21 concepts: Astronomical factoids to have at your fingertips

Andromeda: When our sister galaxy’s one trillion stars collide with us in four billion years, no stars will make contact and nothing bad will happen. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Some people know a couple of outstanding facts about many diverse subjects. Possessing such proficiency, they’re shielded from ever being regarded as oblivious.

In that same vein, here are some critical astro-nuggets for easy memorization. If you can retain just one essential concept about every famous celestial object, you’ll never be entirely in the dark when it comes to the universe.

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If someone were to say “Sun,” it would be great to know it’s so big, a million Earths could fit inside it. As an alternative, here’s a fascinating basic concept: The Sun’s energy is fierce enough to blow away pieces of itself – broken bits of its atoms that continually whiz past our world at 200 miles per second. This is called the solar wind.

Mercury: The smallest planet was very nearly destroyed by an asteroid impact, creating a huge circular scar called the Caloris Basin.

Venus: With sulfuric acid clouds, a surface pressure 50 times greater than a pressure cooker and a temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s the most hostile planet in the known universe.

Earth: Thanks to the Moon’s tides, our spin is slowing, making each day 1/700th of a second longer per century.

Mars: Its most unfriendly feature is its lack of air. The barely-there carbon dioxide at its surface is less than one-tenth the thickness as the air atop Mount Everest.

Jupiter: It’s all gas. Even down below, there’s no surface on which to land.

Saturn: Its gorgeous rings are countless chunks of ice whose dimension of 100,000 miles by a quarter-mile are analogous to a sheet of paper the size of a city block.

Uranus: This greenest body in the universe is dimly visible to the naked eye.

Neptune: With a synchronicity boasting one-second accuracy, Neptune orbits the Sun three times just as Pluto orbits twice.

Pluto: Being only two-thirds the size of our Moon, it would fit between here and Kansas.

The Moon: Its dozen dark blotches – the only features easily seen by the naked eye – are solidified lava long thought to be water. Each is named for either an emotion (Sea of Tranquility) or a weather phenomenon (Sea of Clouds).

The Milky Way: Our home galaxy was believed to be the entire universe until a century ago.

Andromeda: When our sister galaxy’s one trillion stars collide with us in four billion years, no stars will make contact and nothing bad will happen.

Black hole: The opposite of a hole or gap, it’s where matter is so crushed and packed, spacetime completely warps so its own light cannot escape.

White dwarfs: Common sunlike stars in their old age, after their own gravity makes them collapse to become 5,000 times denser than steel.

First-magnitude stars: The night’s 20 brightest stars, whose names (Arcturus, Vega, Sirius et cetera) are familiar around the world.

Cosmic rays: Broken bits of high-speed atoms that arrive here from all directions, zooming in from the rest of the universe.

Comet: Typically, a 20-mile ice chunk that partially turns to vapor when near the Sun, to produce a thin million-mile tail.

Asteroid: A rocky or metallic body two to 600 miles wide that orbits the Sun in the same flat plane and direction as the planets.

Meteor: Any celestial object zooming through our air and glowing from the heat. Mostly pieces of comets or asteroids.

Space: The largely empty medium of the universe, which has anti-gravity properties over long distances.

Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, click here. Check out Bob’s podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.

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