of that leaves Enceladus altogether, forming Saturn's E ring. The rest falls back down, forming deep, powdery snow that would put the best "white smoke" of the Rockies to shame. But the snow falls very slowly. By mapping the snowdrifts, scientists have found that although the snow barely accumulates over the course of a year, the snow has been falling on some spots for tens of millions of years. Because of this, the snowpack is over 100 meters deep. And it's all light, fluffy snow; an unwary skier might disappear into the powder if he hit a particularly deep patch. This photo above shows Cairo Sulcus, a grooved feature in Encealdus' active south, its sharp edges softened by millenia of gentle snowfall.

Triton: Nitrogen and Methane Snow

Titan is cold enough to liquify methane, but Neptune's moon Triton is colder still. Voyager 2 discovered that Triton's surface is suspiciously new, and it's not just from volcanic resurfacing; the southern polar region also appears to be covered partially in a light, fluffy material that could only be snow. But while our snow is white and Io's snow is yellow, Triton's snow is pink. It's made of a mixture of nitrogen and methane. Like Io and Enceladus, the snow comes from geysers that blast liquid high up into space, where it freezes into fine particles that fall down as snow onto a terrain pockmarked by nitrogen/methane permafrost. Because of its color and the curious texture of the southern polar region, scientists call it "cantaloupe terrain."

Pluto: Nitrogen, Methane, and Carbon Monoxide Snow

Pluto has an awful lot in common with Triton, and apparently that includes snow. Although Pluto has never been seen close-up, careful observations with the Hubble Space Telescope suggest that it experiences snows of nitrogen, methane, and possibly carbon monoxide. Like Triton, this makes its surface very pinkish. Depending on the process that desposits it (geysers or frost or "diamond dust" snowfall, where the stuff just freezes straight out of the air and falls), this could be a fine powder or big, spiky piles of frost. We'll know more when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft visits; right now, it's about halfway there.

Jupiter: Liquid Helium Rain

The environments on gas giant planets are extreme in many ways; one is that there is a depth within them at which the atmospheric pressure is so great that exotic forms of matter appear, such as metallic helium and hydrogen. If the models are correct, above Jupiter's rocky core lies a deep ocean of liquid metallic hydrogen. Helium is a little harder to compress into a metallic form, so it doesn't mix with this ocean. It is heavier than hydrogen, though; scientists believe it falls through the metallic hydrogen ocean like droplets falling through the atmosphere, until it gets deep enough to become metallic.

Uranus and Neptune: Diamond Rain

Uranus and Neptune aren't really Jovian worlds; they're much colder than Jupiter or Saturn, and contain high fractions of water, leading some to call them ice giants. Another thing they contain is methane—lots of it, pressurized into a liquid state inside the giant planets. Methane is a hydrocarbon; under the right conditions (and models predict such conditions on Uranus and Neptune), the carbon within it can crystallize out as tiny diamonds. On Earth, "diamond dust" means superfine particles of ice suspended in the atmosphere on very cold days, but the phrase might be more literally true on Uranus and Neptune. The diamonds aren't accessible; they continually rain down towards the interior of the planets to be lost forever in a vast diamond ocean.  Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recognize this idea as part of the inspiration for "2061."

Bonus — The Sun: Plasma Rain

The Sun represents 99 percent of the mass in our solar system, so fittingly, it has what may be the most extreme precipitation in the solar system: plasma rain. Unlike the others on this list, you can actually see it from Earth. Huge loops of plasma are lifted up into space above the photosphere (what is generally considered the "surface" of the Sun) and suspended by magnetism, until finally something snaps and material is hurled violently into space in a coronal mass ejection. Not all of the material escapes, however; a lot of it falls back down as coronal rain. The video above, from June 7, 2011, was a particularly big and dramatic coronal mass ejection; look for the bright flashes as material impacts the photosphere.

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AMNH // R. Mickens
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science
What It’s Like to Write an Opera About Dinosaurs
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AMNH // R. Mickens

There are many challenges that face those writing the lyrics to operas, but figuring out what can rhyme with dinosaur names isn’t often one of them. But wrangling multisyllabic, Latin- and Greek-derived names of prehistoric creatures into verse was an integral part of Eric Einhorn’s job as the librettist behind Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, a new, family-friendly opera currently running at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Created by On Site Opera, which puts on operas in unusual places (like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) across New York City, in conjunction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt follows the true story of Rhoda Knight and her grandfather, the famous paleoartist Charles R. Knight.

