Our solar system is big. Way big. In fact, if Earth were the size of a marble, the solar system out to Neptune would cover an area the size of San Francisco.
Within this vastness lies an array of celestial wonders: the sun with its surface of plasma, the Earth with its abundance of life and massive oceans, the mesmerizing clouds of Jupiter, to name a few.
For this particular list, we’ve decided to highlight some well-known celestial wonders, as well as a few you might not know about. With new discoveries happening all the time, and so much left to explore, the cosmos is never short on beauty and astonishment.
Below are just a few of the scattered jewels of our solar system.
The impact crater of Utopia Planitia, Mars
The largest recognized impact basin in the solar system, Utopia Planitia features a crater that stretches more than 2,000 miles (about 3,300 kilometers) across Mars’ northern plains. Because the impact is believed to have occurred early in Mars’ history, it’s likely that Utopia may have at one time hosted an ancient ocean.
In 2016, an instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter added weight to this theory after detecting large deposits of subsurface water ice beneath the impact basin. It’s estimated as much water as the volume of Lake Superior may lie in deposits located 3 to 33 feet (1 to 10 meters) below the surface. Such an easily accessible resource could prove enormously beneficial for future human-based missions to the red planet.
“This deposit is probably more accessible than most water ice on Mars, because it is at a relatively low latitude and it lies in a flat, smooth area where landing a spacecraft would be easier than at some of the other areas with buried ice,” Jack Holt of the University of Texas said in a 2016 statement.
The solar system’s tallest mountain on Vesta
Despite its diameter of about 330 miles (530 km), the asteroid Vesta is home to our solar system’s tallest mountain. Centered within an impact crater called Rheasilvia, this 14-mile-high (23 km) unnamed peak could easily fit two stacked Mount Everests.
This mega-mountain is believed to have formed 1 billion years ago after an impact with an object at least 30 miles (48 km) across. The resulting force carved out a huge amount of material, some 1 percent of Vesta, that was ejected into space and scattered across the solar system. In fact, it’s estimated that some 5 percent of all space rocks on Earth originated from Vesta, which thus joins only a handful of solar-system objects beyond Earth (including Mars and the moon) from which scientists have a sample.
The vast canyon of Valles Marineris, Mars
To put the scale of Mars’ immense Valles Marineris into perspective, just imagine the Grand Canyon four times deeper and stretching from New York City to Los Angeles. As you might expect, this vast canyon is the largest in the solar system, spanning more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km) and diving up to 23,000 feet (7,000 meters) into the red planet’s surface.
According to NASA, Valles Marineris is likely a tectonic crack in Mars’ crust that formed as the planet cooled. Another theory suggests it was a channel created by lava flowing from a nearby shield volcano. Regardless, its varied geography and likely role in channeling water during Mars’ wet years will make it an attractive target for human-based missions to the red planet. We imagine the view from the rim of one of the canyon cliffs will be pretty spectacular as well.
The icy geysers of Enceladus
Enceladus, Saturn’s second-largest moon, is a geologically active world covered in thick ice, and home to a large subsurface ocean of liquid water estimated to be about 6 miles (10 km) deep. Some of its most distinctive features, however, are its spectacular geysers — more than 100 discovered so far — that erupt from cracks in its surface and send dramatic plumes into space.
In 2015, NASA sent its Cassini spacecraft cruising through one of these plumes, revealing saltwater rich in organic molecules. In particular, Cassini detected the presence of molecular hydrogen, a chemical characteristic of hydrothermal activity.
“For a microbiologist thinking about energy for microbes, hydrogen is like the gold coin of energy currency,” Peter Girguis, a deep-sea biologist at Harvard University, told the Washington Post in 2017. “If you had to have one thing, one chemical compound, coming out of a vent that would lead you to think there’s energy to support microbial life, hydrogen is at the top of that list.”
As such, Enceladus’ beautiful geysers may point the way to the most habitable spot for life in our solar system beyond Earth.