The Sun
The Moon

Our Solar System and 9 Planets

From our small world we have gazed upon the cosmic ocean for thousands of years. Ancient astronomers observed points of light that appeared to move among the stars. They called these objects planets, meaning wanderers, and named them after Roman deities - Jupiter, king of the gods; Mars, the god of war; Mercury, messenger of the gods; Venus, the god of love and beauty, and Saturn, father of Jupiter and god of agriculture. The stargazers also observed comets with sparkling tails, and meteors or shooting stars apparently falling from the sky.Since the invention of the telescope, three more planets have been discovered in our solar system: Uranus (1781), Neptune (1846), and Pluto (1930). In addition, there are thousands of small bodies such as asteroids and comets. Most of the asteroids orbit in a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, while the home of comets lies far beyond the orbit of Pluto, in the Oort Cloud.The four planets closest to the Sun - Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars - are called the terrestrial planets because they have solid rocky surfaces. The four large planets beyond the orbit of Mars - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune - are called gas giants... more info, click on each of them...








The small and rocky planet Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun; it speeds around the Sun in a wildly elliptical (non-circular) orbit that takes it as close as 47 million km and as far as 70 million km from the Sun. Mercury completes a trip around the Sun every 88 days, speeding through space at nearly 50 km per second, faster than any other planet. Because it is so close to the Sun, temperatures on its surface can reach a scorching 467 degrees Celsius. But because the planet has hardly any atmosphere to keep it warm, nighttime temperatures can drop to a frigid -183 degrees Celsius.

Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, it is hard to see from Earth except during twilight. Until 1965, scientists thought that the same side of Mercury always faced the Sun. Then, astronomers discovered that Mercury completes three rotations for every two orbits around the Sun. If you wanted to stay up for a Mercury day, you'd have to stay up for 176 Earth days.



At first glance, if Earth had a twin, it would be Venus. The two planets are similar in size, mass, composition, and distance from the Sun. But there the similarities end. Venus has no ocean. Venus is covered by thick, rapidly spinning clouds that trap surface heat, creating a scorched greenhouse-like world with temperatures hot enough to melt lead and pressure so intense that standing on Venus would feel like the pressure felt 900 meters deep in Earth's oceans. These clouds reflect sunlight in addition to trapping heat. Because Venus reflects so much sunlight, it is usually the brightest planet in the sky.

The atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide (the same gas that produces fizzy sodas), droplets of sulfuric acid, and virtually no water vapor - not a great place for people or plants! In addition, the thick atmosphere allows the Sun's heat in but does not allow it to escape, resulting in surface temperatures over 450 įC, hotter than the surface of the planet Mercury, which is closest to the Sun. The high density of the atmosphere results in a surface pressure 90 times that of Earth, which is why probes that have landed on Venus have only survived several hours before being crushed by the incredible pressure. In the upper layers, the clouds move faster than hurricane- force winds on Earth.

Venus sluggishly rotates on its axis once every 243 Earth days, while it orbits the Sun every 225 days - its day is longer than its year! Besides that, Venus rotates retrograde, or "backwards," spinning in the opposite direction of its orbit around the Sun. From its surface, the Sun would seem to rise in the west and set in the east. 


Earth, our home planet, is the only planet in our solar system known to harbor life - life that is incredibly diverse. All of the things we need to survive are provided under a thin layer of atmosphere that separates us from the uninhabitable void of space. Earth is made up of complex, interactive systems that are often unpredictable. Air, water, land, and life - including humans - combine forces to create a constantly changing world that we are striving to understand.

Viewing Earth from the unique perspective of space provides the opportunity to see Earth as a whole. Scientists around the world have discovered many things about our planet by working together and sharing their findings.

Some facts are well known. For instance, Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the fifth largest in the solar system. Earth's diameter is just a few hundred kilometers larger than that of Venus. The four seasons are a result of Earth's axis of rotation being tilted more than 23 degrees. 



The red planet Mars has inspired wild flights of imagination over the centuries, as well as intense scientific interest. Whether fancied to be the source of hostile invaders of Earth, the home of a dying civilization, or a rough-and-tumble mining colony of the future, Mars provides fertile ground for science fiction writers, based on seeds planted by centuries of scientific observations.

We know that Mars is a small rocky body once thought to be very Earth-like. Like the other "terrestrial" planets - Mercury, Venus, and Earth - its surface has been changed by volcanism, impacts from other bodies, movements of its crust, and atmospheric effects such as dust storms. It has polar ice caps that grow and recede with the change of seasons; areas of layered soils near the Martian poles suggest that the planet's climate has changed more than once, perhaps caused by a regular change in the planet's orbit. Martian tectonism - the formation and change of a planet's crust - differs from Earth's. Where Earth tectonics involve sliding plates that grind against each other or spread apart in the seafloors, Martian tectonics seem to be vertical, with hot lava pushing upwards through the crust to the surface. Periodically, great dust storms engulf the entire planet. The effects of these storms are dramatic, including giant dunes, wind streaks, and wind-carved features.   


