Thanks to brilliant minds and the advancement of technology, we've delved deeper into outer space than ever before. Regardless, though, there are still quite a few unexplained mysteries of space which leave experts scratching their brainy little heads. It goes far beyond pondering life on other planets and wondering how certain celestial bodies came to be; we're talking about happenings and phenomena that most of us can't even wrap our minds around.
For what it's worth (and honestly, it's worth a lot,) scientists aren't completely stumped by space. They've discovered other Earth-like planets, like Gliese 581d, which is believed to have liquid water on the surface. We learned last year that they had discovered another 1,284 new planets, nine of which could be habitable. (This doubled the number of known exoplanets in our universe.) They sent the Juno probe into the orbit of the very mysterious Jupiter, which was likely the first planet formed and affected the formation of all the other planets. All that is very big indeed.
But even with all of these momentous and groundbreaking steps forward, so much remains a mystery even to the brightest of minds. That's part of the excitement of this field of study: The fact that there is so much we still don't know. Here are some outer space mysteries that keep scientists up at night.
1. What's The Deal With Jupiter's Red Storm?
You're likely familiar with the red dot on Jupiter, but you may know know that it's more than just a burst of color. Jupiter's red storm is actually a massive hurricane that's been zipping around the planet for at least 400 years. (Repeat: It's a 400-year-old hurricane, minimum!) It's so big that you could fit three of our Earths in it, and it takes about six days for it to complete a single rotation — although it's shrinking in size. Research has found that it changes colors, ranging from a pale pink to a bright red.
It gets tricky, though. Nobody knows how or why it's lasted so long. (400 years, people.) They can't explain why it changes color or how it came to be. One theory posits that whenever the storm starts to lose energy, vertical flows move hot and cold gases into and out of the storm to restore that energy, and that's what it can last so long. Other research says that in a nutshell, the Sun is what keeps the energies so balanced. Whatever the case may be, Jupiter's "Great Red Spot" is something of an enigma.
2. Is Peggy Just Another One Of Saturn's Moons?
Saturn's moon, Peggy, enjoyed widespread (albeit kind of short-lived) fame a few years ago. The tiny body popped up back in 2013, when NASA's Cassini photographed Saturn's rings and saw what they thought was a new, mysterious moon forming. It was an exciting discovery because Saturn's rings are said to be the place for moons to be born — a process astronomers had yet to witness. This explains the excitement around Peggy. However, NASA stated that Peggy wasn't expected to get any bigger and could possibly even be falling apart.
Therein lies the problem. Peggy was far too small to be a moon, or even a moonlet. One possibility is that it was a collection of material from Saturn's rings that collapsed under its own weight. Then there's the matter of Peggy's orbit, which has changed over time. Weird, no?
3. How Exactly Do Stars Explode?
All stars' lives come to an end eventually, but scientists still aren't 100 percent certain what happens when a star explodes. When a star runs out of fuel, it experiences a supernova — the explosion that ends its life. Supernovas are so powerful and so bright that for a brief moment, they can outshine whole galaxies. But how does this process happen? What's going on inside the star just before its supernova? Supernovas have long been one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy.
Research from the last several years has pointed to some new findings, as well as ruled out some older ones. For instance, some scientists believe that shock waves very likely tear apart massive stars as they're dying. And even though stars are spherical balls of gas, their explosion is not also a uniform sphere. At the heart of the explosion, the inner regions of the star "slosh around" before exploding. Other experts also have doubts about one widely accepted belief: That stars rotate rapidly just before they die.
4. How Did Saturn's Rings Come To Be?
Explaining Saturn's rings is no easy task, and astronomers are still trying to grasp the super-thin, icy figures encircling the planet — a familiar sight, but still relatively elusive. Saturn's rings formed around 4.4 billion years ago (no big deal), and we know that they're made of dust, rock, and ice from passing comets, meteorites that hit Saturn's moons, and material that the planet's gravity is pulling in from those moons.
But how did they form in the first place, and why are they mostly ice? How are they able to maintain such a flawless shape as they spin around the planet and all its moons? Many questions about Saturn's rings still need to be fully answered.
5. What's Causing The Dimming Of Megastructure Star KIC 8462852?
KIC 8462852 started making headlines when the megastructure star was found to be dimming — a highly uncharacteristic behavior that scientists were unable to explain. Records indicated that this dimming was happening as early as the 19th century. There's more: They noticed it was dimming fast — two percent in a span of just six months.
Several theories were proposed. Maybe the recent dimming is caused by objects like planets and dust passing in front of KIC 8462852. Maybe two objects (like comets) collided, and the remains are floating in front of the star. But even if one of these happens to be the case, they only explain the sudden dimming and not why the star's overall brightness has faded through the years. Are the aliens up to something? That's what some people are saying, explaining that they've built a Dyson sphere — a megastructure that harvests light from a star.
Many people aren't quite ready to accept the alien theory yet, and other theories remain unsatisfying. As of October of last year, experts are still exploring the cause of this phenomenon.
6. Black Holes
The conversation surrounding black holes is one you probably don't even want to get started with, because it's that confusing. They happen when an enormous star collapses, exploding into such a small space with such powerful gravity that even the light around it is sucked in. Science has a general idea of how they work, but we have yet to actually see one. Since no light can escape, black holes are invisible, although special telescopes can help spot them. They can be as small as an atom (but with the mass of a mountain); however, supermassive black holes have masses that equal more than one million suns put together.
But the size of black holes leaves many loose ends when considering how they're created. Some scientists are researching how black holes have been forming since the Big Bang. Gravity connects supermassive black holes to billions of stars, but nobody knows which came first. Did the hole come first and gather galaxies around it, or the other way around?
Furthermore, another galaxy 200 million light-years away from us has the biggest black hole ever measured — except it's only one-fourth the size of our Milky Way galaxy. How does this happen? How is it possible?
7. Why Is Our Solar System So Bizarre?
Astronomers still don't fully know how our solar system came to be, and they're especially stumped by how vastly different the planets within our solar system are. One thing that makes us unique is that all of our major planets orbit in a nearly circular pattern. Extrasolar planets, however, have a more elliptical orbit that's very elongated. Then there's the distance of our four giant planets from the Sun: They are quite far away compared to larger extrasolar planets, which stay pretty close to their parent stars.
Some research points to the way our solar system formed to explain why ours is so different from other planetary systems. Scientists have had to accept that despite previous beliefs, maybe all planets aren't formed in the same manner after all.