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Our System solaires

The Sun is an ordinary G2 star, one of more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy. diameter: 1,390,000 km. mass: 1.989e30 kg temperature: 5800 K (surface) 15,600,000 K (core) The Sun is by far the largest object in the solar system. It contains more than 99.8% of the total mass of the Solar System (Jupiter contains most of the rest). The Sun is personified in many mythologies: the Greeks called it Helios and the Romans called it Sol. The Sun is, at present, about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium by mass (92.1% hydrogen and 7.8% helium by number of atoms); everything else ("metals") amounts to only 0.1%. This changes slowly over time as the Sun converts hydrogen to helium in its core. The outer layers of the Sun exhibit differential rotation: at the equator the surface rotates once every 25.4 days; near the poles it's as much as 36 days. This odd behavior is due to the fact that the Sun is not a solid body like the Earth. Similar effects are seen in the gas planets. The differential rotation extends considerably down into the interior of the Sun but core of the Sun rotates as a solid body. Conditions at the Sun's core are extreme. The temperature is 15.6 million Kelvin and the pressure is 250 billion atmospheres. The core's gases are compressed to a density 150 times that of water. The Sun's energy output (3.86e33 ergs/second or 386 billion billion megawatts) is produced by nuclear fusion reactions. Each second about 700,000,000 tons of hydrogen are converted to about 695,000,000 tons of helium and 5,000,000 tons (=3.86e33 ergs) of energy in the form of gamma rays. As it travels out toward the surface, the energy is continuously absorbed and re-emitted at lower and lower temperatures so that by the time it reaches the surface, it is primarily visible light. For the last 20% of the way to the surface the energy is carried more by convection than by radiation. The surface of the Sun, called the photosphere, is at a temperature of about 5800 K. Sunspots are "cool" regions, only 3800 K (they look dark only by comparison with the surrounding regions). Sunspots can be very large, as much as 50,000 km in diameter. Sunspots are caused by complicated and not very well understood interactions with the Sun's magnetic field. The highly rarified region above the chromosphere, called the corona, extends millions of kilometers into space but is visible only during eclipses (left). Temperatures in the corona are over 1,000,000 K. The Sun's magnetic field is very strong (by terrestrial standards) and very complicated. Its magnetosphere (also known as the heliosphere extends well beyond Pluto. Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and the eighth largest. Mercury is smaller in diameter than Ganymede and Titan but more massive. orbit: 57,910,000 km (0.38 AU) from Sun diameter: 4,880 km mass: 3.30e23 kg In Roman mythology Mercury is the god of commerce, travel and thievery, the Roman counterpart of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. The planet probably received this name because it moves so quickly across the sky. Mercury has been known since at least the time of the Sumerians (3rd millennium BC). It was given two names by the Greeks: Apollo for its apparition as a morning star and Hermes as an evening star. Greek astronomers knew, however, that the two names referred to the same body. Heraclitus even believed that Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun, not the Earth. Mercury has been visited by only one spacecraft, Mariner 10. It flew by three times in 1973 and 1974. Only 45% of the surface was mapped (and, unfortunately, it is too close to the Sun to be safely imaged by HST). Mercury's orbit is highly eccentric; at perihelion it is only 46 million km from the Sun but at aphelion it is 70 million. The perihelion of its orbit precesses around the Sun at a very slow rate. 19th century astronomers made very careful observations of Mercury's orbital parameters but could not adequately explain them using Newtonian mechanics. The tiny differences between the observed and predicted values were a minor but nagging problem for many decades. It was thought that another planet (sometimes called Vulcan) might exist in an orbit near Mercury's to account for the discrepancy. The real answer turned out to be much more dramatic: Einstein's General Theory of Relativity! Its correct prediction of the motions of Mercury was an important factor in the early acceptance of the theory. Until 1962 it was thought that Mercury's "day" was the same length as its "year" so as to keep that same face to the Sun much as the Moon does to the Earth. But this was shown to be false in 1965 by doppler radar observations. It is now known that Mercury rotates three times in two of its years. Mercury is the only body in the solar system known to have an orbital/rotational resonance with a ratio other than 1:1. This fact and the high eccentricity of Mercury's orbit would produce very strange effects for an observer on Mercury's surface. At some longitudes the observer would see the Sun rise and then gradually increase in apparent size as it slowly moved toward the zenith. At that point the Sun would stop, briefly reverse course, and stop again before resuming its path toward the horizon and decreasing in apparent size. All the while the stars would be moving three times faster across the sky. Observers at other points on Mercury's surface would see different but equally bizarre motions. Temperature variations on Mercury are the most extreme in the solar system ranging from 90 K to 700 K. The temperature on Venus is slightly hotter but very stable. Mercury is in many ways similar to the Moon: its surface is heavily cratered and very old; it has no plate tectonics. On the other hand, Mercury is much denser than the Moon (5.43 gm/cm3 vs 3.34). Mercury is the second densest major body in the solar system, after Earth. Actually Earth's density is due in part to gravitational compression; if not for this, Mercury would be denser than Earth. This indicates that Mercury's dense iron core is relatively larger than Earth's, probably comprising the majority of the planet. Mercury therefore has only a relatively thin silicate mantle and crust. Venus is the second planet from the Sun and the sixth largest. Venus' orbit is the