Surrounding the Sun is a complex system of worlds with a wide range of conditions: eight major planets, many dwarf planets, hundreds of moons, and countless smaller objects. Thanks largely to visits by spacecraft, we can now envision the members of the solar system as other worlds like our own, each with its own chemical and geological history, and unique sights that interplanetary tourists may someday visit. Some have called these past few decades the “golden age of planetary exploration,” comparable to the golden age of exploration in the fifteenth century, when great sailing ships plied Earth’s oceans and humanity became familiar with our own planet’s surface.
In this chapter, we discuss our planetary system and introduce the idea of comparative planetology—studying how the planets work by comparing them with one another. We want to get to know the planets not only for what we can learn about them, but also to see what they can tell us about the origin and evolution of the entire solar system. In the upcoming chapters, we describe the better-known members of the solar system and begin to compare them to the thousands of planets that have been discovered recently, orbiting other stars.
- 4.1: Overview of Our Planetary System
- Our solar system currently consists of the Sun, eight planets, five dwarf planets, nearly 200 known moons, and a host of smaller objects. The planets can be divided into two groups: the inner terrestrial planets and the outer giant planets. Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake do not fit into either category; as icy dwarf planets, they exist in an ice realm on the fringes of the main planetary system. The giant planets are composed mostly of liquids and gases.
- 4.2: Compostion and Structure of Planets
- The giant planets have dense cores roughly 10 times the mass of Earth, surrounded by layers of hydrogen and helium. The terrestrial planets consist mostly of rocks and metals. They were once molten, which allowed their structures to differentiate (that is, their denser materials sank to the center). The Moon resembles the terrestrial planets in composition, but most of the other moons—which orbit the giant planets—have larger quantities of frozen ice within them.
- 4.3: Dating Planetary Surfaces
- The ages of the surfaces of objects in the solar system can be estimated by counting craters: on a given world, a more heavily cratered region will generally be older than one that is less cratered. We can also use samples of rocks with radioactive elements in them to obtain the time since the layer in which the rock formed last solidified. The half-life of a radioactive element is the time it takes for half the sample to decay.
- 4.4: Planetary Evolution
- After their common beginning, each of the planets evolved on its own path. Different possible outcomes are illustrated by comparison of the terrestrial planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the Moon). All are rocky, differentiated objects. The level of geological activity is proportional to mass: greatest for Earth and Venus, less for Mars, and absent for the Moon and Mercury. However, tides from another nearby world can also generate heat to drive geological activity.
- 4.5: Origin of the Solar System
- Regularities among the planets have led astronomers to hypothesize that the Sun and the planets formed together in a giant, spinning cloud of gas and dust called the solar nebula. Astronomical observations show tantalizingly similar circumstellar disks around other stars. Within the solar nebula, material first coalesced into planetesimals; many of these gathered together to make the planets and moons. The remainder can still be seen as comets and asteroids.
- 4.6: Formation of the Solar System
- Meteorites, comets, and asteroids are survivors of the solar nebula out of which the solar system formed. This nebula was the result of the collapse of an interstellar cloud of gas and dust, which contracted (conserving its angular momentum) to form our star, the Sun, surrounded by a thin, spinning disk of dust and vapor. Condensation in the disk led to the formation of planetesimals, which became the building blocks of the planets.
Thumbnail: This picture was taken by the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012. The image is reconstructed digitally from 55 different images taken by a camera on the rover’s extended mast, so that the many positions of the mast (which acted like a selfie stick) are edited out. (credit: modification of work by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS).
Contributors and Attributions
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).