Soho Spacecraft Mercury



Imagine, a frigid, distant shadow-region in the far suburbs of our Solar System, where a myriad of twirling icy objects--some large, some small--orbit our Sun in a mysterious, mesmerizing phantom-like ballet within this eerie and strange swath of darkness. Here, where our Sun is so far away that it hangs suspended in an alien sky of perpetual twilight, looking just like a particularly large star traveling through a sea of smaller stars, is the Kuiper Belt--a mysterious, distant deep-freeze that astronomers are only now first beginning to explore. Makemake is a denizen of this remote region, a dwarf planet that is one of the largest known objects inhabiting the Kuiper Belt, sporting a diameter that is about two-thirds the size of Pluto. In April 2016, a team of astronomers announced that, while peering into the outer limits of our Solar System, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (HST) discovered a tiny, dark moon orbiting Makemake, which is the second brightest icy dwarf planet--after Pluto--in the Kuiper Belt. Despite this oddball moon's many exotic attributes, it actually sports one of the most Earth-like surfaces in our Solar System. Titan may also experience volcanic activity, but its volcanoes would erupt with different ingredients than the molten-rock lava that shoots out from the volcanoes of Earth. In dramatic contrast to what occurs on our own planet, Titan's volcanoes erupt icy water "lava" (cryovolcanism). Titan's entire alien surface has been sculpted by gushing methane and ethane, which carves river channels, and fills its enormous great lakes with liquid natural gas. "Since time immemorial, humanity has looked up and wondered what made the man in the Moon. We know the dark splotches are large, lava-filled, impact basins that were created by asteroid impacts about four billion years ago. GRAIL data indicate that both the near side and the far side of the Moon were bombarded by similarly large impactors, but they reacted to them much differently," noted Dr. Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator, in a November 7, 2013 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Press Release. Dr. Zuber is of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The JPL is located in Pasadena, California.