Enhanced photo of ultraviolet flash from an intense solar flare.

10 space weather phenomena much cooler (and hotter) than earthly forecasts

Contributed by
Aug 26, 2016

Hurricanes. Heatwaves. Blizzards. Typhoons. Electrical storms. No matter what the nightly forecast warns will be holding up traffic or making it impossible to go outside for the next few days, there is no weather phenomenon on Earth that could possibly be as extreme as the warp-speed cyclones and lethal rains of space.

Exoplanets often tend to have brutal conditions due to their orbits being uncomfortably close to their stars — or so far they freeze into spectral spheres of galactic ice. Record highs and lows on our planet are nothing to a celestial body on which “extreme temperatures” can sometimes reach hundreds of thousands of degrees above or below zero. Some of the cruelest summers, numbest winters and most ruthlessly violent storms in the universe are brewing light-years away. Not to mention almost unnatural phenomena like glass rain and glowing methane clouds. Weather like this would either freeze, poison or incinerate you whether or not you left the mothership armored in a battery-powered self-heating (or self-cooling) spacesuit.

Depending which hemisphere you live on, either bundle up with bottomless mug of hot tea and several layers of socks or slather yourself in SPF and crank up the air conditioning for 10 space weather forecasts that will make you glad what’s going on outside is just some heavy precipitation. 

Artist's rendering of HD 209458 b.

Cruel Summers

Think an August day in the 90s is a scorcher? There is no AC in human invention that could possibly make the eternal summer of these exoplanets remotely bearable. Daredevil gas giant HD 209458 b, aka Osiris, is an undead god of the dead that plays with fire by orbiting dangerously close to its host star, and dangerously fast. That explains how this vacation spot stays at a balmy 10,000 Farenheit all year. Osiris also doesn’t seem to mind that astral flames singe off more and more of its atmosphere with every orbit until it finally gets thrown into the underworld. WASP-18b is into even more extreme sun-surfing, defying death as it rides the (heat)wave in a spiral around its star that keeps getting closer and closer until it’s devoured alive in the next million years or so. Even these exoplanets get the cold shoulder from the inferno that is the burning heart of the Red Spider Nebula. This white-hot white dwarf rages at over 500,000 degrees (meaning your pint of mint chocolate chip would boil the moment it touched the atmosphere). Even that is no match for the temperatures those ethereal, otherworldly and downright lethal gas clouds around a pulsar can reach. Try 80 million degrees.

Artist's rendering of the Boomerang nebula.

Eternal Winters

You’d rather be sunning yourself in the Arctic Circle than bundling up for a stay on celestial ice castle OGLE-2005-BLG-390L b. The brochure for this anti-getaway would advertise the ultimate aprés ski destination—because it’s minus 370 outside. Frostbite sets in after just half an hour of exposure to an air temperature of -19 degrees, which is positively tropical in comparison. Hot cocoa would be ice in all the time it took to get the canteen out of your space suit. 5,000 light-years away, winter is always coming to the Boomerang Nebula. This nebula might as well be a space Winterfell because astronomers have officially crowned it the coldest thing in the universe. Its icy core is a star gasping for breath, shrouded by a ghostly cloud of dust and gases that hits record highs of -458 degrees. The gaseous phantom has a chilling expansion rate of 367,000 miles per hour, which drops the mercury even more. It’s Science 101 that gases cool when they expand. Expanding ice clouds are pretty much an epic version of the tetrafluoroethane that keeps your car and last night’s pizza cool. Still, the only thing this frozen wasteland would be a paradise for is cryogenic experiments (and possibly abominable snowmen).

Actual photo of Pluto's Cthulu region.

Methane Snow

Cthulhu is real, and it’s a murky region of Pluto straight out of the Necronomicon. Even creepier is the frozen methane that looks like some chthonic version of snow on its mountain peaks. This “snow” isn’t exactly the same stuff that makes a white Christmas, though methane hydrate can crystallize into (here comes another Lovecraftian-sounding word) the solid methane clathrate. Methane trapped in water will take on the form of those glittery ice crystals otherwise known as snowflakes when it is cooled below freezing point. While astronomers aren’t going to start acknowledging the existence of an alien winged Elder God with masses of writhing tentacles, they do believe this extraterrestrial methane eerily mirrors the atmospheric water that condenses into frost and ice at high altitudes on Earth. The eternal darkness of Cthluhu is already thought to be the sorcery of tholins, which also sound like something a Shoggoth uttered but are actually methane molecules that have morphed into something more complex from exposure to UV radiation. It still remains a mystery whether the deep canyons and ravines in Pluto were once carved out by rivers of methane hydrate, just like those on Saturn’s moon Titan. Meanwhile, no word on whether the Plutonian mountain range will be named R’lyeh.

