10 Misconceptions About Space

People have a lot of weird misconceptions about space (thanks, Hollywood). Here are a few myths about the universe and their real explanations—and we hope you like NASA, because they're going to come up a lot.

1. The Sun is on fire.

Artist's rendering of the sun
iStock/mrtom-uk

When some people picture the Sun, they imagine something like a campfire or an object on fire. But the Sun is actually a ball of gas. It burns thanks to nuclear fusion, which happens in its core. Every second, 700 million tons of hydrogen gets converted into 695 million tons of helium. When this happens, energy is released as gamma rays, which get converted to light. So, the Sun emits light and heat, but it's not on fire, because there's no oxygen involved.

2. The Sun is the only star that has planets.

Jupiter and Mars in the solar system
iStock/themotioncloud

Experts now believe that most of the stars in our Milky Way have planets surrounding them. Any planet that's found outside of our solar system is known as an exoplanet, and we can be pretty sure that they exist because they affect the way a star appears. One of the most common ways to detect exoplanets is to look for a decrease in light from certain stars at various times, which would indicate that a planet is passing in front of the star, affecting how the light appears to us.

3. Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, so it's the hottest.

Colorized image of Venus's clouds
NASA/JPL // Public Domain

Distance from the Sun actually has little to do with the average temperature on a planet. Venus (the second planet from the Sun) is the hottest planet in the solar system, but that's because of its atmosphere, which contains mostly carbon dioxide and some nitrogen, making it very thick. Throughout the year the surface of Venus remains at a temperature of about 462°C. The surface of Mercury, on the other hand, has a lot of temperature variations. It can be as cold as -173°C at night, and during the day it might reach 427°C. Mercury has a very thin atmosphere, which is why there's so much variation in temperature.

4. People explode in space.

NASA astronaut performing a spacewalk
NASA/JSC // Public Domain

Space is a near-vacuum, which means that people can't survive out there for more than a few minutes—but exploding isn't a concern. A body exposed in space will expand and bloat, especially the air in the lungs and the water in body tissue, but human skin is actually tight enough to prevent exploding. A person exposed to space would eventually die when circulation stops, after dissolved gases in the blood form bubbles and block flow. Basically, it's like an extreme version of "the bends" that divers can get.

5. In the 1960s, NASA spent millions developing a pen that would write in space.

NASA astronaut writing with a space pen
NASA/JSC // Public Domain

This is a popular myth on the internet—and even in one episode of The West Wing. People tend to use this as a comparison between NASA and Soviet astronauts, who were smart enough to just bring pencils. But NASA used pencils as well, and they have the receipts to prove it. In 1965, NASA placed an order for 34 mechanical pencils from Houston's Tycam Engineering Manufacturing Incorporated. There was an independent company, the Fisher Pen Company, that developed a space pen for around $1 million. And later, both NASA and the Soviets started using Fisher's anti-gravity space pen (it was a great pen).

6. In space, you experience zero gravity.

NASA astronauts experiencing decreased gravity
NASA/JSC // Public Domain">NASA/JSC // Public Domain

Gravity is considered the most important force in the universe, and it doesn't just go away when we leave Earth. Gravity is necessary for everything from the Moon's ability to orbit the Earth to the Sun staying put in the Milky Way. What astronauts actually experience in space is what NASA calls micro-gravity. It has nothing to do with the actual strength of gravity, which is only very slightly less on the International Space Station. It's because astronauts are constantly falling, so they seem weightless.

7. Black holes are like vacuums.

As we learn more and more about black holes, experts are more likely to compare them to Venus flytraps than vacuums. Black holes don't suck up everything nearby; instead, they sit pretty dormant, then if a star approaches it and gets too close, the black hole becomes active. And still, only some of the objects nearby get ripped apart by the black hole.

8. The Moon orbits Earth once a day.

Earth's moon
NASA/JPL/USGS // Public Domain

It takes about 27.3 days for the Moon to orbit Earth. This is known as a sidereal month. It's worth noting that the Moon's orbit isn't considered regular—it has variations, and there are upwards of five different months that astronomers recognize.

9. There's a dark side of the Moon.

Earth's Moon from the International Space Station
NASA/JSC // Public Domain

As the Moon is orbiting Earth, it's also rotating on its axis, so we're always seeing the same side of the Moon. But the opposite side isn't dark: it gets the same amount of sunlight as the other side.

10. A light-year measures time.

It actually measures distance. NASA defines a light-year as "the total distance that a beam of light, moving in a straight line, travels in one year." Light travels at around 300,000 kilometers per second, so a light-year is around 10 trillion (10,000,000,000,000) kilometers.

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This story was republished in 2019.

A Rare ‘Full Cold Moon Kiss’ Is Coming This Week—Here’s How to See It

jamesvancouver/iStock via Getty Images
jamesvancouver/iStock via Getty Images

Every year ends with a cold moon—the name given to a full moon that appears in December. The full cold moon that's lighting up skies in 2019 will come with a bonus spectacle for sky-gazers. As Forbes reports, a planetary "kiss" between Saturn and Venus will coincide with the last full moon of the year. Here's what you need to know about the astronomical events.

What is a Full Cold Moon Kiss?

The full moon of each month has a unique nickname associated with the time of year it occurs. A cold moon happens as temperatures drop and winter settles in, hence the name. December's full moon has also been called the long nights moon by some Native American tribes and the moon Before Yule in Europe, according to Travel and Leisure.

This year's moon will be visible the night of December 11 through the morning of December 12. On this same night, the planets Venus and Saturn will appear closer than usual in the night sky. The celestial bodies will be less than 2° apart and share a celestial longitude, a phenomena known as a conjunction or a planetary "kiss."

How to See the Full Cold Moon Kiss

During twilight on Tuesday, December 10, the bright planet Venus and the dimmer planet Saturn will arrive at their closest conjunction, 1.8° apart, above the southwestern horizon. The following evening, they'll be just .01° further away. Stick around the night of Wednesday, December 11 to catch the full cold moon, which reaches peak illumination at 9:12 p.m. on the West Coast and at 12 minutes after midnight on the East Coast.

Not planning on staying up late to see the moon reach its fullest state? Moonrise on December 11 will be just as spectacular. When the moon surfaces around sunset, it will appear larger and more reddish in color in the sky. Meanwhile, Venus's and Saturn's kiss will be visible 180º away.

[h/t Forbes]

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

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