Knight worked as a freelance artist for the American Museum of Natural History from 1896 until his death in 1953, creating images of extinct species that paved the way for how we imagine dinosaurs even now. He studied with taxidermists and paleontology experts and was one of the first to paint dinosaurs as flesh-and-blood creatures in natural habitats rather than fantastical monsters, studying their bones and creating sculptural models to make his renderings as accurate as contemporary science made possible.

In the 20-minute opera, singers move around the museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, performing among skeletons and even some paintings by Knight himself. Einhorn, who also serves as the director of On Site Opera and stage director for the opera, wrote the libretto based on stories about the real-life Rhoda—who now goes by Rhoda Knight Kalt—whom he met with frequently during the development process.

Soprano Jennifer Zetland (Rhoda) sings in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
AMNH // R. Mickens

“I spent a lot of time with Rhoda just talking about her childhood,” he tells Mental Floss, gathering anecdotes that could be worked into the opera. “She tells this great story of being in the museum when they were unpacking the wooly mammoth,” he says. "And she was just there, because her grandfather was there. It's being at the foot of greatness and not even realizing it until later.”

But there was one aspect of Rhoda’s childhood that proved to be a challenge in terms of turning her story into a performance. “Unfortunately, she was a really well-behaved kid,” Einhorn says. “And that doesn't really make for a good opera.”

Knight Kalt, who attended the opera’s dress rehearsal, explains that she knew at the time that if she misbehaved, she wouldn’t be allowed back. “I knew that the only way I could be with my grandfather was if I was very quiet,” she says. “Sometimes he would stand for an hour and a half discussing a fossil bone and how he could bring that alive … if I had interrupted then I couldn't meet him [at the museum anymore].”

Though Knight Kalt was never an artist herself, in the fictionalized version of her childhood (which takes place when Rhoda is 8), she looks around the museum for the missing bones of the dinosaur Deinocheirus so that her grandfather can draw them. The Late Cretaceous dino, first discovered in 1965, almost didn't make it into the show, though. In the first draft of the libretto, the dinosaur Rhoda is searching for in the museum was a relatively new dinosaur species found in China and first unveiled in 2015—zhenyuanlong suni—but the five-syllable name proved impossible to rhyme or sing.

Rhoda Knight Kalt stands next to the head of a dinosaur.
Rhoda Knight Kalt
Shaunacy Ferro

But Einhorn wanted to feature a real dinosaur discovery in the opera. A paleontologist at the museum, Carl Mehling, suggested Deinocheirus. “There are two arms hanging right over there,” Einhorn says, gesturing across the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, “and until [recently] the arms were the only things that had ever been discovered about Deinocheirus.” Tying the opera back to an actual specimen in the museum—one only a few feet away from where the opera would be staged—opened up a whole new set of possibilities, both lyrically and otherwise. “Once we ironed that out, we knew we had good science and better rhyming words.”

As for Knight Kalt, she says the experience of watching her childhood unfold in operatic form was a little weird. “The whole story makes me laugh,” she says. But it was also a perfectly appropriate way to honor her grandfather. “He used to sing while he was painting,” she says. “He loved the opera.”

Performances of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will be performed at the American Museum of Natural History on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until October 15. Performances are free with museum admission, but require a reservation. The opera will later travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera.

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iStock
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Animals
11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales
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iStock

Humpback whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are slowly recovering, and now they’re a favorite sight for whale-watchers. Here are 11 facts you might not have known about the mysterious marine giants, who are known for their acrobatics and for sidling right up alongside boats to get a good look at their human observers.

1. THEY’RE LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS.

North American school buses max out at about 45 feet long. Female humpback whales—which are larger than males—can be up to 60 feet long, and their pectoral fins alone can be 15 feet long. At birth, humpbacks weigh around 1 ton, doubling in size during their first year of life and eventually reaching up to 40 tons.

2. THEY HAVE HUGE MOUTHS.

In keeping with the rest of their bodies, their mouths are huge—their tongue alone is the size of a small car. But the opening to their throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, so they can’t swallow large prey. Instead, they eat krill, small fish, and plankton. They can eat up to a ton of food per day, according to the 2015 documentary Humpback Whales.