With its numerous moons and several rings, the Jupiter system is a "mini-solar system." Jupiter is the most massive planet in our solar system, and in composition it resembles a small star. In fact, if Jupiter had been between fifty and one hundred times more massive, it would have become a star rather than a planet.

On January 7, 1610, while skygazing from his garden in Padua, Italy, astronomer Galileo Galilei was surprised to see four small "stars" near Jupiter. He had discovered Jupiter's four largest moons, now called Io, Europe, Ganymede, and Callisto. Collectively, these four moons are known today as the Galilean satellites.

Galileo would be astonished at what we have learned about Jupiter and its moons in the past 30 years. Io is the most volcanically active body in our solar system. Ganymede is the largest planetary moon and has its own magnetic field. A liquid ocean may lie beneath the frozen crust of Europa. An icy ocean may also lie beneath the crust of Callisto. In 2003 alone, astronomers discovered 21 new moons orbiting the giant planet. Jupiter now officially has 61 moons - by far the most in the solar system. Many of the outer moons are probably asteroids captured by the giant planet's gravity.  


Saturn is the most distant of the five planets known to ancient stargazers. In 1610, Italian Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to gaze at Saturn through a telescope. To his surprise, he saw a pair of objects on either side of the planet, which he later drew as "cup handles" attached to the planet on each side. In 1659, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens announced that this was a ring encircling the planet. In 1675, Italian-born astronomer Jean Dominique Cassini discovered a gap between what are now called the A and B rings.

Like Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, Saturn is a gas giant. It is made mostly of hydrogen and helium. Its volume is 755 times greater than Earth's. Winds in the upper atmosphere reach 500 meters per second in the equatorial region. (In contrast, the strongest hurricane-force winds on Earth top out at about 110 meters per second.) These super-fast winds, combined with heat rising from within the planet's interior, cause the yellow and gold bands visible in its atmosphere.



Once considered one of the blander-looking planets, Uranus (pronounced YOOR un nus) has been revealed as a dynamic world with some of the brightest clouds in the outer solar system and 11 rings. Uranus gets its blue-green color from methane gas above the deeper cloud layers (methane absorbs red light and reflects blue light).

Uranus was discovered in 1781 by astronomer William Herschel, who at first believed it to be a comet. This seventh planet from the Sun is so distant that it takes 84 years to complete an orbit.

Uranus is classified as a "gas giant" planet because it has no solid surface. The atmosphere of Uranus is hydrogen and helium, with a small amount of methane and traces of water and ammonia. The bulk (80 percent or more) of the mass of Uranus is contained in an extended liquid core consisting primarily of "icy" materials (water, methane, and ammonia), with higher-density material at depth.  


The eighth planet from the Sun, Neptune was the first planet located through mathematical predictions rather than through regular observations of the sky. When Uranus didnít travel exactly as astronomers expected it to, two mathematicians, working independently of each other, proposed the position and mass of another, as yet unknown planet that could account for Uranusí orbit. Although "the establishment" ignored the predictions, a young astronomer decided to look for the predicted planet. Thus, Neptune was discovered in 1846. Seventeen days later, its largest moon, Triton, was also discovered.

Nearly 4.5 billion kilometers from the Sun, Neptune orbits the Sun once every 165 years, and therefore it has not quite made a full circle around the Sun since it was discovered. It is invisible to the naked eye because of its extreme distance from Earth. Interestingly, due to Plutoís unusual elliptical orbit, Neptune is actually the farthest planet from the Sun for a 20-year period out of every 248 Earth years.  



Long considered to be the smallest, coldest, and most distant planet from the Sun, Pluto may also be the largest of a group of objects that orbit in a disk-like zone of beyond the orbit of Neptune called the Kuiper Belt. This distant region consists of thousands of miniature icy worlds with diameters of at least 1,000 km and is also believed to be the source of some comets.

Discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the Sun. Plutoís most recent close approach to the Sun was in 1989. Between 1979 and 1999, Pluto's highly elliptical orbit brought it closer to the Sun than Neptune, providing rare opportunities to study this small, cold, distant world and its companion moon, Charon.

Most of what we know about Pluto we have learned since the late 1970s from Earth-based observations, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), and the Hubble Space Telescope. Many of the key questions about Pluto, Charon, and the outer fringes of our solar system await close-up observations by a robotic space flight mission.  