most nearly circular of that of any planet, with an eccentricity of less than 1%. orbit: 108,200,000 km (0.72 AU) from Sun diameter: 12,103.6 km mass: 4.869e24 kg Venus (Greek: Aphrodite; Babylonian: Ishtar) is the goddess of love and beauty. The planet is so named probably because it is the brightest of the planets known to the ancients. (With a few exceptions, the surface features on Venus are named for female figures.) Venus has been known since prehistoric times. It is the brightest object in the sky except for the Sun and the Moon. Like Mercury, it was popularly thought to be two separate bodies: Eosphorus as the morning star and Hesperus as the evening star, but the Greek astronomers knew better. Since Venus is an inferior planet, it shows phases when viewed with a telescope from the perspective of Earth. Galileo's observation of this phenomenon was important evidence in favor of Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the solar system. The first spacecraft to visit Venus was Mariner 2 in 1962. It was subsequently visited by many others (more than 20 in all so far), including Pioneer Venus and the Soviet Venera 7 the first spacecraft to land on another planet, and Venera 9 which returned the first photographs of the surface (left). Most recently, the orbiting US spacecraft Magellan produced detailed maps of Venus' surface using radar (above). Venus' rotation is somewhat unusual in that it is both very slow (243 Earth days per Venus day, slightly longer than Venus' year) and retrograde. In addition, the periods of Venus' rotation and of its orbit are synchronized such that it always presents the same face toward Earth when the two planets are at their closest approach. Whether this is a resonance effect or merely a coincidence is not known. Venus is sometimes regarded as Earth's sister planet. In some ways they are very similar: -- Venus is only slightly smaller than Earth (95% of Earth's diameter, 80% of Earth's mass). -- Both have few craters indicating relatively young surfaces. -- Their densities and chemical compositions are similar. Because of these similarities, it was thought that below its dense clouds Venus might be very Earthlike and might even have life. But, unfortunately, more detailed study of Venus reveals that in many important ways it is radically different from Earth. The pressure of Venus' atmosphere at the surface is 90 atmospheres (about the same as the pressure at a depth of 1 km in Earth's oceans). It is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. There are several layers of clouds many kilometers thick composed of sulfuric acid. These clouds completely obscure our view surface. This dense atmosphere produces a run-away greenhouse effect that raises Venus' surface temperature by about 400 degrees to over 740 K (hot enough to melt lead). Venus' surface is actually hotter than Mercury's despite being nearly twice as far from the Sun. There are strong (350 kph) winds at the cloud tops but winds at the surface are very slow, no more than a few kilometers per hour. Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the fifth largest: orbit: 149,600,000 km (1.00 AU) from Sun diameter: 12,756.3 km mass: 5.9736e24 kg Earth is the only planet whose English name does not derive from Greek/Roman mythology. The name derives from Old English and Germanic. There are, of course, hundreds of other names for the planet in other languages. In Roman Mythology, the goddess of the Earth was Tellus - the fertile soil (Greek: Gaia, terra mater - Mother Earth). It was not until the time of Copernicus (the sixteenth century) that it was understood that the Earth is just another planet. Earth, of course, can be studied without the aid of spacecraft. Nevertheless it was not until the twentieth century that we had maps of the entire planet. Pictures of the planet taken from space are of considerable importance; for example, they are an enormous help in weather prediction and especially in tracking and predicting hurricanes. And they are extraordinarily beautiful. The Earth is divided into several layers which have distinct chemical and seismic properties (depths in km): 0- 40 Crust 40- 400 Upper mantle 400- 650 Transition region 650-2700 Lower mantle 2700-2890 D'' layer 2890-5150 Outer core 5150-6378 Inner core The crust varies considerably in thickness, it is thinner under the oceans, thicker under the continents. The inner core and crust are solid; the outer core and mantle layers are fluid. The various layers are separated by discontinuities which are evident in seismic data; the best known of these is the Mohorovicic discontinuity between the crust and upper mantle. Most of the mass of the Earth is in the mantle, most of the rest in the core; the part we inhabit is a tiny fraction of the whole (values below x10^24 kilograms): atmosphere = 0.0000051 oceans = 0.0014 crust = 0.026 mantle = 4.043 outer core = 1.835 inner core = 0.09675 The core is probably composed mostly of iron (or nickel/iron) though it is possible that some lighter elements may be present, too. Temperatures at the center of the core may be as high as 7500 K, hotter than the surface of the Sun. The lower mantle is probably mostly silicon, magnesium and oxygen with some iron, calcium and aluminum. The upper mantle is mostly olivene and pyroxene (iron/magnesium silicates), calcium and aluminum. We know most of this only from seismic techniques; samples from the upper mantle arrive at the surface as lava from volcanoes but the majority of the Earth is inaccessible. The crust is primarily quartz (silicon dioxide) and other silicates like feldspar. Taken as a whole, the Earth's chemical composition (by mass) is: 34.6% Iron 29.5% Oxygen 15.2% Silicon 12.7% Magnesium 2.4% Nickel 1.9% Sulfur 0.05% Titanium The Earth is the densest major body in the solar system. The other terrestrial planets probably have similar structures and compositions with some differences: the Moon has at most a small core; Mercury has an extra large core (relative to its diameter); the mantles of Mars and the Moon are much thicker; the Moon and Mercury may not have chemically distinct crusts; Earth may be the only one with distinct inner and outer cores. Note, however, that our knowledge of planetary interiors is mostly theoretical even for the Earth. Unlike the other terrestrial planets, Earth's crust is divided into several separate solid plates which