Artist's rendering of "super-Jupiter" planet orbiting a brown dwarf in the 2M1207 system.

Glass and Iron Rain

Mercilessly pouring rain may sound like a torrent of glass or even shards of iron, but the rainfall on a “super-Jupiter” exoplanet orbiting a brown dwarf in the 2M1207 system is precisely that. Its atmosphere is hot enough for minerals vaporize into microscopic particles that cool and condense into silicate rainclouds. Glass is a silicate. Its impossible melting point is nothing more than a zap in the microwave to a planet whose temperatures can reach 2,600 degrees. The droplets that fall from higher atmospheric levels are made of the same silicone dioxide in the windowpanes that keep rain out on earth. Iron droplets fall from clouds of vaporized iron particles further down in the atmosphere until they evaporate in the lower levels. That still counts as iron rain. Unfortunately for those of us with vivid imaginations, the supernatural storms won’t last. The young planet has such a hot temper because it’s only a teenager. At 10 million years old, it’s still burning with adolescent energy while going through the awkward phase of trying to cool. It only needs a few billion years to grow up, in which time the glass and iron clouds of its youth will keep descending until they fade like a high school crush.

Artist's rendering of exoplanet HD 189733.

Ghastly Gusts

Hurricanes might send entire cities into a state of emergency here on Earth, but meteorologists would have to constantly interrupt your Walking Dead marathon with storm updates on exoplanet HD 189733. Its deceptive shade of blue is just a scam to lure intergalactic tourists. The infernal winds of this “hot Jupiter” can reach speeds of at least 4,500 miles per hour and up to a hypersonic 22,000 miles per hour. The fastest cyclone to ever wreak havoc on our planet raised killer waves and whipped around palm trees at a languid 215 mph. Hurricanes here are caused by rainclouds that turn into spiraling monsters as they pick up speed over warm seas, which is why there always seems to be something howling in the Southern Hemisphere. HD 189733’s winds are actually an air conditioner that switches on because the same side of the tidally locked planet always faces (and gets sunburned by) its star. Flirting Icarus-like with the ball of fire it orbits perilously close to, it cools itself off from from those 1,170-degree days of cheating death with night breezes that shriek like a banshee across its desolate landscape at six times the speed of sound. It puts the haunted moors of Wuthering Heights to shame.

Artist's rendering of electric winds on Venus.

Electric Wind

Venus might have been named for the love goddess you often see rising out of seafoam on an iconic half-shell, but its electrically charged winds are powerful enough to dry up the seven seas. It also has the power to obliterate the oxygen from a planet’s atmosphere. Venus wields its electric field like a weapon that accelerates electrically charged ions to warp speed—and out of gravity’s grasp. When water evaporates and its molecules see the sun, they have seen the grim reaper, because ultraviolet rays break them down into charged hydrogen and oxygen ions. While the hydrogen ions in H2O are light enough and fast enough to rocket away on the wings of the electric force, heavier oxygen ions can’t escape what is essentially a really intense version of static cling. Astronomers theorize that Venus’ proximity to the sun is what has given it the almost supernatural power of making entire oceans vanish. You can’t live right next to a star that has coronal mass ejections going on without feeling the literally shocking effects. This is why a planet that used to have oceans, halfway decent temperatures and possibly microbial life billions of years ago is now a barren graveyard bathed in radiation and poison gas.

Artist's rendering of volcanic eruptions on Io.