Our Sun has inspired mythology in almost all cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Native Americans, and Chinese. We now know that the Sun is a huge, bright sphere of mostly ionized gas, about 4.5 billion years old, and is the closest star to Earth at a distance of about 150 million km. The next closest star - Proxima Centauri - is nearly 268,000 times farther away. There are millions of similar stars in the Milky Way Galaxy (and billions of galaxies in the universe). Our Sun supports life on Earth. It powers photosynthesis in green plants and is ultimately the source of all food and fossil fuel. The connection and interaction between the Sun and the Earth drive the seasons, currents in the ocean, weather, and climate.

The Sun is some 333,400 times more massive than Earth and contains 99.86 percent of the mass of the entire solar system. It is held together by gravitational attraction, producing immense pressure and temperature at its core (more than a billion times that of the atmosphere on Earth, with a density about 160 times that of water).

At the core, the temperature is 16 million degrees kelvin (K), which is sufficient to sustain thermonuclear fusion reactions. The released energy prevents the collapse of the Sun and keeps it in gaseous form. The total energy radiated is 383 billion trillion kilowatts, which is equivalent to the energy generated by 100 billion tons of TNT exploding each second.  


 Earth's Moon:

The regular daily and monthly rhythms of Earth's only natural satellite, the Moon, have guided timekeepers for thousands of years. Its influence on Earth's cycles, notably tides, has also been charted by many cultures in many ages. More than 70 spacecraft have been sent to the Moon; 12 astronauts have walked upon its surface and brought back 382 kg (842 pounds) of lunar rock and soil to Earth.

The presence of the Moon stabilizes Earth's wobble. This has led to a much more stable climate over billions of years, which may have affected the course of the development and growth of life on Earth.

How did the Moon come to be? The leading theory is that a Mars-sized body once hit Earth and the resulting debris (from both Earth and the impacting body) accumulated to form the Moon. Scientists believe that the Moon was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago (the age of the oldest collected lunar rocks). When the Moon formed, its outer layers melted under very high temperatures, forming the lunar crust, probably from a global "magma ocean."  



Asteroids are rocky fragments left over from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Most of these fragments of ancient space rubble - sometimes referred to by scientists as minor planets - can be found orbiting the Sun in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. This region in our solar system, called the Asteroid Belt or Main Belt, probably contains millions of asteroids ranging widely in size from Ceres, which at 940 km in diameter is about one-quarter the diameter of our Moon, to bodies that are less than 1 km across. There are more than 20,000 numbered asteroids.

As asteroids revolve around the Sun in elliptical orbits, giant Jupiterís gravity and occasional close encounters with Mars or with another asteroid change the asteroidsí orbits, knocking them out of the Main Belt and hurling them into space across the orbits of the planets. For example, Marsí moons Phobos and Deimos may be captured asteroids. Scientists believe that stray asteroids or fragments of asteroids have slammed into Earth in the past, playing a major role both in altering the geological history of our planet and in the evolution of life on it. The extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago has been linked to a devastating impact near the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.  



"Shooting stars" or meteors are bits of material falling through Earth's atmosphere; they are heated to incandescence by the friction of the air. The bright trails as they are coming through the Earth's atmosphere are termed meteors, and these chunks as they are hurtling through space are called meteoroids. Large pieces that do not vaporize completely and reach the surface of the Earth are termed meteorites.

Scientists estimate that 1,000 tons to more than 10,000 tons of meteoritic material falls on the Earth each day. However, most of this material is very tiny - in the form of micrometeoroids or dust-like grains a few micrometers in size. (These particles are so tiny that the air resistance is enough to slow them sufficiently that they do not burn up, but rather fall gently to Earth.)

Where do they come from? They probably come from within our own solar system, rather than interstellar space. Their composition provides clues to their origins. They may share a common origin with the asteroids. Some meteoritic material is similar to the Earth and Moon and some is quite different. Some evidence indicates an origin from comets.  


Throughout history, people have been both awed and alarmed by comets, stars with "long hair" that appeared in the sky unannounced and unpredictably. We now know that comets are dirty-ice leftovers from the formation of our solar system around 4.6 billion years ago. They are among the least-changed objects in our solar system and, as such, may yield important clues about the formation of our solar system. We can predict the orbits of many of them, but not all.

Around a dozen "new" comets are discovered each year. Short-period comets are more predictable because they take less than 200 years to orbit the Sun. Most come from a region of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. These icy bodies are variously called Kuiper Belt Objects, Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt Objects, or trans-Neptunian objects. Less predictable are long-period comets, many of which arrive from a distant region called the Oort cloud about 100,000 astronomical units (that is, 100,000 times the mean distance between Earth and the Sun) from the Sun. These comets can take as long as 30 million years to complete one trip around the Sun. (It takes Earth only 1 year to orbit the Sun.) As many as a trillion comets may reside in the Oort cloud, orbiting the Sun near the edge of the Sunís gravitational influence.