float around independently on top of the hot mantle below. The theory that describes this is known as plate tectonics. It is characterized by two major processes: spreading and subduction. Spreading occurs when two plates move away from each other and new crust is created by upwelling magma from below. Subduction occurs when two plates collide and the edge of one dives beneath the other and ends up being destroyed in the mantle. There is also transverse motion at some plate boundaries (i.e. the San Andreas Fault in California) and collisions between continental plates (i.e. India/Eurasia). There are (at present) eight major plates: North American Plate - North America, western North Atlantic and Greenland South American Plate - South America and western South Atlantic Antarctic Plate - Antarctica and the "Southern Ocean" Eurasian Plate - eastern North Atlantic, Europe and Asia except for India African Plate - Africa, eastern South Atlantic and western Indian Ocean Indian-Australian Plate - India, Australia, New Zealand and most of Indian Ocean Nazca Plate - eastern Pacific Ocean adjacent to South America Pacific Plate - most of the Pacific Ocean (and the southern coast of California!) There are also twenty or more small plates such as the Arabian, Cocos, and Philippine Plates. Earthquakes are much more common at the plate boundaries. Plotting their locations makes it easy to see the plate boundaries (right). The Earth's surface is very young. In the relatively short (by astronomical standards) period of 500,000,000 years or so erosion and tectonic processes destroy and recreate most of the Earth's surface and thereby eliminate almost all traces of earlier geologic surface history (such as impact craters). Thus the very early history of the Earth has mostly been erased. The Earth is 4.5 to 4.6 billion years old, but the oldest known rocks are about 4 billion years old and rocks older than 3 billion years are rare. The oldest fossils of living organisms are less than 3.9 billion years old. There is no record of the critical period when life was first getting started. 71 Percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water. Earth is the only planet on which water can exist in liquid form on the surface (though there may be liquid ethane or methane on Titan's surface and liquid water beneath the surface of Europa). Liquid water is, of course, essential for life as we know it. The heat capacity of the oceans is also very important in keeping the Earth's temperature relatively stable. Liquid water is also reponsible for most of the erosion and weathering of the Earth's continents, a process unique in the solar system today (though it may have occurred on Mars in the past). Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the seventh largest: orbit: 227,940,000 km (1.52 AU) from Sun diameter: 6,794 km mass: 6.4219e23 kg Mars (Greek: Ares) is the god of War. The planet probably got this name due to its red color; Mars is sometimes referred to as the Red Planet. (An interesting side note: the Roman god Mars was a god of agriculture before becoming associated with the Greek Ares; those in favor of colonizing and terraforming Mars may prefer this symbolism.) The name of the month March derives from Mars. Mars has been known since prehistoric times. It is still a favorite of science fiction writers as the most favorable place in the Solar System (other than Earth!) for human habitation. But the famous "canals" "seen" by Lowell and others were, unfortunately, just as imaginary as Barsoomian princesses. The first spacecraft to visit Mars was Mariner 4 in 1965. Several others followed including the two Viking landers in 1976 (left). Ending a long 20 year hiatus, Mars Pathfinder landed successfully on Mars on 1997 July 4 (right). Mars' orbit is significantly elliptical. One result of this is a temperature variation of about 30 C at the subsolar point between aphelion and perihelion. This has a major influence on Mars' climate. While the average temperature on Mars is about 218 K (-55 C, -67 F), Martian surface temperatures range widely from as little as 140 K (-133 C, -207 F) at the winter pole to almost 300 K (27 C, 80 F) on the dayside during summer. Though Mars is much smaller than Earth, its surface area is about the same as the land surface area of Earth. Except for Earth, Mars has the most highly varied and interesting terrain of any of the terrestrial planets, some of it quite spectacular: - Olympus Mons: the largest mountain in the Solar System rising 24 km (78,000 ft.) above the surrounding plain. Its base is more than 500 km in diameter and is rimmed by a cliff 6 km (20,000 ft) high (right). - Tharsis: a huge bulge on the Martian surface that is about 4000 km across and 10 km high. - Valles Marineris: a system of canyons 4000 km long and from 2 to 7 km deep (top of page); - Hellas Planitia: an impact crater in the southern hemisphere over 6 km deep and 2000 km in diameter. Much of the Martian surface is very old and cratered, but there are also much younger rift valleys, ridges, hills and plains. The southern hemisphere of Mars is predominantly ancient cratered highlands (left) somewhat similar to the Moon. In contrast, most of the northern hemisphere consists of plains which are much younger, lower in elevation and have a much more complex history. An abrupt elevation change of several kilometers seems to occur at the boundary. The reasons for this global dichotomy and abrupt boundary are unknown (some speculate that they are due to a very large impact shortly after Mars' accretion). Recently, some scientists have begun to question whether the abrupt elevation is real in the first place. Mars Global Surveyor should resolve the issue. The interior of Mars is known only by inference from data about the surface and the bulk statistics of the planet. The most likely scenario is a dense core about 1700 km in radius, a molten rocky mantle somewhat denser than the Earth's and a thin crust. Mars' relatively low density compared to the other terrestrial planets indicates that its core probably contains a relatively large fraction of sulfur in addition to iron (iron and iron sulfide). Like Mercury and the Moon, Mars appears to lack active plate tectonics; there is no evidence of horizontal motion of the surface such as the folded mountains so common on Earth. With no lateral plate motion, hot-spots under the crust