Planets and other objects in our Solar System. Credit: NASA.
Planets and other objects in our Solar System. Credit: NASA.

Astronomy, Guide to Space

Surface of the Planets

9 Aug , 2009 by


People have been intrigued for centuries by whether life could exist on other planets. While we now know that it is very unlikely that life as we know it could exist on other planets in our Solar System, many people do not know the surface conditions of these various planets.

Mercury resembles nothing so much as a larger version of the Moon. This planet is so close to the Sun that it is actually difficult to observe. The Hubble Space Telescope cannot look at it because it would permanently damage the lens.

Venus’ atmosphere of thick, toxic clouds hides the planet’s surface from view. Scientists and amateurs alike used to think that the planet was covered with thick forests and flora like tropical rainforests on Earth.  When they were finally able to send probes to the planet, they discovered that Venus’ surface was actually more like a vision of hell with a burning landscape that is dotted with volcanoes.

Mars has very diverse terrain. One of the planet’s most famous features is its canals, which early astronomers believed were “man”-made and contained water. These huge canyons were most likely formed by the planet’s crust splitting. Mars is also famous for its red color, which is iron oxide (rust) dust that covers the surface of the entire planet. The surface of Mars is covered with craters, volcanoes, and plains. The largest volcanoes of any planet are on Mars.

Jupiter is a gas giant, so it has no solid surface just a core of liquid metals. Astronomers have created a definition for the surface – the point at which the atmosphere’s pressure is one bar. This region is the lower part of the atmosphere where there are clouds of ammonia ice.

Saturn is also a gas giant so it has no solid surface only varying densities of gas. Like Jupiter, almost all of Saturn is composed of hydrogen with some helium and other elements in trace amounts.

Uranus and Neptune are also gas giants, but they belong to the subcategory of ice giants because of the “ices” in their atmospheres. Uranus’ surface gets its blue color from the methane in the atmosphere. Methane absorbs light that is red or similar to red on the color spectrum leaving only the light near the blue end of the spectrum visible.

Neptune is also blue due to the methane in its atmosphere. Its “surface” has the fastest winds of any planet in the Solar System at up to 2,100 kilometers per hour.

Universe Today has a number of articles including surface of Mars and surface of Mercury.

Check out NASA’s Solar System exploration page, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Simulator.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on each planet including Earth.

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My name is Abby Cessna. I am a freelance writer and student who has written for Universe Today since June of 2009. I am attending Drexel University this fall as a junior majoring in International Studies.

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