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Foothill astronomer Fraknoi gives Rotarians tour of the solar system

Photo By: Jerry Tomanek/Special To The Town Crier
Photo Jerry Tomanek/Special To The Town Crier

Rotary Club of Los Altos President John Sylvester, left, welcomes Foothill College astronomy instructor and radio personality Andrew Fraknoi, right.

Renowned Foothill College astronomy instructor and radio personality Andrew Fraknoi led the Rotary Club of Los Altos on a tour of his “Top Tourist Sights of the Solar System” Sept. 13.

Fraknoi and his audience considered the question, With sufficient financing, where could one travel, visit or live in the future?

According to Fraknoi, Venus, Earth’s sister planet, appears shrouded by clouds that create an enormous greenhouse effect. With a surface temperature of 900 F, it’s hotter than the self-cleaning function of home ovens. Radar photos of Venus’ very active surface detail its volcanic character, he said. Its 4,000-mile-long river, longer than any on Earth, is actually a mile-wide river of lava. Not a pleasant place to visit, Fraknoi added.

Mars has fewer clouds and is smaller than Venus, Fraknoi said. Its Mariner Valley, the Grand Canyon of Mars, is as long as the U.S. is wide, making the Grand Canyon look like a mere ditch.

Fraknoi said his personal top tourist site in space is Mars’ Mount Olympus, more than three times higher than Mount Everest at 15 miles high, with a base as wide as the state of Arizona. However, with Mars’ very thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide, humans’ blood would boil. Again, not the ideal place to visit.

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, is composed primarily of gas and liquid, not solid rock, so the banded patterns in photos represent the sloshing patterns of enormous storm systems, Fraknoi explained. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, nearly three times the size of Earth, appears like a huge tropical storm. Io, one of its four giant moons, is in a state of constant volcanic eruption, with geysers more than 180 miles high. It’s “a remarkable body unlike any we’ve ever seen,” said the astronomer.

According to Fraknoi, the most beautiful of all the solar system’s planets, Saturn, is so light that it could float on water. Its rings are not solid but composed of ice chunks traveling around its equator. Though Saturn is extremely cold, one of its 60 small moons has super-heated water vapor, which Fraknoi termed “an unsolved mystery.”

Miranda, a moon of Uranus, broke apart in an early collision and then reformed, creating an extremely uneven surface with tremendous cliffs 2 miles high under low gravity, Fraknoi said. In fact, he noted, if lovers leaped off the Verona Cliffs, named for ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet, it would take them 12 minutes to reach bottom.

Earth’s moon is devoid of vegetation, wind, water and even earthquakes. The footprints left by the first interplanetary travelers may remain unchanged forever, Fraknoi said. Could that be a possible future tourist attraction?

No human could survive unprotected on any of the planets besides Earth, Fraknoi said. The bottom line, he added, is that we have nowhere else to go, so it would be wise to protect our own planet.

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