stay in a fixed position relative to the surface. This, along with the lower surface gravity, may account for the Tharis bulge and its enormous volcanoes. There is no evidence of current volcanic activity, however. And though Mars may have been more volcanicly active in the past, it appears to never have had any plate tectonics. There is very clear evidence of erosion in many places on Mars including large floods and small river systems (right). At some time in the past there was clearly water on the surface There may have been large lakes or even oceans. But it seems that this occurred only briefly and very long ago; the age of the erosion channels is estimated at about nearly 4 billion years. (Valles Marineris was NOT created by running water. It was formed by the stretching and cracking of the crust associated with the creation of the Tharsis bulge.) Early in its history, Mars was much more like Earth. As with Earth almost all of its carbon dioxide was used up to form carbonate rocks. But lacking the Earth's plate tectonics, Mars is unable to recycle any of this carbon dioxide back into its atmosphere and so cannot sustain a significant greenhouse effect. The surface of Mars is therefore much colder than the Earth would be at that distance from the Sun. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and by far the largest. Jupiter is more than twice as massive as all the other planets combined (318 times Earth). orbit: 778,330,000 km (5.20 AU) from Sun diameter: 142,984 km (equatorial) mass: 1.900e27 kg Jupiter (a.k.a. Jove; Greek Zeus) was the King of the Gods, the ruler of Olympus and the patron of the Roman state. Zeus was the son of Cronus (Saturn). Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the sky (after the Sun, the Moon and Venus; at some times Mars is also brighter). It has been known since prehistoric times. Galileo's discovery, in 1610, of Jupiter's four large moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (now known as the Galilean moons) was the first discovery of a center of motion not apparently centered on the Earth. It was a major point in favor of Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the motions of the planets; Galileo's outspoken support of the Copernican theory got him arrested by the Inquisition. He was forced to recant his beliefs and was imprisoned for the rest of his life. Jupiter was first visited by Pioneer 10 in 1973 and later by Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2 and Ulysses. The spacecraft Galileo is currently in orbit around Jupiter and will be sending back data for at least the next two years. The gas planets do not have solid surfaces, their gaseous material simply gets denser with depth (the radii and diameters quoted for the planets are for levels corresponding to a pressure of 1 atmosphere). What we see when looking at these planets is the tops of clouds high in their atmospheres (slightly above the 1 atmosphere level). Jupiter is about 90% hydrogen and 10% helium (by numbers of atoms, 75/25% by mass) with traces of methane, water, ammonia and "rock". This is very close to the composition of the primordial Solar Nebula from which the entire solar system was formed. Saturn has a similar composition, but Uranus and Neptune have much less hydrogen and helium. Our knowledge of the interior of Jupiter (and the other gas planets) is highly indirect and likely to remain so for some time. (The data from Galileo's atmospheric probe goes down only about 150 km below the cloud tops.) Jupiter probably has a core of rocky material amounting to something like 10 to 15 Earth-masses. Above the core lies the main bulk of the planet in the form of liquid metallic hydrogen. This exotic form of the most common of elements is possible only at pressures exceeding 4 million bars, as is the case in the interior of Jupiter (and Saturn). Liquid metallic hydrogen consists of ionized protons and electrons (like the interior of the Sun but at a far lower temperature). At the temperature and pressure of Jupiter's interior hydrogen is a liquid, not a gas. It is an electrical conductor and the source of Jupiter's magnetic field. This layer probably also contains some helium and traces of various "ices". The outermost layer is composed primarily of ordinary molecular hydrogen and helium which is liquid in the interior and gaseous further out. The atmosphere we see is just the very top of this deep layer. Water, carbon dioxide, methane and other simple molecules are also present in tiny amounts. Three distinct layers of clouds are believed to exist consisting of ammonia ice, ammonium hydrosulfide and a mixture of ice and water. However, the preliminary results from the Galileo probe show only faint indications of clouds (one instrument seems to have detected the topmost layer while another may have seen the second). But the probe's entry point (left) was unusual -- Earth-based telescopic observations and more recent observations by the Galileo orbiter suggest that the probe entry site may well have been one of the warmest and least cloudy areas on Jupiter at that time. Data from the Galileo atmospheric probe also indicate that there is much less water than expected. The expectation was that Jupiter's atmosphere would contain about twice the amount of oxygen (combined with the abundant hydrogen to make water) as the Sun. But it now appears that the actual concentration much less than the Sun's. Also surprising was the high temperature and density of the uppermost parts of the atmosphere. Jupiter and the other gas planets have high velocity winds which are confined in wide bands of latitude. The winds blow in opposite directions in adjacent bands. Slight chemical and temperature differences between these bands are responsible for the colored bands that dominate the planet's appearance. The light colored bands are called zones; the dark ones belts. The bands have been known for some time on Jupiter, but the complex vortices in the boundary regions between the bands were first seen by Voyager. The data from the Galileo probe indicate that the winds are even faster than expected (more than 400 mph) and extend down into as far as the probe was able to observe; they may extend down thousands of kilometers into the interior. Jupiter's atmosphere was also found to be quite turbulent. This indicates that Jupiter's winds are driven in large part by its internal heat rather than from solar input as on Earth. Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest: orbit: 1,429,400,000 km (9.54 AU) from Sun diameter: 120,536 km (equatorial) mass: 5.68e26 kg In Roman mythology, Saturn is the god of agriculture. The associated Greek god, Cronus, was the son of Uranus and Gaia and the father of Zeus (Jupiter). Saturn is the root of the English word "Saturday" (see Appendix 4). Saturn has been known since prehistoric times. Galileo was the first to observe it with a telescope in 1610; he noted its odd appearance but was confused by it. Early observations of Saturn were complicated by the fact that the Earth passes through the plane of Saturn's rings every few years as Saturn moves in its orbit. A low resolution image of Saturn therefore changes drastically. It was not until 1659 that Christiaan Huygens correctly inferred the geometry of the rings. Saturn's rings remained unique in the known solar system until 1977 when very faint rings were discovered around Uranus and shortly thereafter around Jupiter and Neptune). Saturn was first visited by Pioneer 11 in 1979 and later by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Cassini, now on its way, will arrive in 2004. Saturn is visibly flattened (oblate) when viewed through a small telescope; its equatorial and polar diameters vary by almost 10% (120,536 km vs. 108,728 km). This is the result of its rapid rotation and fluid state. The other gas planets are also oblate, but not so much so. Saturn is the least dense of the planets; its specific gravity (0.7) is less than that of water. Like Jupiter, Saturn is about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with traces of water, methane, ammonia and "rock", similar to the composition of the primordial Solar Nebula from which the solar system was formed. Saturn's interior is similar to Jupiter's consisting of a rocky core, a liquid metallic hydrogen layer and a molecular hydrogen layer. Traces of various ices are also present. Saturn's interior is hot (12000 K at the core) and Saturn radiates more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. Most of the extra energy is generated by the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism as in Jupiter. But this may not be sufficient to explain Saturn's luminosity; some additional mechanism may be at work, perhaps the "raining out" of helium deep in Saturn's interior. The bands so prominent on Jupiter are much fainter on Saturn. They are also much wider near the equator. Details in the cloud tops are invisible from Earth so it was not until the Voyager encounters that any detail of Saturn's atmospheric circulation could be studied. Saturn also exhibits long-lived ovals (red spot at center of image at right) and other features common on Jupiter. In 1990, HST observed an enormous white cloud near Saturn's equator which was not present during the Voyager encounters; in 1994 another, smaller storm was observed (left). Two prominent rings (A and B) and one faint ring (C) can be seen from the Earth. The gap between the A and B rings is known as the Cassini division. The much fainter gap in the outer part of the A ring is known as the Encke Gap (but this is somewhat of a misnomer since it was very likely never seen by Encke). The Voyager pictures show four additional faint rings. Saturn's rings, unlike the rings of the other planets, are very bright (albedo 0.2 - 0.6). Though they look continuous from the Earth, the rings are actually composed of innumerable small particles each in an independent orbit. They range in size from a centimeter or so to several meters. A few kilometer-sized objects are also likely. Saturn's rings are extraordinarily thin: though they're 250,000 km or more in diameter they're no more than 1.5 kilometers thick. Despite their impressive appearance, there's really very little material in the rings -- if the rings were compressed into a single body it would be no more than 100 km across. The ring particles seem to be composed primarily of water ice, but they may also include rocky particles with icy coatings. Voyager confirmed the existence of puzzling radial inhomogeneities in the rings called "spokes" which were first reported by amateur astronomers (left). Their nature remains a mystery, but may have something to do with Saturn's magnetic field. Saturn's outermost ring, the F-ring, is a complex structure made up of several smaller rings along which "knots" are visible. Scientists speculate that the knots may be clumps of ring material, or mini moons. The strange braided appearance visible in the Voyager 1 images (right) is not seen in the Voyager 2 images perhaps because Voyager 2 imaged regions where the component rings are roughly parallel. There are complex tidal resonances between some of Saturn's moons and the ring system: some of the moons, the so-called "shepherding satellites" (i.e. Atlas, Prometheus and Pandora) are clearly important in keeping the rings in place; Mimas seems to be responsible for the paucity of material in the Cassini division, which seems to be similar to the Kirkwood gaps in the asteroid belt; Pan is located inside the Encke Gap. The whole system is very complex and as yet poorly understood. The origin of the rings of Saturn (and the other jovian planets) is unknown. Though they may have had rings since their formation, the ring systems are not stable and must be regenerated by ongoing processes, probably the breakup of larger satellites. Like the other jovian planets, Saturn has a significant magnetic field. When it is in the nighttime sky, Saturn is easily visible to the naked eye. Though it is not nearly as bright as Jupiter, it is easy to identify as a planet because it doesn't "twinkle" like the stars do. The rings and the larger satellites are visible with a small astronomical telescope. Mike Harvey's planet finder charts show the current position of Saturn (and the other planets) in the sky. More detailed and customized charts can be created with a planetarium program such as Starry Night. Saturn's Satellites Saturn has 18 named satellites, more than any other planet. There may very well also be several small ones yet to be discovered. Of those moons for which rotation rates are known, all but Phoebe and Hyperion rotate synchronously. The three pairs Mimas-Tethys, Enceladus-Dione and Titan-Hyperion interact gravitationally in such a way as to maintain stable