3. THOSE BUMPS ARE HAIR FOLLICLES.

Each of the distinctive bumps along a humpback’s head holds a single hair that the whale uses to sense the environment around it. These hairs help the whale glean information about water temperature and quality.

4. THEIR FLUKES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS.

Like human fingerprints, humpback tails can be used to identify individuals. The pigmentation and scarring on their flukes is unique, and scientists document these markings to keep track of certain whales that they see repeatedly during their research trips.

5. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME, BUT NOT AS LONG AS MANY OTHER WHALES.

Most humpback whales make it into their 60s, but scientists estimate that they may live up to 80 years. Still, that’s nothing compared to bowhead whales, a species whose oldest known individuals have lived to be 200 years old.

6. THEY HAVE THE LONGEST MIGRATIONS OF ANY MAMMAL.

Each year, humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in cold waters toward warm breeding areas—Alaskan whales head to Hawaii, while Californian whales head to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Australian whales migrate to the Southern Ocean. These biannual journeys can involve distances of up to 5000 miles, which is officially the longest known migration of any mammal on earth.

The fastest documented migration of a humpback whale was observed in 1988, when a humpback traveled from Sitka, Alaska to to Hawaii in just 39 days—or possibly less, depending on how soon it left Alaskan waters after the researchers sighted it the first time [PDF]. That’s a journey of about 2750 miles point to point.

7. THEY HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO DEFEND OTHER SPECIES FROM ORCAS.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman watched two humpback whales rescue a seal from a group of orcas that were pursuing it. The seal ended up on one of the humpbacks’ chests, and when it began to fall off, the whale even nudged it back on with a flipper, indicating that it was an intentional act of altruism. Though it’s not entirely clear why they would do so, it appears to be an offensive response on the part of the humpbacks, who may intervene whenever they hear killer whales fighting, whether one of their own is involved or not.

8. ONLY THE MALES SING.

Their songs may have made the species famous, but not every humpback sings. It’s strictly a male behavior, and plays an important part in courtship displays. There’s plenty of mystery that still surrounds the science of whale songs, but in 2013, researchers discovered that it’s a group activity that involves even sexually immature males. Both young and mature whales sing in chorus, giving the immature whales a lesson in singing and courtship behavior, and helping older whales amplify their songs to draw females to the area from afar. Other research has found that these songs change over times, and whales learn them much like a human learns a new song, bit by bit.

9. BREACHING IS LIKE YELLING

Though humpbacks are famous for their songs, that’s not the only way they communicate. Scientists only recently discovered that breaching—when whales jump up into the air, crashing back down into the water—is a way to keep in touch with far-away friends. Humpbacks leap higher and more often than other whales, and while spectacular to witness, the moves come at a cost: It takes a lot of energy, especially when the whales are fasting. But after 200 hours observing humpbacks migrating past the Australian coast, a team from the University of Queensland found that the whales were more likely to breach when the nearest group of other humpbacks was more than two and a half miles away, and that they were more likely to do so when it was windy out. It appears that breaching is a way to communicate over long distances when there is a lot of competing noise.

10. THEIR SONGS ARE INCREDIBLY COMPLEX …

Humpback songs aren’t just showy. They have their own grammar, and their songs are hierarchical, like sentences. In human language, this means that the meaning of sentences depends on the clauses within them and the words within them. In 2006, mathematical analysis found that humpbacks use phrases, too. And they remix their tunes, too, tweaking them and changing them over time, often combining new and old melodies. Humpback songs have even been visualized as sheet music.

11. … AND HELPED END WHALING.

Researchers estimate [PDF] that prior to the whaling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were around 112,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic alone, but that by the time commercial whaling was banned in the region in 1955, there were less than 1000 individuals left. Between 1947 and the 1970s, the USSR alone killed an estimated 338,000 humpbacks, falsifying data it was required to submit to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to disguise the illegal magnitude of its hunting operation. It has been called “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, some estimates put the worldwide humpback population at only 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, though Norway, Iceland, and Japan still practice it.

Roger Payne, one of the scientists who first discovered that humpbacks sing songs, later became instrumental in pushing to protect the species in the 1960s. In 1970, he released his recording of humpback songs as a record, which remains the best-selling nature recording in history. In 1972, the songs were played at a Greenpeace meeting, and ended up galvanizing a new movement: Save the Whales. “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic,” as former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told NPR in 2014. The campaign gained traction with other organizations, too, and helped lead to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 whaling ban.

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