“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 all discussed in this chapter.
- 7.1: 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.
- 7.2: 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.
- 7.3: 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.
- 7.4: Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
- The four jovian planets are accompanied by impressive systems of moons and rings. Nearly 200 moons have been discovered in the outer solar system. Of the four ring systems, Saturn’s is the largest and is composed primarily of water ice; in contrast, Uranus and Neptune have narrow rings of dark material, and Jupiter has a tenuous ring of dust.
- 7.5: The Gailean Moons of Jupiter
- Jupiter’s largest moons are Ganymede and Callisto, both low-density objects that are composed of more than half water ice. Callisto has an ancient cratered surface, while Ganymede shows evidence of extensive tectonic and volcanic activity, persisting until perhaps a billion years ago. Io and Europa are denser and smaller, each about the size of our Moon. Io is the most volcanically active object in the solar system.
- 7.6: Titan and Triton
- Saturn’s moon Titan has an atmosphere that is thicker than that of Earth. There are lakes and rivers of liquid hydrocarbons, and evidence of a cycle of evaporation, condensation, and return to the surface that is similar to the water cycle on Earth (but with liquid methane and ethane). The Cassini-Huygens lander set down on Titan and showed a scene with boulders, made of water ice, frozen harder than rock. Neptune’s cold moon Triton has a very thin atmosphere and nitrogen gas geysers.
- 7.7: Pluto and Charon
- Pluto and Charon have been revealed by the New Horizons spacecraft to be two of the most fascinating objects in the outer solar system. Pluto is small (a dwarf planet) but also surprisingly active, with contrasting areas of dark cratered terrain, light-colored basins of nitrogen ice, and mountains of frozen water that may be floating in the nitrogen ice. Even Pluto’s largest moon Charon shows evidence of geological activity. Both Pluto and Charon turn out to be far more dynamic.
- 7.8: Planetary Rings
- Rings are composed of vast numbers of individual particles orbiting so close to a planet that its gravitational forces could have broken larger pieces apart or kept small pieces from gathering together. Saturn’s rings are broad, flat, and nearly continuous, except for a handful of gaps. The particles are mostly water ice, with typical dimensions of a few centimeters. Enceladus is today erupting geysers of water to maintain the tenuous E Ring, which is composed of very small ice crystals.
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)
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).