relationships between their orbits: the period of Mimas' orbit is exactly half that of Tethys, they are thus said to be in a 1:2 resonance; Enceladus-Dione are also 1:2; Titan-Hyperion are in a 3:4 resonance. In addition to the 18 named satellites, at least a dozen more have been reported and given provisional designations. Distance Radius Mass Satellite (000 km) (km) (kg) Discoverer Date --------- -------- ------ ------- ---------- ----- Pan 134 10 ? Showalter 1990 Atlas 138 14 ? Terrile 1980 Prometheus 139 46 2.70e17 Collins 1980 Pandora 142 46 2.20e17 Collins 1980 Epimetheus 151 57 5.60e17 Walker 1980 Janus 151 89 2.01e18 Dollfus 1966 Mimas 186 196 3.80e19 Herschel 1789 Enceladus 238 260 8.40e19 Herschel 1789 Tethys 295 530 7.55e20 Cassini 1684 Telesto 295 15 ? Reitsema 1980 Calypso 295 13 ? Pascu 1980 Dione 377 560 1.05e21 Cassini 1684 Helene 377 16 ? Laques 1980 Rhea 527 765 2.49e21 Cassini 1672 Titan 1222 2575 1.35e23 Huygens 1655 Hyperion 1481 143 1.77e19 Bond 1848 Iapetus 3561 730 1.88e21 Cassini 1671 Phoebe 12952 110 4.00e18 Pickering 1898 Saturn's Rings Distance Width Mass Ring (km) (km) (kg) ---- -------- ----- ------ D 67000 7500 ? C 74500 17500 1.1e18 B 92000 25500 2.8e19 Cassini division A 122200 14600 6.2e18 F 140210 500 ? G 165800 8000 1e7? E 180000 300000 ? (distance is from Saturn's center to the ring's inner edge) This categorization is actually somewhat misleading as the density of particles varies in a complex way not indicated by a division into neat regions: there are variations within the rings; the gaps are not entirely empty; the rings are not perfectly circular. Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun and the third largest (by diameter). Uranus is larger in diameter but smaller in mass than Neptune. orbit: 2,870,990,000 km (19.218 AU) from Sun diameter: 51,118 km (equatorial) mass: 8.683e25 kg Careful pronounciation may be necessary to avoid embarassment; say "YOOR a nus" , not "your anus" or "urine us". Uranus is the ancient Greek deity of the Heavens, the earliest supreme god. Uranus was the son and mate of Gaia the father of Cronus (Saturn) and of the Cyclopes and Titans (predecessors of the Olympian gods). Uranus, the first planet discovered in modern times, was discovered by William Herschel while systematicly searching the sky with his telescope on March 13, 1781. It had actually been seen many times before but ignored as simply another star (the earliest recorded sighting was in 1690 when John Flamsteed cataloged it as 34 Tauri). Herschel named it "the Georgium Sidus" (the Georgian Planet) in honor of his patron, the infamous (to Americans) King George III of England; others called it "Herschel". The name "Uranus" was first proposed by Bode in conformity with the other planetary names from classical mythology but didn't come into common use until 1850. Uranus has been visited by only one spacecraft, Voyager 2 on Jan 24 1986. Most of the planets spin on an axis nearly perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic but Uranus' axis is almost parallel to the ecliptic. At the time of Voyager 2's passage, Uranus' south pole was pointed almost directly at the Sun. This results in the odd fact that Uranus' polar regions receive more energy input from the Sun than do its equatorial regions. Uranus is nevertheless hotter at its equator than at its poles. The mechanism underlying this is unknown. Actually, there's an ongoing battle over which of Uranus' poles is its north pole! Either its axial inclination is a bit over 90 degrees and its rotation is direct, or it's a bit less than 90 degrees and the rotation is retrograde. The problem is that you need to draw a dividing line *somewhere*, because in a case like Venus there is little dispute that the rotation is indeed retrograde (not a direct rotation with an inclination of nearly 180). Uranus is composed primarily of rock and various ices, with only about 15% hydrogen and a little helium (in contrast to Jupiter and Saturn which are mostly hydrogen). Uranus (and Neptune) are in many ways similar to the cores of Jupiter and Saturn minus the massive liquid metallic hydrogen envelope. It appears that Uranus does not have a rocky core like Jupiter and Saturn but rather that its material is more or less uniformly distributed. Uranus' atmosphere is about 83% hydrogen, 15% helium and 2% methane. Like the other gas planets, Uranus has bands of clouds that blow around rapidly. But they are extremely faint, visible only with radical image enhancement of the Voyager 2 pictures (right). Recent observations with HST (left) show larger and more pronounced streaks. The speculation is that the difference is due to seasonal effects (the Sun is now at a somewhat lower Uranian latitude which may cause more pronounced day/night effects). Uranus' blue color is the result of absorption of red light by methane in the upper atmosphere. There may be colored bands like Jupiter's but they are hidden from view by the overlaying methane layer. Like the other gas planets, Uranus has rings. Like Jupiter's, they are very dark but like Saturn's composed of fairly large particles ranging up to 10 meters in diameter in addition to fine dust. There are 11 known rings, all very faint; the brightest is known as the Epsilon ring. The Uranian rings were the first after Saturn's to be discovered. This was of considerable importance since we now know that rings are a common feature of planets, not a peculiarity of Saturn alone. Voyager 2 discovered 10 small moons in addition to the 5 large ones already known. It is likely that there are several more tiny satellites within the rings. Uranus' magnetic field is odd in that it is not centered on the center of the planet and is tilted almost 60 degrees with respect to the axis of rotation. It is probably generated by motion at relatively shallow depths within Uranus. Uranus is sometimes just barely visible with the naked eye on a very clear night; it is fairly easy to spot with binoculars (if you know exactly where to look). A small astronomical telescope will show a small disk. Mike Harvey's planet finder charts show the current position of Uranus (and the other planets) in the sky, but much more detailed charts will be required to actually find it. Such charts can be created with a planetarium program such as Starry Night. Uranus' Satellites Uranus has 15 named moons plus 2 recently discovered ones which as