Volcanic Tantrums

Vesuvius, Etna, Krakatoa, Kilauea…these are all science-fair exhibits that explode with vinegar and baking soda when compared to the myriad volcanoes of Jupiter’s moon Io. There is a reason this volatile moon has a reputation as the most volcanically active object in the solar system and possibly the universe. Blame it on Jupiter. In the cold black nothingness of space, Jupiter and its other moons have spoiled their sister Io with tidal heating that arises from the pull of their gravitational forces. This galactic heat generator has made Io erupt with volcanoes that have enormous mushroom-cloud outbursts (as in up to 300 miles or 5280 football fields across) of lethal sulfur dioxide. Burning oceans of lava gush forth for hundreds of miles. Io’s constant eruptions are the reason its entire atmosphere, which already looks like a poisonous swirl of reds and yellow infections, is composed of volcanic gases. The perpetually angsty moon only cools down when eclipsed by Jupiter’s shadow, but it starts heating up to be the center of attention again after a couple hours of living in the gas giant’s shadow. Even Kilauea, the most active volcano on our planet whose name literally translates to “spewing”, is pretty chill compared to the wrath of Io. 

Aurora that is the result of an intense geomagnetic storm.

Geomagnetic Storms

There is more than one kind of tempest in the vastness of space—and it rages right above our atmosphere. Geomagnetic storms are an even more massive phenomenon than the twisters we know, but you unleash a beast when you mess with magnetic fields. The entire interplanetary magnetic field gets shifted in the opposite direction. While this doesn’t open any sort of portal to a parallel universe, it’s sci-fi enough that it provokes a current caused by a plasmatic swarm of angry charged particles that rock Earth’s magnetosphere (this has nothing to do with Magneto however much it would amplify his powers). Electrical currents cause a surge in magnetic field strength by pushing the magnetopause, which separates the temperamental soup of plasma from the magnetosphere, inward before it plummets and sets the storm into motion. Thank plasma-blasting coronal mass ejections and their by-product of solar wind for all this chaos. Tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards may take out power lines for a week. A geomagnetic storm’s plasma tantrums can last up to a month. Scarier yet is that the effects sometimes reach us by disrupting power lines and radio waves. However, even space storms have their rainbows: they put on the fantastical light shows we know as auroras.

Still of actual NASA footage of coronal rain.

Plasma Downpours

Rain of fire may seem like an oxymoron — on earth. If you think an electrical storm striking on a sweltering day that already has close to 100% humidity is the worst storm to ever pound your umbrella, you clearly haven’t spent a summer day (or any other day of the year) on the sun to get soaked (rather scalded) by coronal rain. Our star regularly breaks out in flares of dragon’s breath that explode with radiation. Solar flares inundate the sun’s atmosphere with magnetic energy that drives it to astronomical temperatures that send some very aggravated particles rocketing off into space. This is right about when the forecast should predict a burning downpour. In the aftermath of a flare, cascades of plasma millions of times hotter than magma are unleashed on the sun’s surface as coronal rain. Irritable charged particles smash into each other, an all-out brawl between positively and negatively charged ions that releases heat upwards of 17 million degrees Fahrenheit as the plasma oozes on a trajectory driven by powerful magnetic forces. When ionic outbursts subside, so do soaring temperatures. The plasma’s temper eventually mellows enough for to drop to a cool 17 thousand degrees. That’s still hardly a substitute for a top-grade AC system.

Artist's rendering of Neptune. Glowing clouds surround its Great Dark Spot.

Glow Clouds

All hail Neptune’s glow clouds. Since they float over another planet, these clouds are already otherworldly, but what exactly lights them up? These unusually luminous methane hydrate clouds form above the tropopause layer of the planet’s atmosphere when air containing evaporated methane is disturbed and almost paranormally lifted by a dark vortex (spooky enough in itself). These vortices are like huge swirling mountains in Neptune’s atmosphere. Astronomers have compared them to orographic clouds on earth, which form around mountain peaks because of the same kind of air disturbance. Except earthly clouds made of water vapor instead of methane ice crystals just don’t have that marsh gas glow. They also don’t follow an ominous-looking vortex around wherever it lurks. In fact, these clouds have never been seen on Neptune without a dark vortex creeping right next to them, so astronomers use them to detect these mysterious vortices all over the Neptune. The most infamous glow-in-the dark storm system on the blue planet is the Scooter system, which are the illuminated entourage for its Great Dark Spot, a shadowy cyclone that is the Neptunian answer to Jupiter’s sizzling Great Red Spot. Hail these glowing globs of vapor that are unlike everything we’ve seen on Earth, except in Night Vale.

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