Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Solar System

The Solar System

The Sun is the Solar System's star, and far and away its chief component. Its large mass (332,900 Earth masses) gives it an interior density high enough to sustain nuclear fusion, which releases enormous amounts of energy, mostly radiated into space as electromagnetic radiation, peaking in the 400–to–700 nm band we call visible light.

2. The Rocky Planets

Mercury (0.4 AU) is the closest planet to the Sun and the smallest planet (0.055 Earth masses). Mercury has no natural satellites, and its only known geological features besides impact craters are lobed ridges or rupes, probably produced by a period of contraction early in its history. Mercury's almost negligible atmosphere consists of atoms blasted off its surface by the solar wind. Its relatively large iron core and thin mantle have not yet been adequately explained. Hypotheses include that its outer layers were stripped off by a giant impact, and that it was prevented from fully accreting by the young Sun's energy.

Venus (0.7 AU) is close in size to Earth, (0.815 Earth masses) and like Earth, has a thick silicate mantle around an iron core, a substantial atmosphere and evidence of internal geological activity. However, it is much drier than Earth and its atmosphere is ninety times as dense. Venus has no natural satellites. It is the hottest planet, with surface temperatures over 400 °C, most likely due to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. No definitive evidence of current geological activity has been detected on Venus, but it has no magnetic field that would prevent depletion of its substantial atmosphere, which suggests that its atmosphere is regularly replenished by volcanic eruptions.

Earth (1 AU) is the largest and densest of the inner planets, the only one known to have current geological activity, and is the only place in the universe where life is known to exist. Its liquid hydrosphere is unique among the terrestrial planets, and it is also the only planet where plate tectonics has been observed. Earth's atmosphere is radically different from those of the other planets, having been altered by the presence of life to contain 21% free oxygen. It has one natural satellite, the Moon, the only large satellite of a terrestrial planet in the Solar System.

Mars (1.5 AU) is smaller than Earth and Venus (0.107 Earth masses). It possesses a tenuous atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide. Its surface, peppered with vast volcanoes such as Olympus Mons and rift valleys such as Valles Marineris, shows geological activity that may have persisted until very recently. Its red colour comes from iron oxide (rust) in its soil. Mars has two tiny natural satellites (Deimos and Phobos) thought to be captured asteroids.

3. The Gas Giants

Jupiter (5.2 AU), at 318 Earth masses, is 2.5 times all the mass of all the other planets put together. It is composed largely of hydrogen and helium. Jupiter's strong internal heat creates a number of semi-permanent features in its atmosphere, such as cloud bands and the Great Red Spot. Jupiter has sixty-three known satellites. The four largest, Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa, show similarities to the terrestrial planets, such as volcanism and internal heating. Ganymede, the largest satellite in the Solar System, is larger than Mercury.

Saturn (9.5 AU), distinguished by its extensive ring system, has several similarities to Jupiter, such as its atmospheric composition and magnetosphere. Although Saturn has 60% of Jupiter's volume, it is less than a third as massive, at 95 Earth masses, making it the least dense planet in the Solar System. Saturn has sixty known satellites (and three unconfirmed); two of which, Titan and Enceladus, show signs of geological activity, though they are largely made of ice. Titan is larger than Mercury and the only satellite in the Solar System with a substantial atmosphere.

Uranus (19.6 AU), at 14 Earth masses, is the lightest of the outer planets. Uniquely among the planets, it orbits the Sun on its side; its axial tilt is over ninety degrees to the ecliptic. It has a much colder core than the other gas giants, and radiates very little heat into space. Uranus has twenty-seven known satellites, the largest ones being Titania, Oberon, Umbriel, Ariel and Miranda.

Neptune (30 AU), though slightly smaller than Uranus, is more massive (equivalent to 17 Earths) and therefore more dense. It radiates more internal heat, but not as much as Jupiter or Saturn. Neptune has thirteen known satellites. The largest, Triton, is geologically active, with geysers of liquid nitrogen. Triton is the only large satellite with a retrograde orbit. Neptune is accompanied in its orbit by a number of minor planets, termed Neptune Trojans, that are in 1:1 resonance with it.

Comets are small Solar System bodies, usually only a few kilometres across, composed largely of volatile ices. They have highly eccentric orbits, generally a perihelion within the orbits of the inner planets and an aphelion far beyond Pluto. When a comet enters the inner Solar System, its proximity to the Sun causes its icy surface to sublimate and ionise, creating a coma: a long tail of gas and dust often visible to the naked eye.

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