yet have not been given names. Unlike the other bodies in the solar system which have names from classical mythology, Uranus' moons take their names from the writings of Shakespeare and Pope. They form two distinct classes: the 10 small very dark inner ones discovered by Voyager 2 and the 5 large outer ones (right). They all have nearly circular orbits in the plane of Uranus' equator (and hence at a large angle to the plane of the ecliptic). Distance Radius Mass Satellite (000 km) (km) (kg) Discoverer Date --------- -------- ------ ------- ---------- ----- Cordelia 50 13 ? Voyager 2 1986 Ophelia 54 16 ? Voyager 2 1986 Bianca 59 22 ? Voyager 2 1986 Cressida 62 33 ? Voyager 2 1986 Desdemona 63 29 ? Voyager 2 1986 Juliet 64 42 ? Voyager 2 1986 Portia 66 55 ? Voyager 2 1986 Rosalind 70 27 ? Voyager 2 1986 Belinda 75 34 ? Voyager 2 1986 Puck 86 77 ? Voyager 2 1985 Miranda 130 236 6.30e19 Kuiper 1948 Ariel 191 579 1.27e21 Lassell 1851 Umbriel 266 585 1.27e21 Lassell 1851 Titania 436 789 3.49e21 Herschel 1787 Oberon 583 761 3.03e21 Herschel 1787 S/1997 U 1 6000 40 ? Gladman 1997 S/1997 U 2 8000 80 ? Gladman 1997 Uranus' Rings Distance Width Ring (km) (km) ------- -------- ----- 1986U2R 38000 2,500 6 41840 1-3 5 42230 2-3 4 42580 2-3 Alpha 44720 7-12 Beta 45670 7-12 Eta 47190 0-2 Gamma 47630 1-4 Delta 48290 3-9 1986U1R 50020 1-2 Epsilon 51140 20-100 (distance is from Uranus' center to the ring's inner edge) Neptune is the eighth planet from the Sun and the fourth largest (by diameter). Neptune is smaller in diameter but larger in mass than Uranus. orbit: 4,504,000,000 km (30.06 AU) from Sun diameter: 49,532 km (equatorial) mass: 1.0247e26 kg In Roman mythology Neptune (Greek: Poseidon) was the god of the Sea. After the discovery of Uranus, it was noticed that its orbit was not as it should be in accordance with Newton's laws. It was therefore predicted that another more distant planet must be perturbing Uranus' orbit. Neptune was first observed by Galle and d'Arrest on 1846 Sept 23 very near to the locations independently predicted by Adams and Le Verrier from calculations based on the observed positions of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. An international dispute arose between the English and French (though not, apparently between Adams and Le Verrier personally) over priority and the right to name the new planet; they are now jointly credited with Neptune's discovery. Subsequent observations have shown that the orbits calculated by Adams and Le Verrier diverge from Neptune's actual orbit fairly quickly. Had the search for the planet taken place a few years earlier or later it would not have been found anywhere near the predicted location. Neptune has been visited by only one spacecraft, Voyager 2 on Aug 25 1989. Almost everything we know about Neptune comes from this encounter. Because Pluto's orbit is so eccentric, it sometimes crosses the orbit of Neptune. Since 1979 Neptune has actually been the most distant planet from the Sun; Pluto will again be the most distant in 1999. Neptune's composition is probably similar to Uranus': various "ices" and rock with about 15% hydrogen and a little helium. Like Uranus, but unlike Jupiter and Saturn, it may not have a distinct internal layering but rather to be more or less uniform in composition. But there is most likely a small core (about the mass of the Earth) of rocky material. Its atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium with a small amount of methane. Neptune's blue color is the result of absorption of red light by methane in the atmosphere. Like a typical gas planet, Neptune has rapid winds confined to bands of latitude and large storms or vortices. Neptune's winds are the fastest in the solar system, reaching 2000 km/hour. Like Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune has an internal heat source -- it radiates more than twice as much energy as it receives from the Sun. At the time of the Voyager encounter, Neptune's most prominent feature was the Great Dark Spot (left) in the southern hemisphere. It was about half the size as Jupiter's Great Red Spot (about the same diameter as Earth). Neptune's winds blew the Great Dark Spot westward at 300 meters/second (700 mph). Voyager 2 also saw a smaller dark spot in the southern hemisphere and a small irregular white cloud that zips around Neptune every 16 hours or so now known as "The Scooter" (right). It may be a plume rising from lower in the atmosphere but its true nature remains a mystery. However, HST observations of Neptune (left) in 1994 show that the Great Dark Spot has disappeared! It has either simply dissipated or is currently being masked by other aspects of the atmosphere. A few months later HST discovered a new dark spot in Neptune's northern hemisphere. This indicates that Neptune's atmosphere changes rapidly, perhaps due to slight changes in the temperature differences between the tops and bottoms of the clouds. Neptune also has rings. Earth-based observations showed only faint arcs instead of complete rings, but Voyager 2's images showed them to be complete rings with bright clumps. One of the rings appears to have a curious twisted structure (right). Like Uranus and Jupiter, Neptune's rings are very dark but their composition is unknown. Neptune's rings have been given names: the outermost is Adams (which contains three prominent arcs now named Liberty, Equality and Fraternity), next is an unnamed ring coorbital with Galatea, then Leverrier (whose outer extensions are called Lassell and Arago), and finally the faint but broad Galle. Neptune's magnetic field is, like Uranus', oddly oriented and probably generated by motions of conductive material (probably water) in its middle layers. Neptune can be seen with binoculars (if you know exactly where to look) but a large telescope is needed to see anything other than a tiny disk. Mike Harvey's planet finder charts show the current position of Neptune (and the other planets) in the sky, but much more detailed charts will be required to actually find it. Such charts can be created with a planetarium program such as Starry Night. Neptune's Satellites Neptune has 8 known moons; 7 small ones and Triton. Distance Radius Mass Satellite (000 km) (km) (kg) Discoverer Date --------- -------- ------ ------- ---------- ----- Naiad 48 29 ? Voyager 2 1989 Thalassa 50 40 ? Voyager 2 1989 Despina 53 74 ? Voyager 2 1989 Galatea 62 