By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe how the objects in our solar system are identified, explored, and characterized
- Describe the types of small bodies in our solar system, their locations, and how they formed
- Model the solar system with distances from everyday life to better comprehend distances in space
The solar system1 consists of the Sun and many smaller objects: the planets, their moons and rings, and such “debris” as asteroids, comets, and dust. Decades of observation and spacecraft exploration have revealed that most of these objects formed together with the Sun about 4.5 billion years ago. They represent clumps of material that condensed from an enormous cloud of gas and dust. The central part of this cloud became the Sun, and a small fraction of the material in the outer parts eventually formed the other objects.
During the past 50 years, we have learned more about the solar system than anyone imagined before the space age. In addition to gathering information with powerful new telescopes, we have sent spacecraft directly to many members of the planetary system. (Planetary astronomy is the only branch of our science in which we can, at least vicariously, travel to the objects we want to study.) With evocative names such as Voyager, Pioneer, Curiosity, and Pathfinder, our robot explorers have flown past, orbited, or landed on every planet, returning images and data that have dazzled both astronomers and the public. In the process, we have also investigated two dwarf planets, hundreds of fascinating moons, four ring systems, a dozen asteroids, and several comets (smaller members of our solar system that we will discuss later).
Our probes have penetrated the atmosphere of Jupiter and landed on the surfaces of Venus, Mars, our Moon, Saturn’s moon Titan, the asteroids Eros and Itokawa, and the Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (usually referred to as 67P). Humans have set foot on the Moon and returned samples of its surface soil for laboratory analysis (Figure). We have even discovered other places in our solar system that might be able to support some kind of life.
Astronauts on the Moon.
The lunar lander and surface rover from the Apollo 15 mission are seen in this view of the one place beyond Earth that has been explored directly by humans.
View this gallery of NASA images that trace the history of the Apollo mission.
The Sun, a star that is brighter than about 80% of the stars in the Galaxy, is by far the most massive member of the solar system, as shown in Table. It is an enormous ball about 1.4 million kilometers in diameter, with surface layers of incandescent gas and an interior temperature of millions of degrees. The Sun will be discussed in later chapters as our first, and best-studied, example of a star.
|Mass of Members of the Solar System|
|Object||Percentage of Total Mass of Solar System|
|All other planets and dwarf planets||0.04|
|Moons and rings||0.00005|
|Cosmic dust||0.0000001 (estimate)|
Table also shows that most of the material of the planets is actually concentrated in the largest one, Jupiter, which is more massive than all the rest of the planets combined. Astronomers were able to determine the masses of the planets centuries ago using Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s law of gravity to measure the planets’ gravitational effects on one another or on moons that orbit them (see Orbits and Gravity). Today, we make even more precise measurements of their masses by tracking their gravitational effects on the motion of spacecraft that pass near them.
Beside Earth, five other planets were known to the ancients—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—and two were discovered after the invention of the telescope: Uranus and Neptune. The eight planets all revolve in the same direction around the Sun. They orbit in approximately the same plane, like cars traveling on concentric tracks on a giant, flat racecourse. Each planet stays in its own “traffic lane,” following a nearly circular orbit about the Sun and obeying the “traffic” laws discovered by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. Besides these planets, we have also been discovering smaller worlds beyond Neptune that are called trans-Neptunian objects or TNOs (see Figure). The first to be found, in 1930, was Pluto, but others have been discovered during the twenty-first century. One of them, Eris, is about the same size as Pluto and has at least one moon (Pluto has five known moons.) The largest TNOs are also classed as dwarf planets, as is the largest asteroid, Ceres. (Dwarf planets will be discussed further in the chapter on Rings, Moons, and Pluto). To date, more than 1750 of these TNOs have been discovered.
Orbits of the Planets.
All eight major planets orbit the Sun in roughly the same plane. The five currently known dwarf planets are also shown: Eris, Haumea, Pluto, Ceres, and Makemake. Note that Pluto’s orbit is not in the plane of the planets.
Each of the planets and dwarf planets also rotates (spins) about an axis running through it, and in most cases the direction of rotation is the same as the direction of revolution about the Sun. The exceptions are Venus, which rotates backward very slowly (that is, in a retrograde direction), and Uranus and Pluto, which also have strange rotations, each spinning about an axis tipped nearly on its side. We do not yet know the spin orientations of Eris, Haumea, and Makemake.
