Would a Cessna Fly on Uranus? What About a Cirrus?

In gratitude to the many readers who have sent in pointers to this item, and in ongoing appreciation of the living national treasure that is Randall Munroe of xkcd, and as a little pre-Superbowl feature, here is a look at Munroe's latest "What If?" feature. In this installment, "Interplanetary Cessna," he asks how a small aircraft would fare on different bodies in and around the solar system. Sample visual aid:


Uranus.png


Sample explanations, based on flight-simulator experiments:
The Sun: This works about as well as you'd imagine. If the plane is released close enough to the Sun to feel its atmosphere at all, it's vaporized in less than a second....

Jupiter: Our Cessna can't fly on Jupiter; the gravity is just too strong.... Starting from a friendly sea-level pressure, we'd accelerate through the tumbling winds into a 275 m/s (600 mph) downward glide deeper and deeper through the layers of ammonia ice and water ice until we and the aircraft were crushed. There's no surface to hit; Jupiter transitions smoothly from gas to solid as you sink deeper and deeper....

Uranus: Uranus is a strange, uniform bluish orb. There are high winds and it's bitterly cold. It's the friendliest of the gas giants to our Cessna, and you could probably fly for a little while. But given that it seems to be an almost completely featureless planet, why would you want to?

Neptune: If you're going to fly around one of the ice giants, Neptune (Motto: "The Slightly Bluer One") is probably a better choice than Uranus. It at least has some clouds to look at before you freeze to death or break apart from the turbulence.
And so on. As the illustration above suggests, in all cases you'd prefer to be doing your flying in a Cirrus, complete with parachute.

(And, yes, I know -- except that in most of these places the atmosphere is too thin for the parachute to do any good. Still. Congrats and thanks to Munroe and his readers.)
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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