“What do we learn about the Earth by studying the planets? Humility.”—Andrew Ingersoll discussing the results of the Voyager mission in 1986.
Beyond Mars and the asteroid belt, we encounter a new region of the solar system: the realm of the giants. Temperatures here are lower, permitting water and other volatiles to condense as ice. The planets are much larger, distances between them are much greater, and each giant world is accompanied by an extensive system of moons and rings.
From many perspectives, the outer solar system is where the action is, and the giant planets are the most important members of the Sun’s family. When compared to these outer giants, the little cinders of rock and metal that orbit closer to the Sun can seem insignificant. These four giant worlds—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune—are the subjects of this chapter. Their rings, moons, and the dwarf planet Pluto are discussed in a later chapter.
- 11.1: Exploring the Outer Planets
- The outer solar system contains the four giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn have overall compositions similar to that of the Sun and have been explored by the Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini spacecraft. Voyager 2 explored Jupiter (1979), Saturn (1981), Uranus (1986), and Neptune (1989)—a grand tour of the giant planets—and these flybys have been the only explorations to date of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune.
- 11.2: The Giant Planets
- Jupiter is 318 times more massive than Earth. Saturn is about 25% as massive as Jupiter, and Uranus and Neptune are only 5% as massive. All four have deep atmospheres and opaque clouds, and all rotate quickly with periods from 10 to 17 hours. Jupiter and Saturn have extensive mantles of liquid hydrogen. Uranus and Neptune are depleted in hydrogen and helium relative to Jupiter and Saturn (and the Sun). Each giant planet has a core of “ice” and “rock” of about 10 Earth masses.
- 11.3: Atmosphere of the Giant Planets
- The four giant planets have generally similar atmospheres, composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. Their atmospheres contain small quantities of methane and ammonia gas, both of which also condense to form clouds. Deeper (invisible) cloud layers consist of water and possibly ammonium hydrosulfide (Jupiter and Saturn) and hydrogen sulfide (Neptune). In the upper atmospheres, hydrocarbons and other trace compounds are produced by photochemistry. We do not know the origin of Jupiter's cloud colors.
Thumbnail: The four giant planets in our solar system all have hydrogen atmospheres, but the warm gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, have tan, beige, red, and white clouds that are thought to be composed of ammonia ice particles with various colorants called “chromophores.” The blue-tinted ice giants, Uranus and Neptune, are much colder and covered in methane ice clouds. (credit: modification of work by Lunar and Planetary Institute, NASA)
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).