The four planets closest to the Sun (Mercury through Mars) are called the inner or terrestrial planets. Often, the Moon is also discussed as a part of this group, bringing the total of terrestrial objects to five. (We generally call Earth’s satellite “the Moon,” with a capital M, and the other satellites “moons,” with lowercase m’s.) The terrestrial planets are relatively small worlds, composed primarily of rock and metal. All of them have solid surfaces that bear the records of their geological history in the forms of craters, mountains, and volcanoes (Figure).
Surface of Mercury.
The pockmarked face of the terrestrial world of Mercury is more typical of the inner planets than the watery surface of Earth. This black-and-white image, taken with the Mariner 10 spacecraft, shows a region more than 400 kilometers wide.
The next four planets (Jupiter through Neptune) are much larger and are composed primarily of lighter ices, liquids, and gases. We call these four the jovian planets (after “Jove,” another name for Jupiter in mythology) or giant planets—a name they richly deserve (Figure). More than 1400 Earths could fit inside Jupiter, for example. These planets do not have solid surfaces on which future explorers might land. They are more like vast, spherical oceans with much smaller, dense cores.
The Four Giant Planets.. This montage shows the four giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Below them, Earth is shown to scale.
Near the outer edge of the system lies Pluto, which was the first of the distant icy worlds to be discovered beyond Neptune (Pluto was visited by a spacecraft, the NASA New Horizons mission, in 2015 [see Figure]). Table summarizes some of the main facts about the planets.
Pluto Close-up. This intriguing image from the New Horizons spacecraft, taken when it flew by the dwarf planet in July 2015, shows some of its complex surface features. The rounded white area is temporarily being called the Sputnik Plain, after humanity’s first spacecraft.
Distance from Sun
Comparing DensitiesLet’s compare the densities of several members of the solar system. The density of an object equals its mass divided by its volume. The volume (V) of a sphere (like a planet) is calculated using the equation
where π (the Greek letter pi) has a value of approximately 3.14. Although planets are not perfect spheres, this equation works well enough. The masses and diameters of the planets are given in Table. For data on selected moons, see Appendix G. Let’s use Saturn’s moon Mimas as our example, with a mass of 4 × 1019 kg and a diameter of approximately 400 km (radius, 200 km = 2 × 105m).
The volume of Mimas is
Density is mass divided by volume:
Note that the density of water in these units is 1000 kg/m3, so Mimas must be made mainly of ice, not rock. (Note that the density of Mimas given in Appendix G is 1.2, but the units used there are different. In that table, we give density in units of g/cm3, for which the density of water equals 1. Can you show, by converting units, that 1 g/cm3 is the same as 1000 kg/m3?)
Calculate the average density of our own planet, Earth. Show your work. How does it compare to the density of an ice moon like Mimas? See Table for data.
Smaller Members of the Solar System
Most of the planets are accompanied by one or more moons; only Mercury and Venus move through space alone. There are more than 180 known moons orbiting planets and dwarf planets (see Appendix Gfor a listing of the larger ones), and undoubtedly many other small ones remain undiscovered. The largest of the moons are as big as small planets and just as interesting. In addition to our Moon, they include the four largest moons of Jupiter (called the Galilean moons, after their discoverer) and the largest moons of Saturn and Neptune (confusingly named Titan and Triton).
Each of the giant planets also has rings made up of countless small bodies ranging in size from mountains to mere grains of dust, all in orbit about the equator of the planet. The bright rings of Saturn are, by far, the easiest to see. They are among the most beautiful sights in the solar system (Figure). But, all four ring systems are interesting to scientists because of their complicated forms, influenced by the pull of the moons that also orbit these giant planets.
Saturn and Its Rings. This 2007 Cassini image shows Saturn and its complex system of rings, taken from a distance of about 1.2 million kilometers. This natural-color image is a composite of 36 images taken over the course of 2.5 hours.
The solar system has many other less-conspicuous members. Another group is the asteroids, rocky bodies that orbit the Sun like miniature planets, mostly in the space between Mars and Jupiter (although some do cross the orbits of planets like Earth—see Figure). Most asteroids are remnants of the initial population of the solar system that existed before the planets themselves formed. Some of the smallest moons of the planets, such as the moons of Mars, are very likely captured asteroids.
Asteroid Eros.This small Earth-crossing asteroid image was taken by the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft from an altitude of about 100 kilometers. This view of the heavily cratered surface is about 10 kilometers wide. The spacecraft orbited Eros for a year before landing gently on its surface.