79 ? Voyager 2 1989 Larissa 74 96 ? Voyager 2 1989 Proteus 118 209 ? Voyager 2 1989 Triton 355 1350 2.14e22 Lassell 1846 Nereid 5509 170 ? Kuiper 1949 Neptune's Rings Distance Width Ring (km) (km) aka ------- -------- ----- ------- Diffuse 41900 15 1989N3R, Galle Inner 53200 15 1989N2R, LeVerrier Plateau 53200 5800 1989N4R, Lassell, Arago Main 62930 < 50 1989N1R, Adams (distance is from Neptune's center to the ring's inner edge) Pluto is the farthest planet from the Sun (usually) and by far the smallest. Pluto is smaller than seven of the solar system's moons (the Moon, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan and Triton). orbit: 5,913,520,000 km (39.5 AU) from the Sun (average) diameter: 2274 km mass: 1.27e22 kg In Roman mythology, Pluto (Greek: Hades) is the god of the underworld. The planet received this name (after many other suggestions) perhaps because it's so far from the Sun that it is in perpetual darkness and perhaps because "PL" are the initials of Percival Lowell. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by a fortunate accident. Calculations which later turned out to be in error had predicted a planet beyond Neptune, based on the motions of Uranus and Neptune. Not knowing of the error, Clyde W. Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in Arizona did a very careful sky survey which turned up Pluto anyway. After the discovery of Pluto, it was quickly determined that Pluto was too small to account for the discrepancies in the orbits of the other planets. The search for Planet X continued but nothing was found. Nor is it likely that it ever will be: the discrepancies vanish if the mass of Neptune determined from the Voyager 2 encounter with Neptune is used. There is no tenth planet. Pluto is the only planet that has not been visited by a spacecraft. Even the Hubble Space Telescope can resolve only the largest features on its surface (left and above). Fortunately, Pluto has a satellite, Charon. By good fortune, Charon was discovered (in 1978) just before its orbital plane moved edge-on toward the inner solar system. It was therefore possible to observe many transits of Pluto over Charon and vice versa. By carefully calculating which portions of which body would be covered at what times, and watching brightness curves, astronomers were able to construct a rough map of light and dark areas on both bodies. Pluto's radius is not well known. JPL's value of 1137 is given with an error of +/-8, almost one percent. Though the sum of the masses of Pluto and Charon is known pretty well (it can be determined from careful measurements of the period and radius of Charon's orbit and Kepler's Third Law), the individual masses of Pluto and Charon are difficult to determine because that requires determining their mutual motions around the center of mass of the system which requires much finer measurements -- they're so small and far away that even HST has difficulty. The ratio of their masses is probably somewhere between 0.084 and 0.157; more observations are underway but we won't get really accurate data until a spacecraft is sent. Pluto is the second most contrasty body in the Solar System (after Iapetus). Exploring the origin of that contrast is one of the high-priority goals for the proposed Pluto Express mission. There are some who think Pluto would be better classified as a large asteroid or comet rather than as a planet. Some consider it to be the largest of the Kuiper Belt objects. There is considerable merit to the later position, but historically Pluto has been classified as a planet and it is likely to remain so. Pluto's orbit is highly eccentric. At times it is closer to the Sun than Neptune (it has been so since 1979 and will continue until 1999). Pluto rotates in the opposite direction from most of the other planets. Pluto is locked in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune; i.e. Pluto's orbital period is exactly 1.5 times longer than Neptune's. Its orbital inclination is also much higher than the other planets'. Thus though it appears that Pluto's orbit crosses Neptune's, it really doesn't and they will never collide. (Here is a more detailed explanation.) Like Uranus, the plane of Pluto's equator is at almost right angles to the plane of its orbit. The surface temperature on Pluto is not well known but is probably between 35 and 45 Kelvins (-228 to -238 C). Pluto's composition is unknown, but its density (about 2 gm/cm3) indicates that it is probably a mixture of 70% rock and 30% water ice much like Triton. The bright areas of the surface seem to be covered with ices of nitrogen with smaller amounts of (solid) methane and carbon monoxide. The composition of the darker areas of Pluto's surface is unknown but may be due to primordial organic material or photochemical reactions driven by cosmic rays. Little is known about Pluto's atmosphere, but it probably consists primarily of nitrogen with some carbon monoxide and methane. It is extremely tenuous the surface pressure being only a few microbars. Pluto's atmosphere may exist as a gas only when Pluto is near its perihelion; for the majority of Pluto's long year, the atmospheric gases are frozen into ice. Near perihelion, it is likely that some of the atmosphere escapes to space perhaps even interacting with Charon. The Pluto Express mission planners want to arrive at Pluto while the atmosphere is unfrozen. The unusual nature of the orbits of Pluto and of Triton and the similarity of bulk properties between Pluto and Triton suggest some historical connection between them. It was once thought that Pluto may have once been a satellite of Neptune's, but this now seems unlikely. A more popular theory is that Triton, like Pluto, once moved in an independent orbit around the Sun and was later captured by Neptune. Perhaps Triton, Pluto and Charon are the only remaining members of a large class of similar objects the rest of which were ejected into the Oort cloud. Like the Earth's Moon, Charon may be the result of a collision between Pluto and another body. Pluto can be seen with an amateur telescope but it is not easy. Mike Harvey's planet finder charts show the current position of Pluto (and the other planets) in the sky, but much more detailed charts and careful observations over several months will be required to actually find it. Suitable charts can be created with many planetarium programs such as Starry Night.