Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Solar System consists of the Sun and all the objects that orbit around it, including asteroids, comets, moons, and planets. The Earth is the third planet of the Solar System. Planetary systems are a more generic term for stars and the objects that orbit around them.
Solar system objects
The wide variety of objects that exist in the solar system fall into several categories. In recent years many of these categories have been found to be less clear-cut than once thought. This encyclopedia employs the following divisions:
- The Sun is a spectral class G2 star that contains 99.86% of the system's mass.
- The planets of the solar system are those nine bodies traditionally labelled as such: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
- Sizeable objects that orbit these planets are moons. For a complete listing, see that article.
- Dust and other small particles that orbit these planets form planetary rings.
- Space debris of artificial origin that can be found in orbit around Earth.
- Planetesimals, from which the planets were originally formed, are sub-planetary bodies that accreted during the first years of the solar system and that no longer exist. The name is also sometimes used to refer to asteroids and comets in general, or to asteroids below 10 km in diameter.
- Asteroids are objects smaller than planets that lie roughly within the orbit of Jupiter and are composed in significant part of non-volatile minerals. They are subdivided into asteroid groups and families based on their specific orbital characteristics.
- Asteroid moons are asteroids that orbit larger asteroids. They are not as clearly distinguished as planetary moons, sometimes being almost as large as their partners.
- Trojan asteroids are located in either of Jupiter's L4 or L5 points, though the term is also sometimes used for asteroids in any other planetary Lagrange point as well.
- Meteoroids are asteroids that range in size from roughly boulder sized to particles as small as dust.
- Comets are composed largely of volatile ices and have highly eccentric orbits, generally having a perihelion within the orbit of the inner planets and an aphelion beyond Pluto. Short-period comets exist with apoapses closer than this, however, and old comets that have had most of their volatiles driven out by solar warming are often categorized as asteroids. Some comets with hyperbolic orbits may also originate outside the solar system.
- Centaurs are icy comet-like bodies that have less-eccentric orbits so that they remain in the region between Jupiter and Neptune.
- Trans-Neptunian objects, which are icy bodies whose semi-major axes lie beyond Neptune's. These are further subdivided:
- Kuiper belt objects have orbits lying between 30 and 50 AU (astronomical units, an AU is approximately equal to the mean distance between Earth and Sun). This is thought to be the origin for short-period comets. Pluto is sometimes classified as a Kuiper belt object in addition to being a planet, and the Kuiper belt objects with Pluto-like orbits are called Plutinos. The remaining Kuiper belt objects are classified as Cubewanos in the main belt and scattered disk objects in the outer fringes.
- Oort cloud objects, currently hypothetical, have orbits lying between 50,000 and 100,000 AU. This region is thought to be the origin of long-period comets.
- The newly discovered object 90377 Sedna, with a highly elliptical orbit extending from about 76 to 850 AU, does not obviously fit in either category, although its discoverers argue that it should be considered a part of the Oort cloud.
- Small quantities of dust are present throughout the solar system and are responsible for the phenomenon of zodiacal light. Some of the dust is likely interstellar dust from outside the solar system.
Jupiter constitutes most of the mass of the solar system outside the Sun: 0.1% of the mass of the solar system. In turn, Saturn constitutes most of the remaining mass, then Uranus and Neptune, then Earth and Venus (see also below).
Origin and evolution of the Solar System
The Solar System is believed to have formed from the Solar Nebula, the collapsing cloud of gas and dust which gave birth to the Sun. As it underwent gravitational collapse, the Solar Nebula would have collapsed into a disk, with the protosun accreting at the centre. As the protosun heated up, volatile substances were driven away from the central regions of the nebula - hence the formation of rocky planets closer to the sun and gas giants further out.
For many years, our own system was the only planetary system known, and so theories only had to explain one system to be plausible. The discovery in recent years of many external systems (see Exoplanet) has uncovered systems very different to our own, and theories of planetary system formation have had to be revised accordingly. In particular, many external systems contain a hot Jupiter - a planet comparable to or larger than Jupiter orbiting very close to the parent star, perhaps orbiting it in a matter of days. It has been hypothesised that while the giant planets in these systems formed in the same place as the gas giants in our system did, some sort of migration took place which resulted in the giant planet spiralling in towards the parent star. Any terrestrial planets which had previously existed would presumably either be destroyed or ejected from the system.
Galactic orbit of the solar system
Estimates place the solar system at between 25,000 and 28,000 light years from the galactic center. Its speed is about 220 kilometres per second, and it completes one revolution every 226 million years. At the galactic location of the solar system, the escape velocity with regard to the gravity of the Milky Way is about 1000 km/s.
The solar system appears to have a very unusual orbit. It is both extremely close to being circular, and at nearly the exact distance at which the orbital speed matches the speed of the compression waves that form the spiral arms. The solar system appears to have remained between spiral arms for most of the existence of life on Earth. The radiation from supernovae in spiral arms could theoretically sterilize planetary surfaces, preventing the formation of large animal life on land. By remaining out of the spiral arms, Earth may be unusually free to form large animal life on its surface.
Discovery and exploration of the solar system
Because of the geocentric perspective from which humans viewed the solar system, its nature and structure were long misperceived. The apparent motions of solar system objects as viewed from a moving Earth were believed to be their actual motions about a stationary Earth. In addition, many solar system objects and phenomena are not directly sensible by humans without technical aids. Thus both conceptual and technological advances were required in order for the solar system to be correctly understood.