Another class of small bodies is composed mostly of ice, made of frozen gases such as water, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide; these objects are called comets (see Figure). Comets also are remnants from the formation of the solar system, but they were formed and continue (with rare exceptions) to orbit the Sun in distant, cooler regions—stored in a sort of cosmic deep freeze. This is also the realm of the larger icy worlds, called dwarf planets.
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P). This image shows Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, also known as 67P, near its closest approach to the Sun in 2015, as seen from the Rosetta spacecraft. Note the jets of gas escaping from the solid surface.
Finally, there are countless grains of broken rock, which we call cosmic dust, scattered throughout the solar system. When these particles enter Earth’s atmosphere (as millions do each day) they burn up, producing a brief flash of light in the night sky known as a meteor (meteors are often referred to as shooting stars). Occasionally, some larger chunk of rocky or metallic material survives its passage through the atmosphere and lands on Earth. Any piece that strikes the ground is known as a meteorite. (You can see meteorites on display in many natural history museums and can sometimes even purchase pieces of them from gem and mineral dealers.)
A Scale Model of the Solar System
Astronomy often deals with dimensions and distances that far exceed our ordinary experience. What does 1.4 billion kilometers—the distance from the Sun to Saturn—really mean to anyone? It can be helpful to visualize such large systems in terms of a scale model.
In our imaginations, let us build a scale model of the solar system, adopting a scale factor of 1 billion (109)—that is, reducing the actual solar system by dividing every dimension by a factor of 109. Earth, then, has a diameter of 1.3 centimeters, about the size of a grape. The Moon is a pea orbiting this at a distance of 40 centimeters, or a little more than a foot away. The Earth-Moon system fits into a standard backpack.
In this model, the Sun is nearly 1.5 meters in diameter, about the average height of an adult, and our Earth is at a distance of 150 meters—about one city block—from the Sun. Jupiter is five blocks away from the Sun, and its diameter is 15 centimeters, about the size of a very large grapefruit. Saturn is 10 blocks from the Sun; Uranus, 20 blocks; and Neptune, 30 blocks. Pluto, with a distance that varies quite a bit during its 249-year orbit, is currently just beyond 30 blocks and getting farther with time. Most of the moons of the outer solar system are the sizes of various kinds of seeds orbiting the grapefruit, oranges, and lemons that represent the outer planets.
In our scale model, a human is reduced to the dimensions of a single atom, and cars and spacecraft to the size of molecules. Sending the Voyager spacecraft to Neptune involves navigating a single molecule from the Earth–grape toward a lemon 5 kilometers away with an accuracy equivalent to the width of a thread in a spider’s web.
If that model represents the solar system, where would the nearest stars be? If we keep the same scale, the closest stars would be tens of thousands of kilometers away. If you built this scale model in the city where you live, you would have to place the representations of these stars on the other side of Earth or beyond.
By the way, model solar systems like the one we just presented have been built in cities throughout the world. In Sweden, for example, Stockholm’s huge Globe Arena has become a model for the Sun, and Pluto is represented by a 12-centimeter sculpture in the small town of Delsbo, 300 kilometers away. Another model solar system is in Washington on the Mall between the White House and Congress (perhaps proving they are worlds apart?).
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. Smaller members of the solar system include asteroids (including the dwarf planet Ceres), which are rocky and metallic objects found mostly between Mars and Jupiter; comets, which are made mostly of frozen gases and generally orbit far from the Sun; and countless smaller grains of cosmic dust. When a meteor survives its passage through our atmosphere and falls to Earth, we call it a meteorite.
- 1 The generic term for a group of planets and other bodies circling a star is planetary system. Ours is called the solar systembecause our Sun is sometimes called Sol. Strictly speaking, then, there is only one solar system; planets orbiting other stars are in planetary systems.
- 2 An AU (or astronomical unit) is the distance from Earth to the Sun.
- 3 We give densities in units where the density of water is 1 g/cm3. To get densities in units of kg/m3, multiply the given value by 1000.
- a stony or metallic object orbiting the Sun that is smaller than a major planet but that shows no evidence of an atmosphere or of other types of activity associated with comets
- a small body of icy and dusty matter that revolves about the Sun; when a comet comes near the Sun, some of its material vaporizes, forming a large head of tenuous gas and often a tail
- giant planet
- any of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in our solar system, or planets of roughly that mass and composition in other planetary systems
- a small piece of solid matter that enters Earth’s atmosphere and burns up, popularly called a shooting star because it is seen as a small flash of light
- a portion of a meteor that survives passage through an atmosphere and strikes the ground
- terrestrial planet
- any of the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, or Mars; sometimes the Moon is included in the list
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).