8 Things You Need to Know About Earth

It's probably best that we don't think too much about the Earth. After all, it's a tiny orb spinning more than 1000 mph at the equator while simultaneously zipping through space at 67,000 miles per hour. It circles a mysterious, 10,000°F fusion reactor that's more than 100 times its size, and spends most of its orbit narrowly (in a cosmic sense) avoiding collisions with giant chunks of rock that could practically wipe its surface clean. But if you're feeling brave, here are a few things you might not know about Earth. Mental Floss spoke to Josh Willis, a climate scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the planet we call home.

1. EARTH, BY THE NUMBERS.

The Earth orbits the Sun at approximately 93 million miles. As you probably know, at this distance it takes one year for the Earth to complete a revolution, and 24 hours to complete one rotation. The surface of the Earth has temperatures ranging from -126°F to 136°F. The planet is about 7900 miles in diameter (though the deepest we've ever drilled is 7.6 miles). There are 332,519,000 cubic miles of water on the planet, which is enough that, if the water broke from the Earth and organized itself into a sphere, it would have a diameter of 860 miles—about 40 percent that of the Moon.

2. SEEING IS BELIEVING.

The first photograph of Earth from space was taken in 1946. It's a grainy, black-and-white shot of a tiny slice of our world, curved with the ink of space as a backdrop. In 1960, weather satellites began sending photographs back to Earth, images that were still hideously deformed but scientifically valuable, especially for meteorologists, who now had stunning views of cloud systems from which to work. NASA's ATS-III satellite in 1967 returned the first color images of the full Earth. Now at last, we could see our living world, ringed in space and wrapped in billowing clouds.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders sent back "Earthrise," a now-iconic photograph of a fragile cerulean orb rising over the lunar surface. But the most famous photograph of the Earth, by far, was taken about four years later, on December 7, 1972: the "Blue Marble." You've probably seen it countless times, enough that when you think of the Earth, that's what you think of. You may be less familiar with how astronaut Harrison Schmitt described the sight to Mission Control: "I'll tell you, if there ever was a fragile-appearing piece of blue in space, it's the Earth right now."

3. WE HAVE A NATURAL SATELLITE.

The Earth is the first planet, moving outward from the Sun, that possesses a moon. We call our moon "The Moon" (which will be a real headache centuries from now, when we've colonized the solar system). Every 27.32 days, the Moon completes an orbit of the Earth, which is why it has phases. When the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon, we see the Moon in full illumination (a round orb). As it circles the Earth, less and less of its visible surface is illuminated, until at last the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth. At that point, the "far side" of the Moon is in full illumination, and from our perspective, the Moon is receiving no light at all. The cycle then repeats itself, with more of its disc being illuminated as the month elapses, until it is again full. Because the length of the Moon's orbit is just shy of a month, every so often a month (which, itself, derives from the word "moon") has two full Moons, the second of which is colloquially called a Blue Moon.

The moon does spin, but in synchronous rotation with the Earth. In other words, it spins at the same speed as its orbit. As a result, the Earth only ever gets to see one side of our only natural satellite. The best guess for the origin of the Moon involves an object the size of Mars smashing into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, sending debris into space. This debris organized itself into a molten form of the alabaster orb we know and love. Within 100 million years, an early crust had begun to form. Today, the Moon influences the tides of the ocean and eases our axial wobble, keeping things (more or less) nice and stable—a perfect condition for life.

4. LIFE FINDS A WAY …

When it comes to life, there are a lot of maybes in the solar system. Maybe Mars supported life billions of years ago. Maybe Europa is teeming with life today. The problem is that there is no evidence anywhere of anything that wiggles, walks, or swims … except for one place. Earth is the only body in the universe known to harbor life. And it has been tough going! Four billion years ago, the Earth's surface was sterilized during the Late Heavy Bombardment, when asteroids pilloried the inner solar system. To get some idea of what things must have been like during the LHB, look at the Moon. Most of its craters were formed during that time. Life survived on Earth in large part thanks to the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.

There have been five mass extinctions on Earth, the worst of which (the Permian-Triassic, or "P-T Event") was 250 million years ago, wiping out 96 percent of sea species and nearly three-quarters of land vertebrates. Sixty-six million years ago, the Chicxulub impact wiped out 75 percent of all life, and ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Things recovered nicely, though, and today, biologists think there are 8.7 million species of life on Earth. That's not bad considering the universe's apparent hostility to life, and makes what we have going here all the more special and worth preserving. And we'd better get on it: Many scientists argue that we're in the midst of a sixth mass extinction—and we can only partially blame it on cats.

5. … BUT WE'RE DOING A POOR JOB OF PRESERVING IT.

"Global warming is real, it's caused by people, and it's a big problem," Willis told Mental Floss. "Every year the impacts of human-caused climate change get bigger and bigger, and are felt more and more across the planet." We feel the effects of climate change today, but the worst is yet to come, both in terms of economic and social disruption. "Right now we have a choice about what kind of planet we want to have in the future. And the choice is: Do we want to continue to burn fossil fuels and heat up the Earth, or do we want to try and stabilize our climate and keep it more or less like we've had it for the last 10,000 years?"

6. THE WATER IS RISING.

Carl Sagan once observed that, to scale, the Earth's atmosphere is about as thick as the gloss coating on a globe. Our oceans, meanwhile, make Earth the only known planet with stable water at its surface. (Icy moons like Europa and Enceladus have subsurface oceans of liquid water, and Titan, in addition to a possible subsurface ocean of water, has vast lakes of liquid methane covering its surface.)

The problem is, we're causing those water levels to rise. NASA's Jason-3 spacecraft measures the height of the ocean with 1-inch accuracy. Every 10 days, it collects data on the entire ocean, revealing details about such things as ocean currents and how they change, tilts in the ocean's surface, and the average volume of the ocean. "The oceans are growing for two reasons," says Willis. "One is because they absorb heat trapped by the greenhouse gases, and the other is that the ice in places like Greenland and Antarctica and tiny glaciers all across the planet are all melting and adding extra water to the oceans. And so this satellite measures these things combined, and in a way it's really taking the pulse of our planet."

A decade ago, the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica were thought of as stable. They are the last remaining ice sheets that cover huge land masses, and today they are disappearing. In 50 years, their melting will be the dominant source of global sea level rise. "Every time a big discovery is made," says Willis, "it seems like the picture is worse than we thought it was. The possibility for really rapid ice loss and rapid sea level rise is greater than we thought."

7. THERE MAY BE ANSWERS UNDERWATER.

The oceans remain a giant unknown for scientists. Knowing more about them would answer many of our questions about life and the life of the Earth. "Two-thirds of the planet is covered with water, and you can't see through it. And you can't shoot microwaves through it, and radio waves, and all the other kinds of things that we use even to measure other planets," Willis says. "If you probe the ocean, there are still a lot of big mysteries down there."

To understand how oceans really work would explain, for example, where the heat from global warming is going. Though the oceans absorb 95 percent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases, it's still a mystery where that heat energy actually goes. Similar questions exist as to how the oceans interact with ice sheets.

Considering the stakes, it seems like an intense study of the Earth and its oceans is in order. And yet the same people who claim there isn't enough evidence to explain climate change want to slash the budgets of missions designed to find the requested evidence. Among the missions set to be killed are the PACE satellite, over a decade in development and designed to study the interaction of the ocean and the atmosphere, and the CLARREO pathfinder mission, which would cut the time necessary to predict climate change in half. (An extra 20 years to prepare for climate change would save the world $10 trillion.)

8. THERE IS STILL HOPE FOR OUR PALE BLUE DOT.

But it will take a concerted effort to change our behavior—before it's too late. "We think of global warming as something that happens in our cities, and it is happening there, but really 95 percent of the heat that's being trapped is going in the oceans. And I don't think people realize that. It just seems like, well, we're getting the brunt of global warming here in Los Angeles—but that's not true, really. It's the sea life and the oceans that are getting the brunt of the change," says Willis.

"One thing we should keep in mind is that all hope is not lost," he continues. "We are beginning to see changes in our economy, we're beginning to see the growth of renewable energy, and the strong desire to move to a fuel source that doesn't cook us, and I think that's a good thing. A lot of it happens at local and state levels now, but it's beginning to have an impact for real around the world."

10 Riveting Facts About Mars

Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

Few celestial objects have fascinated humankind throughout history more than the Red Planet. For over a century, we've longed to know more about Mars and the beings that we speculated lived there. When NASA dispelled the notion of creatures scurrying along the rusty plains, it raised a more tantalizing prospect: that we might one day be the creatures that call Mars home.

Mental Floss spoke to Kirby Runyon, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Tanya Harrison, the director of research for Arizona State University's NewSpace Initiative, to learn more about the place your kids might live one day.

1. A MARTIAN YEAR LASTS JUST UNDER TWO EARTH YEARS.

It takes 687 Earth days for the Red Planet make its way around the Sun. A Mars day—called a sol—lasts 24.6 hours, which would be a nuisance for the circadian rhythms of astronauts (but not as bad as a day on Venus, which lasts 5832 hours).

2. IT'S NOT AS HOT AS IT MIGHT LOOK.

Mars looks desert-hot—New Mexico with hazy skies, red because of its iron oxide soil—but is actually very cold, with a blistering hot sol being 70°F, and a cold sol a brisk -225°F. Its dust storms can be huge; in 2018, one storm grew so large that it encompassed the entire planet for more than a month. (You can see a similarly huge dust storm in the image above.)

3. MARS IS MUCH SMALLER THAN EARTH ...

Compared to Earth, Mars is a tiny Styrofoam ball, with a diameter just over half of ours and one-tenth of our mass. Its gravity will be an absolute nightmare for future colonists, at .38 that of their native planet. (That means a person weighing 100 pounds here would weigh just 38 pounds on Mars.)

4. ... AND ITS ATMOSPHERE IS MOSTLY CARBON DIOXIDE.

You won't want to get a breath of fresh air on Mars unless you're trying to suffocate: Its atmosphere is 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, with a little nitrogen and argon thrown in. (Earth's atmosphere, by contrast, is mostly nitrogen and oxygen.) When you do try to take that single, hopeless breath, the tears on your eyeballs, saliva in your mouth, and water in your lungs will immediately evaporate. You won't die right away, but you'll probably want to.

5. IT HAS TWO MOONS, BOTH WITH BETTER NAMES THAN OURS.

They're called Phobos and Deimos, which translate to Fear and Dread, respectively. They're shaped like potatoes and don't exactly fill the evening sky: Standing on the Martian surface, Phobos would appear to be about one-third the size of Earth's moon; Deimos would look like a bright star.

Future human Martians will have to enjoy Phobos while they can. The tidal forces of Mars are tearing Phobos apart; in 50 million years, the big potato will disintegrate.

In the meantime, Phobos is one of the stepping stones NASA plans to take on its journey to Mars. No part of human exploration of the Red Planet is easy, and before we land on Mars (and then have to figure out how to launch back into space and somehow get back to Earth), it's vastly easier to land on Phobos, do a little reconnaissance, and then take off and return home. As a bonus, on the journey to Phobos [PDF], astronauts can bring along hardware necessary for eventual Martian settlement, making the ride a lot easier for the next astronauts.

6. MARS IS HOME TO THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM.

The tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, is 29,029 feet tall. Olympus Mons on Mars is over 72,000 feet in height, making it the tallest mountain by far on any planet in the solar system.

Olympus Mons isn't the only extraordinary Mars feature: Mountaineers might also want to check out NASA's trail map for hiking the famous Face on Mars. If canyons are more your speed, you'll want to visit Valles Marineris. It is the size of North America and, at its bottom, four miles deep. (In the solar system, only Earth's Atlantic Ocean is deeper.) Once Earth's ice caps finish melting, you can always visit the ones on Mars. (If you have a telescope, you can easily see them; they are the planet's most distinctive features visible from your backyard.)

7. THE IDEA OF MARTIANS GOES BACK OVER A CENTURY.

That's partially because of popular fiction (War of the Worlds, the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, sees a Martian invasion force invade England) and partially because of Percival Lowell, the famed astronomer who wrote prolifically on the canals he thought he was observing through his telescope, and why they might be necessary for the survival of the Martian people. (Mars was drying up.)

Though it's easy to dismiss such conclusions today, at the time Lowell not only popularized space science like few others, but left behind the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—one of the oldest observatories in America and the place where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

8. IF THERE ARE MARTIANS, THEY ARE MICROBES.

Today, scientists work tirelessly to unlock the complex geologic history of Mars, to determine whether life exists there today, or did long ago. "We think that Mars was most globally conducive to life around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago," Runyon tells Mental Floss. "In the Mars geologic history, that's the end of the Noachian and toward the beginning of the Hesperian epochs." There may once have been a hemispheric ocean on Mars. Later, the world might have alternated between being wet and dry, with an ocean giving way to massive crater lakes. Where there's water, there's a good chance of life.

"If we found life on Mars—either extinct or current—that's really interesting," says Runyon, "but more interesting than that, is whether this life arose independently on Mars, separate from Earth." It is conceivable that meteorite impacts on Earth blasted life-bearing rocks into space and eventually to the Martian surface: "A second life emergence on Mars is not just a geological question. It's a biogeochemical question. We know that Mars is habitable, but we haven't answered the question of whether it had, or has, life."

9. NASA SPENDS A LOT OF TIME OUT THERE.

Mars hasn't hurt for missions in recent years, though scientists now warn of an exploration desert beyond 2020. But that doesn't mean we humans don't have eyes on the planet. Presently in orbit around the planet are the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which images and scans the planet; MAVEN, which studies its atmosphere; Mars Express, the European Space Agency's first Mars mission; MOM, the first Mars mission by the Indian Space Research Organization; the ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is searching for methane in the Martian atmosphere; and Odyssey, which studies Mars for water and ice signatures, and acts as a communications relay for vehicles on the ground.

Rolling around on the Martian surface are Curiosity and Opportunity—NASA missions both—which study Martian geology. Though the Russians and Europeans have tried mightily to do so, NASA is the only space agency to successfully land spacecraft on the Martian surface (seven times).

In November 2018, the InSight mission will land on Mars, where it will study the planet's interior. In 2020, NASA will land the Mars 2020 rover; where Curiosity studies Mars for signs of habitability, Mars 2020 will look for inhabitants.

"It is going to collect samples that will hopefully be brought back to Earth," says Runyon. "The three landing sites selected for Mars 2020 are Northeast Syrtis, Jezero Crater, and Columbia Hills within Gusev Crater, which is where the dead rover Spirit is currently sitting. Each of these sites is a hydrothermal environment dating from the Noachian-Hesperian boundary. These are some of the most perfect places to look for past signs of Martian life, and can help answer the question of whether life had a second genesis on Mars."

10. MARS IS CHANGING, BUT NOBODY KNOWS WHY.

"Most people don't realize how active Mars is," Harrison tells Mental Floss. "Other planets aren't just these dead worlds that are frozen in time outside of our own. There are actually things happening there right now." Imagery from the HiRISE and Context Camera instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed such events as avalanches, sand dune erosion [PDF], and recurring slope lineae (flowing Martian saltwater).

Things are moving, but it's not always clear why. "There's a lot of material that has been eroded away," says Harrison. "We have entire provinces of the planet that look like they've been completely buried and then exhumed. And that's a lot of material. The big question is, where did it all go? And what process eroded it all away?" Curiosity might help answer the question, but to really understand the processes and history of the fourth rock from the Sun, we're going to need to send geologists in spacesuits. "You can't replace human intuition with a rover," Harrison says. "Looking at a picture on your computer is not the same as standing there and looking around at the context, stratigraphic columns, being able to pick up the rocks and manipulate them, take a hammer to things. So once humans land on the surface, it'll be kind of like the difference between what we knew about Mars from Viking and Mars Global Surveyor and then the revolution between Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Our view of what we think happened on Mars is going to completely change, and we'll find out that a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong."

A version of this story ran in 2017.

See What Hurricane Florence Looks Like From Space

NASA via Getty Images
NASA via Getty Images

As Hurricane Florence continues to creep its way toward the Carolinas, it’s repeatedly being described as both "the storm of the century” and "the storm of a lifetime” for parts of the coastlines of North and South Carolina. While that may sound like hyperbole to some, Alexander Gerst—an astronaut with the European Space Agency—took to Twitter to prove otherwise with a few amazing photos, and issued a warning to “Watch out, America!”

According to the National Weather Service, “Hurricane Florence will be approaching the Carolina shores as the day progresses on Thursday. Although the exact timing, location, and eventual track of Florence isn't known, local impacts will likely begin in the afternoon hours and only worsen with time throughout the evening and overnight period.”

On Tuesday, Wilmington, North Carolina's National Weather Service took the warning even one step further, writing: "This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast, and that's saying a lot given the impacts we've seen from Hurricanes Diana, Hugo, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, and Matthew. I can't emphasize enough the potential for unbelievable damage from wind, storm surge, and inland flooding with this storm.”

Gerst’s photos certainly drive that point home.

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