The first and most fundamental of these advances was the Copernican Revolution, which adopted a heliocentric model for the motions of the planets. Indeed, the term "solar system" itself derives from this perspective. But the most important consequences of this new perception came not from the central position of the Sun, but from the orbital position of the Earth, which suggested that the Earth was itself a planet. This was the first indication of the true nature of the planets. Also, the lack of perceptible stellar parallax despite the Earth's orbital motion indicated the extreme remoteness of the fixed stars, which prompted the speculation that they could be objects similar to the Sun, perhaps with planets of their own.
Since the start of the space age, a great deal of exploration has been performed by unmanned space missions that have been organized and executed by various space agencies. The first probe to land on another planet or moon was the Soviet Union's Luna 2 probe, which impacted on the moon in 1959. Since then, increasingly distant planets have been reached, with probes landing on Venus in 1965, Mars in 1976, the asteroid 433 Eros in 2001, and Saturn's moon Titan in 2005. Spacecraft have also made close approaches to other planets: Mariner 10 passed Mercury in 1973, while the Voyager probes performed a grand tour of the solar system following their launch in 1977, with both probes passing Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980-1981. Voyager 2 then went on to make close approaches to Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. The Voyager probes are now far beyond Pluto's orbit, and astronomers anticipate that they will encounter the heliopause which defines the outer edge of the solar system in the next few years.
Through these unmanned missions, we have been able to get close-up photographs of most of the planets and, in the case of landers, perform tests of their soil and atmosphere. Manned exploration, meanwhile, has only taken human beings as far as the Moon, in the Apollo program. The last manned landing on the moon took place in 1972, but the recent discovery of ice in deep craters in the polar regions of the moon has prompted speculation that mankind may return to the moon in the next decade or so. The long-mooted manned mission to Mars does not currently look like coming to fruition in the near future.
The solar system and other planetary systems
Until recently, the solar system was the only known example of a planetary system, although it was widely believed that other comparable systems did exist. A number of such systems have now been detected, although the information available about them is very limited. See extrasolar planet for more information.
Attributes of major planets
<timeline> ImageSize = width:200 height:640 PlotArea = width:140 height:600 left:50 bottom:20 AlignBars = justify
Period = from:0 till:7500 TimeAxis = orientation:vertical ScaleMajor = unit:year increment:1000 start:0 ScaleMinor = unit:year increment:500 start:0
width:15 color:blue align:left shift:(15,-5) from:46 till:70 text:"Mercury" from:107 till:109 align:right shift:(-15,-5) text:"Venus" from:147 till:152 shift:(15,0) text:"Earth" from:207 till:249 align:right shift:(-15,0) text:"Mars" from:314 till:494 shift:(15,5) color:yellow text:"Asteroid~ belt" from:741 till:816 text:"Jupiter" from:1347 till:1507 text:"Saturn" from:2735 till:3004 text:"Uranus" from:4425 till:7375 color:brightgreen text:"Pluto" from:4456 till:4537 text:"Neptune"
All attributes below are measured relative to the Earth:
| Orbital period|
Of the other objects, Ganymede has the largest mass (0.02).
See for a more comprehensive table.
Attributes of selected minor planets
Some objects are intermediate in size between planets and the lumps of rock called asteroids. These mid-sized objects are now often called 'planetoids' or minor planets: most scientists consider them too small to be "true" planets, while a few scientists point out that these minor planets exhibit the same gravitational forces which affect major planets.
Just one planetoid, Ceres, lies in the inner reaches of the Solar System. All other planetoids occur at the fringe of our planetary system.
All attributes below are measured relative to the Earth:
|1 Ceres||0.075||0.000 158||2.767||4.603||0.3781|
|90482 Orcus||0.066 - 0.148||0.000 10 - 0.001 17||39.47||248||?|
|28978 Ixion||~0.083||0.000 10 - 0.000 21||39.49||248||?|
|(55636) 2002 TX300||0.0745||?||43.102||283||?|
|20000 Varuna||0.066 - 0.097||0.000 05 - 0.000 33||43.129||283||0.132 or 0.264|
|50000 Quaoar||0.078 - 0.106||0.000 17 - 0.000 44||43.376||285||?|
|90377 Sedna||0.093 - 0.141||0.000 14 - 0.001 02||76-990||11500||20|
It has been suggested that the Sun may be part of a binary star system, with a distant companion named Nemesis. Nemesis was proposed to explain some regularities of the great extinctions of life on Earth. The theory says that Nemesis creates periodical perturbations in the asteroids and comets of the solar system causing a shower of large bodies and some of them hit Earth causing destruction of life, although this theory is no longer taken seriously by most scientists.
The solar system in small scales
Scaling down the size of the Solar System makes it easier for students to grasp the relative distances. The enormous ratio of interplanetary distances to planetary diameters makes constructing a scale model of the solar system a challenging task. (For example, the distance between the Earth and the Sun is almost 12,000 times the diameter of the Earth.) Several places have built such models. See main article: Solar system model.
- Astrological age
- Astronomical symbols
- Geological features of the Solar System
- Laws of Kepler
- Category:Lists of solar system objects
- Numerical model of solar system
- Origin of life
- Planetary system
- Planetary pairs
- Planetary nomenclature
- Solar system by size
- Table of planetary attributes
- Timeline of solar system astronomy
- Titius-Bode law
- Zodiacal light
- NASA's Solar System Simulator
- NASA/JPL Solar System main page
- Celestia Free 3D realtime space-simulation (OpenGL)
- The Nine Planets Comprehensive Solar system site by Bill Arnett
- Planetary data
- Stars and Habitable Planets
- Solar System An interactive planets animation (145 zoom steps and time effects)
- Timeline of solar system exploration
- An Atlas of the Universe