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."

What Happens to Your Body If You Die in Space?

iStock.com/1971yes
iStock.com/1971yes

The coming decades should bring about a number of developments when it comes to blasting people into orbit and beyond. Private space travel continues to progress, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson championing civilian exploration. Professional astronauts continue to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) for scientific research. By the 2040s, human colonists could be making the grueling journey to Mars.

With increased opportunities comes the increased potential for misadventure. Though only 18 people have died since the emergence of intragalactic travel in the 20th century, taking more frequent risks may mean that coroners will have to list "space" as the site of death in the future. But since it's rare to find a working astronaut in compromised health or of an advanced age, how will most potential casualties in space meet their maker?

Popular Science posed this question to Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the ISS. According to Hadfield, spacewalks—a slight misnomer for the gravity-free floating that astronauts engage in outside of spacecraft—might be one potential danger. Tiny meteorites could slice through their protective suits, which provide oxygen and shelter from extreme temperatures. Within 10 seconds, water in their skin and blood would vaporize and their body would fill with air: Dissolved nitrogen near the skin would form bubbles, blowing them up like a dollar-store balloon to twice their normal size. Within 15 seconds, they would lose consciousness. Within 30 seconds, their lungs would collapse and they'd be paralyzed. The good news? Death by asphyxiation or decompression would happen before their body freezes, since heat leaves the body slowly in a vacuum.

This morbid scene would then have to be dealt with by the accompanying crew. According to Popular Science, NASA has no official policy for handling a corpse, but Hadfield said ISS training does touch on the possibility. As he explained it, astronauts would have to handle the the body as a biohazard and figure out their storage options, since there's really no prepared area for that. To cope with both problems, a commander would likely recommend the body be kept inside a pressurized suit and taken someplace cold—like where garbage is stored to minimize the smell.

If that sounds less than regal, NASA agrees. The company has explored the business of space body disposal before, and one proposition involves freeze-drying the stiff with liquid nitrogen (or simply the cold vacuum of space) so it can be broken up into tiny pieces of frozen tissue, which would occupy only a fraction of the real estate that a full-sized body would.

Why not eject a body, like Captain Kirk and his crew were forced to do with the allegedly dead Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Bodies jettisoned into space without a rocket to change their trajectory would likely fall into the wake of the spacecraft. If enough people died on a long trip, it would create a kind of inverted funeral procession.

Even if safely landed on another planet, an astronaut's options don't necessarily improve. On Mars, cremation would likely be necessary to destroy any Earth-borne bacteria that would flourish on a buried body.

Like most everything we take for granted on Earth—eating, moving, and even pooping—it may be a long time before dying in space becomes dignified.

[h/t Popular Science]

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Life on Nearby Exoplanet Barnard's Star B Might Be Possible, According to Astronomers

iStock.com/PavelSmilyk
iStock.com/PavelSmilyk

Despite contradictory statements from UFO eyewitnesses, we have yet to confirm the presence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But astronomers continue to flirt with that hope. The most recent speculation comes from Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to Earth, which is circled by a frozen super-Earth dubbed Barnard's Star b. While its surface might be as cold as -274°F, there may just be potential for life.

According to CNET, the chilly Barnard's Star b—located 6 light years away from Earth—could still be hospitable to living organisms. Astrophysicists at Villanova University speculate the planet could have a hot liquid-iron core that produces geothermal energy. That warmth might support primitive life under the icy surface. A similar situation could possibly occur on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where tidal heating might allow for subsurface oceans containing living things.

Barnard's Star b has a mass just over three times that of Earth. The conclusions about potential life were drawn by Villanova researchers from 15 years of photometry examination of the solar system [PDF].

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets,” Scott Engle, a Villanova astrophysicist, said in a statement. “This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions. Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun—about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

Scientists hope to learn more about the potential for life on Barnard's Star b as new, more powerful telescopes are put into use. NASA’s delayed James Webb Space Telescope could be one such solution. Its 21-foot mirror—three times the size of the Hubble—is set to open in 2021.

[h/t CNET]

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