CLOSE
Original image

Orbiting the Solar System Backwards

Original image

The solar system we're familiar with from elementary school posters and dioramas has nine (now eight) planets and an Asteroid Belt all orbiting the sun rather neatly, chugging along on nearly the same plane. Sure, Pluto was a bit more eccentric, occasionally coming closer to the sun than Neptune, but it got kicked out of the club. But the further you go out into the distant, cold rocks beyond the planets, the better your chances to find something that ventures off the beaten path.

Last year, Brett Gladman, a University of British Columbia astronomer, discovered a 30-mile-wide asteroid, KV42, that actually orbits the sun backwards, but only just barely. Anything with an orbit that is tilted over 90 degrees relative to the orbit of the solar system's planets is considered to have a retrograde, or backwards, orbit, and KV42's orbit is tilted at 104 degrees. The rock was the first of its kind ever to be seen orbiting the sun backwards, and joined a select group of distant objects, including Halley's Comet, that astronomers have ever spotted accomplishing the feat.

When Gladman and his team first spotted the asteroid back in July, he knew it was retrograde, but it wasn't easy to find.

solar_sys2In the grand scheme of space, 30 miles is a piddling girth, and the team was only able to spot it when its irregular orbit brought it within 32 astronomical units of us (one AU is the distance from the sun to the Earth). The scientists nicknamed it "Drac" after Dracula, because vampires could allegedly walk on walls perpendicular to the ground, venturing off the beaten path just like this strange space object.

But where did this weirdo come from? Way, way out there. Between 30 and 50 AU from Earth one enters the Kuiper Belt, which contains a slew of cold, small objects like Pluto. The Oort Cloud, which begins about 50,000 AU away, is the source of most of the comets in our solar system. The region is actually hypothetical; it's far too distant for us to visually confirm its inhabitants. But neither place looks like the probable source of Drac, Gladman says. He thinks it came from the vast swath of space between here and the Oort Cloud that astronomers just don't know that much about. It's probable that a gravitational disturbance knocked Drac into its peculiar course, and that such things occur all the time.

However, while other backwards orbiters are flying around waiting to be seen, there's bad news for fans of of astronomical anomalies, or charting your own course: irregularities like these are hard to come by in our solar system. The gravity of the giant planets keeps things on a tight course, and makes life hard for a free roamer like Drac. Over the course of millions of years, Gladman says, an aberrant orbit like Drac's is unstable because it will make passes close enough to gas giants like Uranus and Neptune that their gravity will pull energy out of its orbit, and someday it will no longer orbit the solar system.

Gladman's team is going to keep look for oddball objects. But the inner solar system, it seems, is a hard place to go rogue—the powers that be are always pushing you around.

twitterbanner.jpg

Original image
iStock
arrow
Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
Original image
iStock

According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

Original image
iStock
arrow
fun
How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
Original image
iStock

If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios