Solar System Guide

The Solar System. Image Credit: NASA
The Solar System. Image Credit: NASA

The Universe is a very big place, and we occupy a very small corner of it. Known as the Solar System, our stomping grounds are not only a tiny fraction of the Universe as we know it, but is also a very small part of our galactic neighborhood (aka. the Milky Way Galaxy). When it comes right down to it, our world is just a drop of water in an endless cosmic sea.

Nevertheless, the Solar System is still a very big place, and one which is filled with its fair share of mysteries. And in truth, it was only within the relatively recent past that we began to understand its true extent. And when it comes to exploring it, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface.

Discovery:

With very few exceptions, few people or civilizations before the era of modern astronomy recognized the Solar System for what it was. In fact, the vast majority of astronomical systems posited that the Earth was a stationary object and that all known celestial objects revolved around it. In addition, they viewed it as being fundamentally different from other stellar objects, which they held to be ethereal or divine in nature.

Although there were some Greek, Arab and Asian astronomers during Antiquity and the Medieval period who believed that the universe was heliocentric in nature (i.e. that the Earth and other bodies revolved around the Sun) it was not until Nicolaus Copernicus developed his mathematically predictive model of a heliocentric system in the 16th century that it began to become widespread.

The first star party? Galileo shows of the sky in Saint Mark's square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. (Illustration in the Public Domain).
Galileo (1564 – 1642) would often show people how to use his telescope to view the sky in Saint Mark’s square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. Credit: Public Domain

During the 17th-century, scientists like Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton developed an understanding of physics which led to the gradual acceptance that the Earth revolves round the Sun. The development of theories like gravity also led to the realization that the other planets are governed by the same physical laws as Earth.

The widespread use of the telescope also led to a revolution in astronomy. After Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610, Christian Huygens would go on to discover that Saturn also had moons in 1655. In time, new planets would also be discovered (such as Uranus and Neptune), as well as comets (such as Halley’s Comet) and the Asteroids Belt.

By the 19th century, three observations made by three separate astronomers determined the true nature of the Solar System and its place the universe. The first was made in 1839 by German astronomer Friedrich Bessel, who successfully measured an apparent shift in the position of a star created by the Earth’s motion around the Sun (aka. stellar parallax). This not only confirmed the heliocentric model beyond a doubt, but revealed the vast distance between the Sun and the stars.

In 1859, Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff (a German chemist and physicist) used the newly invented spectroscope to examined the spectral signature of the Sun. They discovered that it was composed of the same elements as existed on Earth, thus proving that Earth and the heavens were composed of the same elements.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth's orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. CREDIT: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.
With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

Then, Father Angelo Secchi  – an Italian astronomer and director at the Pontifical Gregorian University – compared the spectral signature of the Sun with those of other stars, and found them to be virtually identical. This demonstrated conclusively that our Sun was composed of the same materials as every other star in the universe.

Further apparent discrepancies in the orbits of the outer planets led American astronomer Percival Lowell to conclude that yet another planet, which he referred to as “Planet X“, must lie beyond Neptune. After his death, his Lowell Observatory conducted a search that ultimately led to Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930.

Also in 1992, astronomers David C. Jewitt of the University of Hawaii and Jane Luu of the MIT discovered the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) known as (15760) 1992 QB1. This would prove to be the first of a new population, known as the Kuiper Belt, which had already been predicted by astronomers to exist at the edge of the Solar System.

Further investigation of the Kuiper Belt by the turn of the century would lead to additional discoveries. The discovery of Eris and other “plutoids” by Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, David Rabinowitz and other astronomers would lead to the Great Planet Debate – where IAU policy and the convention for designating planets would be contested.

Structure and Composition:

At the core of the Solar System lies the Sun (a G2 main-sequence star) which is then surrounded by four terrestrial planets (the Inner Planets), the main Asteroid Belt, four gas giants (the Outer Planets), a massive field of small bodies that extends from 30 AU to 50 AU from the Sun (the Kuiper Belt). The system is then surrounded a spherical cloud of icy planetesimals (the Oort Cloud) that is believed to extend to a distance of 100,000 AU from the Sun into the Interstellar Medium.

The Sun contains 99.86% of the system’s known mass, and its gravity dominates the entire system. Most large objects in orbit around the Sun lie near the plane of Earth’s orbit (the ecliptic) and most planets and bodies rotate around it in the same direction (counter-clockwise when viewed from above Earth’s north pole). The planets are very close to the ecliptic, whereas comets and Kuiper belt objects are frequently at greater angles to it.

It’s four largest orbiting bodies (the gas giants) account for 99% of the remaining mass, with Jupiter and Saturn together comprising more than 90%. The remaining objects of the Solar System (including the four terrestrial planets, the dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, and comets) together comprise less than 0.002% of the Solar System’s total mass.

Sun and Planets
The Sun and planets to scale. Credit: Illustration by Judy Schmidt, texture maps by Björn Jónsson

Astronomers sometimes informally divide this structure into separate regions. First, there is the Inner Solar System, which includes the four terrestrial planets and the Asteroid Belt. Beyond this, there’s the outer Solar System that includes the four gas giant planets. Meanwhile, there’s the outermost parts of the Solar System are considered a distinct region consisting of the objects beyond Neptune (i.e. Trans-Neptunian Objects).

Most of the planets in the Solar System possess secondary systems of their own, being orbited by planetary objects called natural satellites (or moons). In the case of the four giant planets, there are also planetary rings – thin bands of tiny particles that orbit them in unison. Most of the largest natural satellites are in synchronous rotation, with one face permanently turned toward their parent.

The Sun, which comprises nearly all the matter in the Solar System, is composed of roughly 98% hydrogen and helium. The terrestrial planets of the Inner Solar System are composed primarily of silicate rock, iron and nickel. Beyond the Asteroid Belt, planets are composed mainly of gases (such as hydrogen, helium) and ices – like water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide.

Objects farther from the Sun are composed largely of materials with lower melting points. Icy substances comprise the majority of the satellites of the giant planets, as well as most of Uranus and Neptune (hence why they are sometimes referred to as “ice giants”) and the numerous small objects that lie beyond Neptune’s orbit.

Together, gases and ices are referred to as volatiles. The boundary in the Solar System beyond which those volatile substances could condense is known as the frost line, which lies roughly 5 AU from the Sun. Within the Kuiper Belt, objects and planetesimals are composed mainly of these materials and rock.

Formation and Evolution:

The Solar System formed 4.568 billion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a region within a large molecular cloud composed of hydrogen, helium, and small amounts of heavier elements fused by previous generations of stars. As the region that would become the Solar System (known as the pre-solar nebula) collapsed, conservation of angular momentum caused it to rotate faster.

The center, where most of the mass collected, became increasingly hotter than the surrounding disc. As the contracting nebula rotated faster, it began to flatten into a protoplanetary disc with a hot, dense protostar at the center. The planets formed by accretion from this disc, in which dust and gas gravitated together and coalesced to form ever larger bodies.

Due to their higher boiling points, only metals and silicates could exist in solid form closer to the Sun, and these would eventually form the terrestrial planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Because metallic elements only comprised a very small fraction of the solar nebula, the terrestrial planets could not grow very large.

In contrast, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) formed beyond the point between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where material is cool enough for volatile icy compounds to remain solid (i.e. the frost line).

The ices that formed these planets were more plentiful than the metals and silicates that formed the terrestrial inner planets, allowing them to grow massive enough to capture large atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. Leftover debris that never became planets congregated in regions such as the asteroid belt, Kuiper belt, and Oort cloud.

Within 50 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the center of the protostar became great enough for it to begin thermonuclear fusion. The temperature, reaction rate, pressure, and density increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved.

At this point, the Sun became a main-sequence star. Solar wind from the Sun created the heliosphere and swept away the remaining gas and dust from the protoplanetary disc into interstellar space, ending the planetary formation process.

The terrestrial planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The terrestrial planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

The Solar System will remain roughly as we know it today until the hydrogen in the core of the Sun has been entirely converted to helium. This will occur roughly 5 billion years from now and mark the end of the Sun’s main-sequence life. At this time, the core of the Sun will collapse, and the energy output will be much greater than at present.

The outer layers of the Sun will expand to roughly 260 times its current diameter, and the Sun will become a red giant. The expanding Sun is expected to vaporize Mercury and Venus and render Earth uninhabitable as the habitable zone moves out to the orbit of Mars. Eventually, the core will be hot enough for helium fusion and the Sun will burn helium for a time, after which nuclear reactions in the core will start to dwindle.

At this point, the Sun’s outer layers will move away into space, leaving a white dwarf – an extraordinarily dense object that will have half the original mass of the Sun, but will be the size of Earth. The ejected outer layers will form what is known as a planetary nebula, returning some of the material that formed the Sun to the interstellar medium.

Inner Solar System:

In the inner Solar System, we find the “Inner Planets” – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – which are so named because they orbit closest to the Sun. In addition to their proximity, these planets have a number of key differences that set them apart from planets elsewhere in the Solar System.

For starters, the inner planets are rocky and terrestrial, composed mostly of silicates and metals, whereas the outer planets are gas giants. The inner planets are also much more closely spaced than their outer Solar System counterparts. In fact, the radius of the entire region is less than the distance between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn.

Generally, inner planets are smaller and denser than their counterparts, and have few to no moons or rings circling them. The outer planets, meanwhile, often have dozens of satellites and rings composed of particles of ice and rock.

The terrestrial inner planets are composed largely of refractory minerals such as the silicates, which form their crusts and mantles, and metals such as iron and nickel which form their cores. Three of the four inner planets (Venus, Earth and Mars) have atmospheres substantial enough to generate weather. All of them have impact craters and tectonic surface features as well, such as rift valleys and volcanoes.

Of the inner planets, Mercury is the closest to our Sun and the smallest of the terrestrial planets. Its magnetic field is only about 1% that of Earth’s, and it’s very thin atmosphere means that it is hot during the day (up to 430°C) and freezing at night (as low as -187 °C) because the atmosphere can neither keep heat in or out. It has no moons of its own and is comprised mostly of iron and nickel. Mercury is one of the densest planets in the Solar System.

Venus, which is about the same size as Earth, has a thick toxic atmosphere that traps heat, making it the hottest planet in the Solar System. This atmosphere is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, along with nitrogen and a few other gases. Dense clouds within Venus’ atmosphere are composed of sulphuric acid and other corrosive compounds, with very little water. Much of Venus’ surface is marked with volcanoes and deep canyons – the biggest of which is over 6400 km (4,000 mi) long.

Earth is the third inner planet and the one we know best. Of the four terrestrial planets, Earth is the largest, and the only one that currently has liquid water, which is necessary for life as we know it. Earth’s atmosphere protects the planet from dangerous radiation and helps keep valuable sunlight and warmth in, which is also essential for life to survive.

Like the other terrestrial planets, Earth has a rocky surface with mountains and canyons, and a heavy metal core. Earth’s atmosphere contains water vapor, which helps to moderate daily temperatures. Like Mercury, the Earth has an internal magnetic field. And our Moon, the only one we have, is comprised of a mixture of various rocks and minerals.

Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA
Mars, as it appears today, Credit: NASA

Mars is the fourth and final inner planet, and is also known as the “Red Planet” due to the oxidization of iron-rich materials that form the planet’s surface. Mars also has some of the most interesting terrain features of any of the terrestrial planets. These include the largest mountain in the Solar System (Olympus Mons) which rises some 21,229 m (69,649 ft) above the surface, and a giant canyon called Valles Marineris – which is 4000 km (2500 mi) long and reaches depths of up to 7 km (4 mi).

Much of Mars’ surface is very old and filled with craters, but there are geologically newer areas of the planet as well. At the Martian poles are polar ice caps that shrink in size during the Martian spring and summer. Mars is less dense than Earth and has a smaller magnetic field, which is indicative of a solid core, rather than a liquid one.

Mars’ thin atmosphere has led some astronomers to believe that the surface water that once existed there might have actually taken liquid form, but has since evaporated into space. The planet has two small moons called Phobos and Deimos.

Outer Solar System:

The outer planets (sometimes called Jovian planets or gas giants) are huge planets swaddled in gas that have rings and plenty of moons. Despite their size, only two of them are visible without telescopes: Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune were the first planets discovered since antiquity, and showed astronomers that the solar system was bigger than previously thought.

The outer planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The outer planets of our Solar System at approximately relative sizes. From left, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System and spins very rapidly (10 Earth hours) relative to its orbit of the sun (12 Earth years). Its thick atmosphere is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, perhaps surrounding a terrestrial core that is about Earth’s size. The planet has dozens of moons, some faint rings and a Great Red Spot – a raging storm that has happening for the past 400 years at least.

Saturn is best known for its prominent ring system – seven known rings with well-defined divisions and gaps between them. How the rings got there is one subject under investigation. It also has dozens of moons. Its atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, and it also rotates quickly (10.7 Earth hours) relative to its time to circle the Sun (29 Earth years).

Uranus was first discovered by William Herschel in 1781. The planet’s day takes about 17 Earth hours and one orbit around the Sun takes 84 Earth years. Its mass contains water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen and helium surrounding a rocky core. It has dozens of moons and a faint ring system. The only spacecraft to visit this planet was the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986.

Neptune is a distant planet that contains water, ammmonia, methane, hydrogen and helium and a possible Earth-sized core. It has more than a dozen moons and six rings. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft also visited this planet and its system by 1989 during its transit of the outer Solar System.

How many moons are there in the Solar System? Image credit: NASA
How many moons are there in the Solar System? Image credit: NASA

Trans-Neptunian Region:

There have been more than a thousand objects discovered in the Kuiper Belt, and it’s theorized that there are as many as 100,000 objects larger than 100 km in diameter. Given to their small size and extreme distance from Earth, the chemical makeup of KBOs is very difficult to determine.

However, spectrographic studies conducted of the region since its discovery have generally indicated that its members are primarily composed of ices: a mixture of light hydrocarbons (such as methane), ammonia, and water ice – a composition they share with comets. Initial studies also confirmed a broad range of colors among KBOs, ranging from neutral grey to deep red.

This suggests that their surfaces are composed of a wide range of compounds, from dirty ices to hydrocarbons. In 1996, Robert H. Brown et al. obtained spectroscopic data on the KBO 1993 SC, revealing its surface composition to be markedly similar to that of Pluto (as well as Neptune’s moon Triton) in that it possessed large amounts of methane ice.

Water ice has been detected in several KBOs, including 1996 TO66, 38628 Huya and 20000 Varuna. In 2004, Mike Brown et al. determined the existence of crystalline water ice and ammonia hydrate on one of the largest known KBOs, 50000 Quaoar. Both of these substances would have been destroyed over the age of the Solar System, suggesting that Quaoar had been recently resurfaced, either by internal tectonic activity or by meteorite impacts.

Keeping Pluto company out in the Kuiper belt are many other objects worthy of mention. Quaoar, Makemake, Haumea, Orcus and Eris are all large icy bodies in the Belt and several of them even have moons of their own. These are all tremendously far away, and yet, very much within reach.

Oort Cloud and Farthest Regions:

The Oort Cloud is thought to extend from between 2,000 and 5,000 AU (0.03 and 0.08 ly) to as far as 50,000 AU (0.79 ly) from the Sun, though some estimates place the outer edge as far as 100,000 and 200,000 AU (1.58 and 3.16 ly). The Cloud is thought to be comprised of two regions – a spherical outer Oort Cloud of 20,000 – 50,000 AU (0.32 – 0.79 ly), and disc-shaped inner Oort (or Hills) Cloud of 2,000 – 20,000 AU (0.03 – 0.32 ly).

The outer Oort cloud may have trillions of objects larger than 1 km (0.62 mi), and billions that measure 20 kilometers (12 mi) in diameter. Its total mass is not known, but – assuming that Halley’s Comet is a typical representation of outer Oort Cloud objects – it has the combined mass of roughly 3×1025 kilograms (6.6×1025 pounds), or five Earths.

The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA
The layout of the solar system, including the Oort Cloud, on a logarithmic scale. Credit: NASA

Based on the analyses of past comets, the vast majority of Oort Cloud objects are composed of icy volatiles – such as water, methane, ethane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and ammonia. The appearance of asteroids thought to be originating from the Oort Cloud has also prompted theoretical research that suggests that the population consists of 1-2% asteroids.

Earlier estimates placed its mass up to 380 Earth masses, but improved knowledge of the size distribution of long-period comets has led to lower estimates. The mass of the inner Oort Cloud, meanwhile, has yet to be characterized. The contents of both Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud are known as Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), because the objects of both regions have orbits that that are further from the Sun than Neptune’s orbit.

Exploration:

Our knowledge of the Solar System also benefited immensely from the advent of robotic spacecraft, satellites, and robotic landers. Beginning in the mid-20th century, in what was known as “The Space Age“, manned and robotic spacecraft began exploring planets, asteroids and comets in the Inner and Outer Solar System.

All planets in the Solar System have now been visited to varying degrees by spacecraft launched from Earth. Through these unmanned missions, humans have been able to get close-up photographs of all the planets. In the case of landers and rovers, tests have been performed on the soils and atmospheres of some.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

The first artificial object sent into space was the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, which was launched in space in 1957, successfully orbited the Earth for months, and collected information on the density of the upper atmosphere and the ionosphere. The American probe Explorer 6, launched in 1959, was the first satellite to capture images of the Earth from space.

Robotic spacecraft conducting flybys also revealed considerable information about the planet’s atmospheres, geological and surface features. The first successful probe to fly by another planet was the Soviet Luna 1 probe, which sped past the Moon in 1959. The Mariner program resulted in multiple successful planetary flybys, consisting of the Mariner 2 mission past Venus in 1962, the Mariner 4 mission past Mars in 1965, and the Mariner 10 mission past Mercury in 1974.

By the 1970’s, probes were being dispatched to the outer planets as well, beginning with the Pioneer 10 mission which flew past Jupiter in 1973 and the Pioneer 11 visit to Saturn in 1979. The Voyager probes performed a grand tour of the outer planets 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.

Launched on January 19th, 2006, the New Horizons probe is the first man-made spacecraft to explore the Kuiper Belt. This unmanned mission flew by Pluto in July 2015. Should it prove feasible, the mission will also be extended to observe a number of other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) in the coming years.

Orbiters, rovers, and landers began being deployed to other planets in the Solar System by the 1960’s. The first was the Soviet Luna 10 satellite, which was sent into lunar orbit in 1966. This was followed in 1971 with the deployment of the Mariner 9 space probe, which orbited Mars, and the Soviet Venera 9 which orbited Venus in 1975.

The Galileo probe became the first artificial satellite to orbit an outer planet when it reached Jupiter in 1995, followed by the CassiniHuygens probe orbiting Saturn in 2004. Mercury and Vesta were explored by 2011 by the MESSENGER and Dawn probes, respectively, with Dawn establishing orbit around the asteroid/dwarf planet Ceres in 2015.

The first probe to land on another Solar System body was the Soviet Luna 2 probe, which impacted the Moon in 1959. Since then, probes have landed on or impacted on the surfaces of Venus in 1966 (Venera 3), Mars in 1971 (Mars 3 and Viking 1 in 1976), the asteroid 433 Eros in 2001 (NEAR Shoemaker), and Saturn’s moon Titan (Huygens) and the comet Tempel 1 (Deep Impact) in 2005.

Curiosity Rover snapped this self portrait mosaic with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop where the robot conducted historic first sample drilling inside the Yellowknife Bay basin, on Feb. 8 (Sol 182) at lower left in front of rover. The photo mosaic was stitched from raw images snapped on Sol 177, or Feb 3, 2013, by the robotic arm camera - accounting for foreground camera distortion. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer (kenkremer.com).
Curiosity Rover self portrait mosaic, taken with the MAHLI camera while sitting on flat sedimentary rocks at the “John Klein” outcrop in Feb. 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/KenKremer

To date, only two worlds in the Solar System, the Moon and Mars, have been visited by mobile rovers. The first robotic rover to land on another planet was the Soviet Lunokhod 1, which landed on the Moon in 1970. The first to visit another planet was Sojourner, which traveled 500 meters across the surface of Mars in 1997, followed by Spirit (2004), Opportunity (2004), and Curiosity (2012).

Manned missions into space began in earnest in the 1950’s, and was a major focal point for both the United States and Soviet Union during the “Space Race“. For the Soviets, this took the form of the Vostok program, which involved sending manned space capsules into orbit.

The first mission – Vostok 1 – took place on April 12th, 1961, and was piloted by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first human being to go into space). On June 6th, 1963, the Soviets also sent the first woman – Valentina Tereshvoka – into space as part of the Vostok 6 mission.

In the US, Project Mercury was initiated with the same goal of placing a crewed capsule into orbit. On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard went into space aboard the Freedom 7 mission and became the first American (and second human) to go into space.

After the Vostok and Mercury programs were completed, the focus of both nations and space programs shifted towards the development of two and three-person spacecraft, as well as the development of long-duration spaceflights and extra-vehicular activity (EVA).

Bootprint in the moon dust from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA
Bootprint in the moon dust from Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

This took the form of the Voshkod and Gemini programs in the Soviet Union and US, respectively. For the Soviets, this involved developing a two to three-person capsule, whereas the Gemini program focused on developing the support and expertise needed for an eventual manned mission to the Moon.

These latter efforts culminated on July 21st, 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. As part of the Apollo program, five more Moon landings would take place through 1972, and the program itself resulted in many scientific packages being deployed on the Lunar surface, and samples of moon rocks being returned to Earth.

After the Moon Landing took place, the focus of the US and Soviet space programs then began to shift to the development of space stations and reusable spacecraft. For the Soviets, this resulted in the first crewed orbital space stations dedicated to scientific research and military reconnaissance – known as the Salyut and Almaz space stations.

The first orbital space station to host more than one crew was NASA’s Skylab, which successfully held three crews from 1973 to 1974. The first true human settlement in space was the Soviet space station Mir, which was continuously occupied for close to ten years, from 1989 to 1999. It was decommissioned in 2001, and its successor, the International Space Station, has maintained a continuous human presence in space since then.

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

The United States’ Space Shuttle, which debuted in 1981, became the only reusable spacecraft to successfully make multiple orbital flights. The five shuttles that were built (Atlantis, Endeavour, Discovery, Challenger, Columbia and Enterprise) flew a total of 121 missions before being decommissioned in 2011.

During their history of service, two of the craft were destroyed in accidents. These included the Space Shuttle Challenger – which exploded upon take-off on Jan. 28th, 1986 – and the Space Shuttle Columbia which disintegrated during re-entry on Feb. 1st, 2003.

In 2004, then-U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which called for a replacement for the aging Shuttle, a return to the Moon and, ultimately, a manned mission to Mars. These goals have since been maintained by the Obama administration, and now include plans for an Asteroid Redirect mission, where a robotic craft will tow an asteroid closer to Earth so a manned mission can be mounted to it.

All the information gained from manned and robotic missions about the geological phenomena of other planets – such as mountains and craters – as well as their seasonal, meteorological phenomena (i.e. clouds, dust storms and ice caps) have led to the realization that other planets experience much the same phenomena as Earth. In addition, it has also helped scientists to learn much about the history of the Solar System and its formation.

As our exploration of the Inner and Outer Solar System has improved and expanded, our conventions for categorizing planets has also changed. Our current model of the Solar System includes eight planets (four terrestrial, four gas giants), four dwarf planets, and a growing number of Trans-Neptunian Objects that have yet to be designated. It also contains and is surrounded by countless asteroids and planetesimals.

Given its sheer size, composition and complexity, researching our Solar System in full detail would take an entire lifetime. Obviously, no one has that kind of time to dedicate to the topic, so we have decided to compile the many articles we have about it here on Universe Today in one simple page of links for your convenience.

There are thousands of facts about the solar system in the links below. Enjoy your research.

The Solar System:

Theories about the Solar System:

Moons:

Anything EXTREME!:

Solar System Stuffs:

Pluto’s Moon Nix

Artist's impression of Pluto and its moons. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Over the course of the past decade, many amazing discoveries have been made at the edge of the Solar System. Thanks to the work of astronomers working out of Earth-based observatories, with the Hubble Space Telescope, and those behind the recent New Horizons mission, not only have new objects been discovered, but additional discoveries have been made about the ones we already knew about.

For example, in 2005, two additional satellites were discovered in orbit of PlutoHydra and Nix. The discovery of these moons (which has since been followed by the discovery of two more) has taught astronomers much about the far-flung system of Pluto, and helped to advance our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.

Discovery and Naming:
Nix was discovered in June of 2005 by the Hubble Space Telescope Pluto Companion Search Team, using discovery images that were taken on May 15th and 18th, 2005. The team was composed of Hal A. Weaver, Alan Stern, Max J. Mutchler, Andrew J. Steffl, Marc W. Buie, William J. Merline, John R. Spencer, Eliot F. Young, and Leslie A. Young.

The discovery images of Nix (and Hydra) obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI)
The discovery images of Nix (and Hydra) obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI)

Nix and Hydra were also independently discovered by Max J. Mutchler on June 15th, 2005, and by Andrew J. Steffl on August 15th, 2005. At the time, Nix was given the provisional designation of S/2005 P 2 and casually referred to as “P2”. Once pre-recovery images from 2002 were confirmed, the discoveries were announced on October 31st, 2005.

In accordance with IAU guidelines concerning the naming of satellites in the Solar System, the moon was named Nix. Derived from Greek mythology, Nix is the goddess of darkness and night, the mother of Charon and the ferryman of Hades (the Greek equivalent of Pluto) who brought the souls of the dead to the underworld.

The name was officially announced on June 21st, 2006, in an IAU Circular, where the designation “Pluto II” is also given. The initials N and H (for Nix and Hydra) were also a deliberate reference to the New Horizons mission, which would be conducting a flyby of the Pluto system in less than ten years time after the announcement was made.

Images acquired by the New Horizon's probe of Nix (left) and Hydra (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Images acquired by the New Horizon’s probe of Nix (left) and Hydra (right) on July 14th, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Size, Mass and Orbit:
Based on observations with the Hubble Space Telescope of Nix’s geometric albedo and shape, the satellite was estimated to measure 56.3 km (35 mi) along its longest axis and 25.7 km (16 mi) wide. However, images provided by the New Horizons’ Ralph instrument on July 14th, 2015, indicated that Nix measures 42 km (26 mi) in length and 36 km (22 mi) wide.

Nix follows a circular orbit with very little eccentricity (0.0020) and a low inclination of approximately 0.13°. It is in the same orbital plane as Charon, is in a 3:2 orbital resonance with Hydra, and a 9:11 resonance with Styx. Its orbital period is roughly 24.9 days, meaning it takes about 25 days to complete a single orbit of Pluto.

As with Hydra and perhaps the other small Plutonian moons, Nix rotates chaotically, which is due mainly to its oblong shape. This means that the moon’s axial tilt and day length vary greatly over short timescales, to the point that it regularly flips over.

Composition:
Early observations conducted by Marc W. Buie and William M. Grundy at the Lowell Observatory appeared to show that Nix has a reddish color like Pluto, but unlike any of its other moons. However, more-recent studies conducted by S. Alan Stern et al. using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), have indicated that it is likely as grey as the remaining satellites.

From these observations, it is likely that the surface of Nix is composed primarily of water ice (like Hydra) and may or may also have trace amount of methane ice on its surface. If true, then the exposure of these deposits of methane ice to ultra-violet radiation from the Sun would result in the presence of tholins, which would give it a reddish hue.

However, when the New Horizons space probe photographed Hydra and Nix during its flyby of the Pluto system, it spotted a large region with a distinctive red tint, probably a crater. The appearance of this surface region – a spot of red against an otherwise grey landscape – may explain these conflicting results.

Exploration:
Thus far, only one mission has been performed to the Pluto system that resulted in close-up and detailed photographs of Nix. This would be the New Horizons mission, which flew through the Pluto-Charon system on July 14th, 2015 and photographed Hydra and Nix from an approximate distance of 640,000 km (400,000 mi).

Until July 13th, 2015, when NASA’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on board New Horizons determined Nix’s dimensions, its size was unknown. More images and information will be downloaded from the spacecraft between now and late 2016.

Prior to the discovery of Hydra and Nix in 2005, Pluto was believed to share its orbit with only the satellite of Charon – hence why astronomers often refer to it as the “Pluto-Charon system”. However, since the discovery of these two additional satellites in 2005, two more have been discovered – Kerberos in July of 2011 and Styx in July of 2012.

This raises the number of bodes in the Pluto-Charon system to one primary and five satellites. And thanks to the recent New Horizons flyby, we got to see all of them up close for the first time!

Like most large bodies in the Kuiper Belt (not to mention their satellites) much remains to be learned about Nix and its companions. In time, and with more missions to the outer Solar System, we are sure to address many of the mysteries surrounding this particular satellite, and will probably find many more waiting for us!

We have written many interesting articles on Pluto, its system of moons and the Kuiper Belt here at Universe Today.

Here’s Moons of Pluto, Pluto’s New Moons are Named Nix and Hydra, and Pluto’s Moons Nix and Hydra Get Real.

And here’s New Horizons Now Close Enough to See Pluto’s Smaller Moons, and Fifth Moon Found Around Pluto.

Astronomy Cast has a wonderful episode on the New Horizons mission, titled On Pluto’s Doorstep – Live Hangout with New Horizons Team.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration: Nix and PlanetEdu.com’s page on updated images of Nix and Pluto’s other moons..

The (Possible) Dwarf Planet 2007 OR10

An artist's conception of 2007 OR10, nicknamed Snow White. Astronomers suspect that its rosy color is due to the presence of irradiated methane. [Credit: NASA]

Over the course of the past decade, more and more objects have been discovered within the Trans-Neptunian region. With every new find, we have learned more about the history of our Solar System and the mysteries it holds. At the same time, these finds have forced astronomers to reexamine astronomical conventions that have been in place for decades.

Consider 2007 OR10, a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) located within the scattered disc that at one time went by the nicknames of “the seventh dwarf” and “Snow White”. Approximately the same size as Haumea, it is believed to be a dwarf planet, and is currently the largest object in the Solar System that does not have a name.

Discovery and Naming:

2007 OR10 was discovered in 2007 by Meg Schwamb, a PhD candidate at Caltech and a graduate student of Michael Brown, while working out of the Palomar Observatory. The object was colloquially referred to as the “seventh dwarf” (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) since it was the seventh object to be discovered by Brown’s team (after Quaoar in 2002, Sedna in 2003, Haumea and Orcus in 2004, and Makemake and Eris in 2005).

Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon
Comparison of Sedna with the other largest TNOs and with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

At the time of its discovery, the object appeared to be very large and very white, which led to Brown giving it the other nickname of “Snow White”. However, subsequent observation has revealed that the planet is actually one of the reddest in the Kuiper Belt, comparable only to Haumea. As a result, the nickname was dropped and the object is still designated as 2007 OR10.

The discovery of 2007 OR10 would not be formally announced until January 7th, 2009.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

A study published in 2011 by Brown – in collaboration with A.J. Burgasser (University of California San Diego) and W.C. Fraser (MIT) – 2007 OR10’s diameter was estimated to be between 1000-1500 km. These estimates were based on photometry data obtained in 2010 using the Magellan Baade Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and from spectral data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.

However, a survey conducted in 2012 by Pablo Santos Sanz et al. of the Trans-Neptunian region produced an estimate of 1280±210 km based on the object’s size, albedo, and thermal properties. Combined with its absolute magnitude and albedo, 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed object and the fifth brightest TNO in the Solar System. No estimates of its mass have been made as of yet.

2007 OR10 also has a highly eccentric orbit (0.5058) with an inclination of 30.9376°. What this means is that at perihelion, it is roughly 33 AU (4.9 x 109 km/30.67 x 109 mi) from our Sun while at aphelion, it is as distant as 100.66 AU (1.5 x 1010 km/9.36 x 1010 mi). It also has an orbital period of 546.6 years, which means that the last time it was at perihelion was 1857 and it won’t reach aphelion until 2130. As such, it is currently the second-farthest known large body in the Solar System, and  will be farther out than both Sedna and Eris by 2045.

Composition:

According to the spectral data obtained by Brown, Burgasser and Fraser, 2007 OR10 shows infrared signatures for both water ice and methane, which indicates that it is likely similar in composition to Quaoar. Concurrent with this, the reddish appearance of 2007 OR10 is believed to be due to presence of tholins in the surface ice, which are caused by the irradiation of methane by ultraviolet radiation.

The presence of red methane frost on the surfaces of both 2007 OR10 and Quaoar is also seen as an indication of the possible existence of a tenuous methane atmosphere, which would slowly evaporate into space when the objects are closer to the Sun. Although 2007 OR10 comes closer to the Sun than Quaoar, and is thus warm enough that a methane atmosphere should evaporate, its larger mass makes retention of an atmosphere just possible.

Also, the presence of water ice on the surface is believed to imply that the object underwent a brief period of cryovolcanism in its distant past. According to Brown, this period would have been responsible not only for water ice freezing on the surface, but for the creation of an atmosphere that included nitrogen and carbon monoxide. These would have been depleted rather quickly, and a tenuous atmosphere of methane would be all that remains today.

However, more data is required before astronomers can say for sure whether or not 2007 OR10 has an atmosphere, a history of cryovolcanism, and what its interior looks like. Like other KBOs, it is possible that it is differentiated between a mantle of ices and a rocky core. Assuming that there is sufficient antifreeze, or due to the decay of radioactive elements, there may even be a liquid-water ocean at the core-mantle boundary.

Classification:

Though it is too difficult to resolve 2007 OR10’s size based on direct observation, based on calculations of 2007 OR10’s albedo and absolute magnitude, many astronomers believe it to be of sufficient size to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. As Brown stated in 2011, 2007 OR10 “must be a dwarf planet even if predominantly rocky”, which is based on a minimum possible diameter of 552 km and what is believed to be the conditions under which hydrostatic equilibrium occurs in cold icy-rock bodies.

That same year, Scott S. Sheppard and his team (which included Chad Trujillo) conducted a survey of bright KBOs (including 2007 OR10) using the Palomar Observatory’s 48 inch Schmidt telescope. According to their findings, they determined that “[a]ssuming moderate albedos, several of the new discoveries from this survey could be in hydrostatic equilibrium and thus could be considered dwarf planets.”

Currently, nothing is known of 2007 OR10’s mass, which is a major factor when determining if a body has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. This is due in part to there being no known satellite(s) in orbit of the object, which in turn is a major factor in determining the mass of a system. Meanwhile, the IAU has not addressed the possibility of accepting additional dwarf planets since before the discovery of 2007 OR10 was announced.

Alas, much remains to be learned about 2007 OR10. Much like it’s Trans-Neptunian neighbors and fellow KBOs, a lot will depend on future missions and observations being able to learn more about its size, mass, composition, and whether or not it has any satellites. However, given its extreme distance and fact that it is currently moving further and further away, opportunities to observe and explore it via flybys will be limited.

However, if all goes well, this potential dwarf planet could be joining the ranks of such bodies as Pluto, Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake in the not-too-distant future. And with luck, it will be given a name that actually sticks!

We have many interesting articles on Dwarf Planets, the Kuiper Belt, and Plutoids here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Pluto is no longer a planet and how astronomers are predicting Two More Large Planets in the outer Solar System.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode all about Dwarf Planets titled, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out the NASA’s Solar System Overview: Dwarf Planets, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, as well as Mike Browns Planets.

 

The Dwarf Planet Orcus

Artist's impression of the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) 90482 Orcus. Credit: NASA

Since the early 2000s, more and more objects have been discovered in the outer Solar System that resemble planets. However, until they are officially classified, the terms Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) are commonly used. This is certainly true of Orcus, another large object that was spotted in Pluto’s neighborhood about a decade ago.

Although similar in size and orbital characteristics to Pluto, Orcus is Pluto’s opposite in many ways. For this reason, Orcus is often referred to as the “anti-Pluto”, a fact that contributed greatly to the selection of its name. Although Orcus has not yet been officially categorized as a dwarf planet by the IAU, many astronomers agree that it meets all the requirements and will be in the future.

Discovery and Naming:
Orcus was discovered on February 17th, 2004, by Michael Brown of Caltech, Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University. Although discovered using images that were taken in 2004, prerecovery images of Orcus have been identified going back as far as November 8th, 1951.

Provisionally known as 90482 2004 DW, by November 22nd, 2004, the name Orcus was assigned. In accordance with the IAU’s astronomical conventions, objects with a similar size and orbit to that of Pluto are to be named after underworld deities. Therefore, the discovery team suggested the name Orcus, after the Etruscan god of the underworld and the equivalent of the Roman god Pluto.

90482 Orcus. The location of Orcus is shown in the green circle (top, left). Credit: NASA
90482 Orcus. The location of Orcus is shown in the green circle (top, left). Credit: NASA

Size, Mass and Orbit:
Given its distance, estimates of Orcus’ diameter and mass have varied over time. In 2008, observations made using the Spitzer Space Telescope in the far infrared placed its diameter at 958.4 ± 22.9 km. Subsequent observations made in 2013 using the Herschel Space Telescope at submillimeter wavelengths led to similar estimates being made.

In addition, Orcus appears to have an albedo of about 21% to 25%, which may be typical of trans-Neptunian objects approaching the 1000 km diameter range. However, these estimates were based on the assumption that Orcus was a singular object and not part of a system. The discovery of the relatively large satellite Vanth (see below) in 2007 by Brown et al. is likely to change these considerably.

The absolute magnitude of Vanth is estimated to be 4.88, which means that it is about 11 times fainter than Orcus itself. If the albedos of both bodies are the same at 0.23, then the diameter of Orcus would be closer to 892 -942 km, while Vanth would measure about 260 -293 km.

In terms of mass, the Orcus system is estimated to be 6.32 ± 0.05 ×1020 kg, which is about 3.8% the mass of the dwarf planet Eris. How this mass is partitioned between Orcus and Vanth depends of their relative sizes. If Vanth is 1/3rd the diameter Orcus, its mass is likely to be only 3% of the system. However, if it’s diameter is about half that of Orcus, then its mass could be as high as 1/12 of the system, or about 8% of the mass of Orcus.

Orcus compared to Earth and the Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Orcus compared to Earth and the Moon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Much like Pluto, Orcus has a very long orbital period, taking 245.18 years (89552 days) to complete a single rotation around the Sun. It also is in a 2:3 orbital resonance with Neptune and is above the ecliptic during perihelion. In addition, it’s orbit has a similar inclination and eccentricity as Pluto’s – 20.573° to the ecliptic, and 0.227, respectively.

In short, Orcus orbits the Sun at a distance of 30.27 AU (4.53 billion km) at perihelion and 48.07 AU (7.19 billion km) at aphelion. However, Pluto and Orcus are oriented differently. For one, Orcus is at aphelion when Pluto is at perihelion (and vice versa), and the aphelion of Orcus’s orbit points in nearly the opposite direction from Pluto’s. Hence why Orcus is often referred to as the “anti-Pluto”.

Composition:
The density of the primary (and secondary assuming they have the same density) is estimated to be 1.5 g/cm3. In addition, spectroscopic and near-infrared observations have indicated that the surface is neutral in color and shows signs of water. Further infrared observations in 2004 by the European Southern Observatory and the Gemini Observatory indicated the possible presence of water ice and carbonaceous compounds.

This would indicate that Orcus is most likely differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle composed of water and methane ices as well as tholins – though not as much as other KBOs which are more reddish in appearance. The water and methane ices are believed to cover no more than 50% and 30% of the surface, respectively – which would mean the proportion of ice on the surface is less than on Charon, but similar to that on Triton.

Another interesting feature on Orcus is the presence of crystalline ice on its surface – which may be an indication of cryovolcanism – and the possible presence of ammonia dissolved in water and/or methane/ethane ices. This would make Orcus quite unique, since ammonia has not been detected on any other TNO or icy satellite of the outer planets (other than Uranus’ moon Miranda).

Moon:
In 2011, Mike Brown and T.A. Suer detected a satellite in orbit of Orcus, based on images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on November 13th, 2005. The satellite was given the designation S/2005 (90482) before being renamed Vanth on March 30th, 2005. This name was the result of an opinion poll where Mike Brown asked readers of his weekly column to submit their suggestions.

The name Vanth, after the Etruscan goddess who guided the souls of the dead to the underworld, was eventually chosen from among a large pool of submissions, which Brown then submitted to the IAU. The IAU’s Committee for Small Body Nomenclature assessed it and determined it fit with their naming procedures, and officially approved of it in March of 2010.

Vanth orbits Orcus in a nearly face-on circular orbit at a distance of 9030 ± 89 km. It has an eccentricity of about 0.007 and an orbital period of 9.54 days. In terms of how Orcus acquired it, it is not likely that it was the result of a collision with an object, since Vanth’s spectrum is very different from that of its primary.

Therefore, it is much more likely that Vanth is a captured KBO that Orcus acquired in the course of its history. However, it is also possible that Vanth could have originated as a result of rotational fission of the primordial Orcus, which would have rotated much faster billions of years ago than it does now.

Much like most other KBOs, there is much that we still don’t know about Orcus. There are currently no plans for a mission in the near future. But given the growing interest in the region, it would not be surprising at all if future missions to the outer Solar System were to include a flyby of this world. And as we learn more about Orcus’ size, shape and composition, we are likely to see it added to the list of confirmed dwarf planets.

We have many interesting articles on Dwarf Planets, Kuiper Belt Objects, and the Outer Solar System here at Universe Today. Here is What is a Dwarf Planet? and What is the Kuiper Belt?

And be sure to checkout How Many Planets are in the Solar System?, and this article about all the Bright Objects in the Kuiper Belt.

For more information on Orcus, Vanth, check out the Planetary Society’s page on Orcus and Vanth. To learn more about how they were discovered, consult Mike Brown’s Planets.

Astronomy Cast also has a great interview with Mike Brown from Caltech.

The Planet Uranus

Uranus as seen by NASA's Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL

Uranus, which takes its name from the Greek God of the sky, is a gas giant and the seventh planet from our Sun. It is also the third largest planet in our Solar System, ranking behind Jupiter and Saturn. Like its fellow gas giants, it has many moons, a ring system, and is primarily composed of gases that are believed to surround a solid core.

Though it can be seen with the naked eye, the realization that Uranus is a planet was a relatively recent one. Though there are indications that it was spotted several times over the course of the past two thousands years, it was not until the 18th century that it was recognized for what it was. Since that time, the full-extent of the planet’s moons, ring system, and mysterious nature have come to be known.

Discovery and Naming:

Like the five classic planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – Uranus can be seen without the aid of a telescope. But due to its dimness and slow orbit, ancient astronomers believed it to be a star. The earliest known observation was performed by Hipparchos, who recorded it as a star in his star catalog in 128 BCE – observations which were later included in Ptolemy’s Almagest.

The earliest definite sighting of Uranus took place in 1690 when English astronomer John Flamsteed – the first Astronomer Royal – spotted it at least six times and cataloged it as a star (34 Tauri). The French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier also observed it at least twelve times between the years of 1750 and 1769.

A replica of the telescope which William Herschel used to observe Uranus. Credit:
A replica of the telescope which William Herschel used to observe Uranus. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

However, it was Sir William Herschel’s observation of Uranus on March 13th, 1781, that began the process of identifying it as a planet. At the time, he reported it as a comet sighting, but then engaged in a series of observations using a telescope of his own design to measure its position relative to the stars. When he reported on it to The Royal Society, he claimed it was a comet, but implicitly compared it to a planet.

Afterwards, several astronomers began to explore the possibility that Herschel’s “comet” was in fact a planet. These included Russian astronomer Anders Johan Lexell, who was the first to compute its nearly circular orbit, which led him to conclude it was a planet after all. Berlin astronomer Johann Elert Bode, a member of the “United Astronomical Society”, concurred with this after making similar observations of its orbit.

Soon, Uranus’ status as a planet became a scientific consensus, and by 1783, Herschel himself acknowledged this to the Royal Society. In recognition of his discovery, King George III of England gave Herschel an annual stipend of £200 on condition that he move to Windsor so that the Royal Family could look through his telescopes.

In honor of his new patron, William Herschel decided to name his discovery Georgium Sidus (“George’s Star” or “Georges Planet”). Outside of Britain, this name was not popular, and alternatives were soon proposed. These included French astronomer Jerome Lalande proposing to call it Hershel in honor of its discovery, and Swedish astronomer Erik Prosperin proposing the name Neptune.

Uranus. Image credit: Hubble
Images of Uranus captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Johann Elert Bode proposed the name Uranus, the Latinized version of the Greek god of the sky, Ouranos. This name seemed appropriate, given that Saturn was named after the mythical father of Jupiter, so this new planet should be named after the mythical father of Saturn. Ultimately, Bode’s suggestion became the most widely used and became universal by 1850.

Uranus’ Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of approximately 25,360 km, a volume of 6.833×1013 km3, and a mass of 8.68 × 1025 kg, Uranus is approximately 4 times the sizes of Earth and 63 times its volume. However, as a gas giant, its density (1.27 g/cm3) is significantly lower; hence, it is only 14.5 as massive as Earth. Its low density also means that while it is the third largest of the gas giants, it is the least massive (falling behind Neptune by 2.6 Earth masses).

The variation of Uranus’ distance from the Sun is also greater than that any other planet (not including dwarf planets or plutoids). Essentially, the gas giant’s distance from the Sun varies from 18.28 AU (2,735,118,100 km) at perihelion to 20.09 AU (3,006,224,700 km) at aphelion. At an average distance of 3 billion km from the Sun, it takes Uranus roughly 84 years (or 30,687 days) to complete a single orbit of the Sun.

The rotational period of the interior of Uranus is 17 hours, 14 minutes. As with all giant planets, its upper atmosphere experiences strong winds in the direction of rotation. At some latitudes, such as about 60 degrees south, visible features of the atmosphere move much faster, making a full rotation in as little as 14 hours.

Diameter comparison of Uranus and Earth. Approximate scale is 90 km/px. Credit: NASA
Diameter comparison of Uranus and Earth. Approximate scale is 90 km/px. Credit: NASA

One unique feature of Uranus is that it rotates on its side. Whereas all of the Solar System’s planets are tilted on their axes to some degree, Uranus has the most extreme axial tilt of 98°. This leads to the radical seasons that the planet experiences, not to mention an unusual day-night cycle at the poles. At the equator, Uranus experiences normal days and nights; but at the poles, each experience 42 Earth years of day followed by 42 years of night.

Uranus’ Composition:

The standard model of Uranus’s structure is that it consists of three layers: a rocky (silicate/iron–nickel) core in the center, an icy mantle in the middle and an outer envelope of gaseous hydrogen and helium. Much like Jupiter and Saturn, hydrogen and helium account for the majority of the atmosphere – approximately 83% and 15% – but only a small portion of the planet’s overall mass (0.5 to 1.5 Earth masses).

The third most abundant element is methane ice (CH4), which accounts for 2.3% of its composition and which accounts for the planet’s aquamarine or cyan coloring. Trace amounts of various hydrocarbons are also found in the stratosphere of Uranus, which are thought to be produced from methane and ultraviolent radiation-induced photolysis. They include ethane (C2H6), acetylene (C2H2), methylacetylene (CH3C2H), and diacetylene (C2HC2H).

In addition, spectroscopy has uncovered carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in Uranus’ upper atmosphere, as well as the presence icy clouds of water vapor and other volatiles, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Because of this, Uranus and Neptune are considered a distinct class of giant planet – known as “Ice Giants” – since they are composed mainly of heavier volatile substances.

The ice mantle is not in fact composed of ice in the conventional sense, but of a hot and dense fluid consisting of water, ammonia and other volatiles. This fluid, which has a high electrical conductivity, is sometimes called a water–ammonia ocean.

Diagram of the interior of Uranus. Credit: Public Domain
Diagram of the interior of Uranus. Credit: Public Domain

The core of Uranus is relatively small, with a mass of only 0.55 Earth masses and a radius that is less than 20% of the planet’s overall size. The mantle comprises its bulk, with around 13.4 Earth masses, and the upper atmosphere is relatively insubstantial, weighing about 0.5 Earth masses and extending for the last 20% of Uranus’s radius.

Uranus’s core density is estimated to be 9 g/cm3, with a pressure in the center of 8 million bars (800 GPa) and a temperature of about 5000 K (which is comparable to the surface of the Sun).

Uranus’ Atmosphere:

As with Earth, the atmosphere of Uranus is broken into layers, depending upon temperature and pressure. Like the other gas giants, the planet doesn’t have a firm surface, and scientists define the surface as the region where the atmospheric pressure exceeds one bar (the pressure found on Earth at sea level). Anything accessible to remote-sensing capability – which extends down to roughly 300 km below the 1 bar level – is also considered to be the atmosphere.

Using these references points, Uranus’  atmosphere can be divided into three layers. The first is the troposphere, between altitudes of -300 km below the surface and 50 km above it, where pressures range from 100 to 0.1 bar (10 MPa to 10 kPa). The second layer is the stratosphere, which reaches between 50 and 4000 km and experiences pressures between 0.1 and 10-10 bar (10 kPa to 10 µPa).

Temperature profile of the Uranian troposphere and lower stratosphere. Cloud and haze layers are also indicated. Credit: Wikipedia/Ruslik0
Temperature profile of the Uranian troposphere and lower stratosphere. Cloud and haze layers are also indicated. Credit: Wikipedia/Ruslik0

The troposphere is the densest layer in Uranus’ atmosphere. Here, the temperature ranges from 320 K (46.85 °C/116 °F) at the base (-300 km) to 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at 50 km, with the upper region being the coldest in the solar system. The tropopause region is responsible for the vast majority of Uranus’s thermal infrared emissions, thus determining its effective temperature of 59.1 ± 0.3 K.

Within the troposphere are layers of clouds – water clouds at the lowest pressures, with ammonium hydrosulfide clouds above them. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide clouds come next. Finally, thin methane clouds lay on the top.

In the stratosphere, temperatures range from 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) at the upper level to between 800 and 850 K (527 – 577 °C/980 – 1070 °F) at the base of the thermosphere, thanks largely to heating caused by solar radiation. The stratosphere contains ethane smog, which may contribute to the planet’s dull appearance. Acetylene and methane are also present, and these hazes help warm the stratosphere.

The outermost layer, the thermosphere and corona, extend from 4,000 km to as high as 50,000 km from the surface. This region has a uniform temperature of 800-850 (577 °C/1,070 °F), although scientists are unsure as to the reason. Because the distance to Uranus from the Sun is so great, the amount of heat coming from it is insufficient to generate such high temperatures.

Like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus’s weather follows a similar pattern where systems are broken up into bands that rotate around the planet, which are driven by internal heat rising to the upper atmosphere. As a result, winds on Uranus can reach up to 900 km/h (560 mph), creating massive storms like the one spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this “Dark Spot” was a giant cloud vortex that measured 1,700 kilometers by 3,000 kilometers (1,100 miles by 1,900 miles).

Uranus’ Moons:

Uranus has 27 known satellites, which are divided into the categories of larger moons, inner moons, and irregular moons (similar to other gas giants). The largest moons of Uranus are, in order of size, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Oberon and Titania. These moons range in diameter and mass from 472 km and 6.7 × 1019 kg for Miranda to 1578 km and 3.5 × 1021 kg for Titania. Each of these moons is particularly dark, with low bond and geometric albedos. Ariel is the brightest while Umbriel is the darkest.

A montage of Uranus's moons. Image credit: NASA
A montage of Uranus’s moons. Image credit: NASA

All of the large moons of Uranus are believed to have formed in the accretion disc, which existed around Uranus for some time after its formation, or resulted from the large impact suffered by Uranus early in its history. Each one is comprised of roughly equal amounts of rock and ice, except for Miranda which is made primarily of ice.

The ice component may include ammonia and carbon dioxide, while the rocky material is believed to be composed of carbonaceous material, including organic compounds (similar to asteroids and comets). Their compositions are believed to be differentiated, with an icy mantle surrounding a rocky core.

In the case of Titania and Oberon, it is believed that liquid water oceans may exist at the core/mantle boundary. Their surfaces are also heavily cratered; but in each case, endogenic resurfacing has led to a degree of renewal of their features. Ariel appears to have the youngest surface with the fewest impact craters while Umbriel appears to be the the oldest and most cratered.

The major moons of Uranus have no discernible atmosphere. Also, because of their orbit around Uranus, they experience extreme seasonal cycles. Because Uranus orbits the Sun almost on its side, and the large moons all orbit around Uranus’ equatorial plane, the northern and southern hemispheres experience prolonged periods of daytime and nighttime (42 years at a time).

As of 2008, Uranus is known to possess 13 inner moons whose orbits lie inside that of Miranda. They are, in order of distance from the planet: Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Cressida, Desdemona, Juliet, Portia, Rosalind, Cupid, Belinda, Perdita, Puck and Mab. Consistent with the naming of the Uranus’ larger moons, all are named after characters from Shakespearean plays.

Uranus and Moons
Uranus and its system of Moons. Credit: NASA/JPL

All inner moons are intimately connected to Uranus’ ring system, which probably resulted from the fragmentation of one or several small inner moons. Puck, at 162 km, is the largest of the inner moons of Uranus – and the only one imaged by Voyager 2 in any detail – while Puck and Mab are the two outermost inner satellites of Uranus.

All inner moons are dark objects. They are made of water ice contaminated with a dark material, which is probably organic materials processed by Uranus’ radiation. The system is also chaotic and apparently unstable. Computer simulations estimate that collisions may occur, particularly between Desdemona and Cressida or Juliet within the next 100 million years.

As of 2005, Uranus is also known to have nine irregular moons, which orbit it at a distance much greater than that of Oberon. All the irregular moons are probably captured objects that were trapped by Uranus soon after its formation. They are, in order of distance from Uranus: Francisco, Caliban, Stephano, Trincutio, Sycorax, Margaret, Prospero, Setebos, and Ferdinard (once again, named for characters in Shakespearean plays).

Uranus’s irregular moons range in size from about 150 km (Sycorax) to 18 km (Trinculo). With the exception of Margaret, all circle Uranus in retrograde orbits (meaning they orbit the planet in the opposite direction of its spin).

Uranus’ Ring System:

Like Saturn and Jupiter, Uranus has a ring system. However, these rings are composed of extremely dark particles which vary in size from micrometers to a fraction of a meter – hence why they are not nearly as discernible as Saturn’s. Thirteen distinct rings are presently known, the brightest being the epsilon ring. And with the exception of two very narrow ones, these rings usually measure a few kilometers in width.

A Sharper View Of Uranus
Uranus viewed in the infrared spectrum, revealing internal heating and its ring system. Credit: Lawrence Sromovsky (Univ. Wisconsin-Madison)/Keck Observatory

The rings are probably quite young, and are not believed to have formed with Uranus. The matter in the rings may once have been part of a moon (or moons) that was shattered by high-speed impacts. From numerous pieces of debris that formed as a result of those impacts, only a few particles survived, in stable zones corresponding to the locations of the present rings.

The earliest known observations of the ring system took place on March 10th, 1977, by James L. Elliot, Edward W. Dunham, and Jessica Mink using the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. During an occultation of the star SAO 158687 (also known as HD 128598), they discerned five rings existing within a system around the planet, and observed four more later.

The rings were directly imaged when Voyager 2 passed Uranus in 1986, and the probe was able to detect two additional faint rings – bringing the number of observed rings to 11. In December 2005, the Hubble Space Telescope detected a pair of previously unknown rings, bringing the total to 13. The largest is located twice as far from Uranus as the previously known rings, hence why they are called the “outer” ring system.

In April 2006, images of the new rings from the Keck Observatory yielded the colors of the outer rings: the outermost is blue and the other one red. In contrast, Uranus’s inner rings appear grey. One hypothesis concerning the outer ring’s blue color is that it is composed of minute particles of water ice from the surface of Mab that are small enough to scatter blue light.

Exploration:

Uranus has only been visited once by any spacecraft: NASA’s Voyager 2 space probe, which flew past the planet in 1986. On January 24th, 1986, Voyager 2 passed within 81,500 km of the surface of the planet, sending back the only close up pictures ever taken of Uranus. Voyager 2 then continued on to make a close encounter with Neptune in 1989.

These two pictures of Uranus -- one in true color (left) and the other in false color -- were compiled from images returned Jan. 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL
These two pictures of Uranus — one in true color (left) and the other in false color — were compiled from images returned Jan. 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL

The possibility of sending the Cassini spacecraft from Saturn to Uranus was evaluated during a mission extension planning phase in 2009. However, this never came to fruition, as it would have taken about twenty years for Cassini to get to the Uranian system after departing Saturn.

In terms of future missions, multiple proposals have been made. For instance, a Uranus orbiter and probe was recommended by the 2013–2022 Planetary Science Decadal Survey published in 2011. This proposal envisaged a launch taking place between 2020–2023 and a 13-year cruise to Uranus. A New Frontiers Uranus Orbiter has been evaluated and was recommended in the study, The Case for a Uranus Orbiter. However, this mission is considered to be lower-priority than future missions to Mars and the Jovian System.

Scientists from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the United Kingdom have proposed a joint NASA-ESA mission to Uranus known as Uranus Pathfinder. This mission would involve launching a medium-class mission by 2022, and estimates place its cost at €470 million (~$525 million USD).

Another mission to Uranus, called Herschel Orbital Reconnaissance of the Uranian System (HORUS), was designed by the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. The proposal is for a nuclear-powered orbiter carrying a set of instruments, including an imaging camera, spectrometers and a magnetometer. The mission would launch in April 2021 and arrive at Uranus 17 years later.

Uranus. Image credit: Hubble
Uranus, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/Hubble

In 2009, a team of planetary scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory advanced possible designs for a solar-powered Uranus orbiter. The most favorable launch window for such a probe would be in August 2018, with arrival at Uranus in September 2030. The science package may include magnetometers, particle detectors and, possibly, an imaging camera.

Suffice it to say, Uranus is a hard target when it comes to exploration, and its distance has made the process of observing it recognizing it for what it was problematic in the past. And in the future, with most of our mission focused on exploring Mars, Europa, and Near-Earth Asteroids, the prospect of a mission to this region of the Solar System doesn’t seem very likely.

But budget environments change, as do scientific priorities. And with interest in the Kuiper Belt exploding thanks to the discovery of many Trans-Neptunian Objects in recent years, it is entirely possible that scientists will demand that a mission to the out solar system be mounted. If and when one occurs, it may be possible to have the probe swing by Uranus on its way out, gathering information and pictures to help advance our understanding of this “Ice Giant”.

We have many interesting articles about Uranus here at Universe Today. We hope you find what you are looking for in the list below:

The Dwarf Planet Quaoar

Credit: reborbit.com

The vast Kuiper Belt, which orbits at the outer edge of our Solar System, has been the site of many exciting discoveries in the past decade or so. Otherwise known as the Trans-Neptunian region, small bodies have been discovered here that have confounded our notions of what constitutes a planet and thrown our entire classification system for a loop. Of these, the most famous (and controversial) discovery was undoubtedly Eris.

First observed in 2005 by Mike Brown and his team, the discovery of Eris overturned decades of astronomical conventions. But both before and since then, many other “dwarf planets“, “plutoids” and “Trans-Neptunian Objects” (TNOs) have been found that further illustrated the need for reclassification. This includes the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 5000 Quaoar (or just Quaoar), which was actually discovered three years before Eris.

Discovery and Naming:

Quaoar was discovered on June 4th, 2002 by astronomers Chad Trujillo and Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, using images that were obtained with the Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory. The discovery was announced on October 7th, 2002, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. At the time, the object was designated as 2002 LM60, but would soon be renamed by Brown and Caltech his team.

Consistent with the IAU conventions for naming non-resonant Kuiper Belt Objects after creator deities, the object was given the name Quaoar after the Tongva creator god. The Tongva people (otherwise known as the Mission Indians) are native to the area around Los Angeles, where the discovery of Quaoar was made.

Images of Quaoar taken by the Oschin Telescope at Palomar, California, USA. Credit: Chad Trujillo & Michael Brown (Caltech)
Images of Quaoar taken using the Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory, California. Credit: Chad Trujillo & Michael Brown (Caltech)

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Given its distance, accurate measurements of Quaoar have been difficult to obtain. In 2004, Brown and Trujillo made direct measurements of the object with the Hubble Space Telescope and came up with an estimated diameter of  1260 ± 190 km.

However, these estimates were subsequently revised downward in 2013 by teams using a stellar occultation, and with data obtained with the Herschel Observatory’s PACS instrument and the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Combining this information, estimates of its diameter were then changed to between 1110 ± 5 km and 1074±38 km. By these estimates, Quaoar was the largest object to be discovered in the Solar System since the discovery of Pluto. However, it would later be supplanted by the discoveries of Eris, Haumea, and Makemake.

In addition, new techniques and a greater knowledge of KBOs led scientists to conclude that the 2004 HST size estimate for Quaoar was approximately 40% too large, and that a more proper estimate would be about 900 km. Using a weighted average of the SST and corrected HST estimates, Quaoar, as of 2010, is now believed to be about 890±70 km in diameter.

Given these dimensions, Quaoar is roughly one-twelfth the diameter of Earth, one third the diameter of the Moon, and half the size of Pluto. And with an estimated mass of 1.4 ± 0.1 × 1021 kg, Quaoar is about as massive as Pluto’s moon Charon, equivalent to 0.12 times the mass of Eris, and approximately 2.5 times as massive as Orcus. 

Quaoar orbit around the Sun varies slightly, ranging from 45.114 AU (6.75 x 109 km / 4.19 x 109 mi) at aphelion to 41.695 AU (6.24 x 10 km9/3.88 x 109 mi) at perihelion. Quaoar has an orbital period of 284.5 years, and a sidereal rotation period of about 17.68 hours.

Its orbit is also nearly circular and moderately inclined at approximately 8°, which is typical for the population of small classical KBOs, but exceptional among the large KBO. Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, Orcus, Varuna, and Salacia are all on highly inclined, more eccentric orbits.

At 43 AU and with a near-circular orbit, Quaoar is not significantly perturbed by Neptune; unlike Pluto, which is in 2:3 orbital resonance with Neptune. As of 2008, Quaoar was only 14 AU from Pluto, which made it the closest large body to the Pluto–Charon system. By Kuiper Belt standards this is very close.

The orbit of Quaoar (yellow) and various other cubewanos compared to the orbit of Neptune (blue) and Pluto (pink)
The orbit of Quaoar (yellow) and various other cubewanos compared to the orbit of Neptune (blue) and Pluto (pink). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kheider

Composition:

At the time of its discovery, not much was known about Kuiper belt objects. However, subsequent findings about this region have led scientists to conclude that the surface of Quaoar is likely to be highly similar to those of the icy satellites of Uranus and Neptune. This includes a low albedo, which could be as low as 0.1, which may be an indication that fresh ice has disappeared from its surface.

The surface is also moderately red, meaning that Quaoar is relatively more reflective in the red and near-infrared than in the blue. A 2006 model of internal heating via radioactive decay suggested that, unlike Orcus, Quaoar may not be capable of sustaining an internal ocean of liquid water at the mantle-core boundary.

Observations of Quaoar in the near infrared spectrum have indicated the presence of a small quantities of methane and ethane ice (about 5%). Scientists have also been surprised to find signs of crystalline ice on Quaoar, which is caused by sublimation and refreezing of water. This would indicate that the temperature rose to at least -160 °C (110 K or -260 °F) sometime in the last ten million years.

Artist's impression of the size difference between Quaoar Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the size difference between Quaoar, Pluto, Sedna, Earth and the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Speculation as to what could have caused Quaoar to heat up from its natural temperature of -220 °C (55 K or -360 °F) have led to theories ranging from a barrage of mini-meteors that could have raised the temperature, to the presence of cryovolcanism. The latter theory, which is the more widely accepted one, holds that cryovolcanism occurred as a result of the decay of radioactive elements within Quaoar’s core.

Some scientist believe that Quaoar was nearly twice its current size before an ancient collision with another object, possibly Pluto, stripped it of its outer mantle. If true, it would mean that Quaoar once had more ice on its surface, and possibly a liquid water ocean at the core-mantle boundary.

Moon:

Quaoar has one known satellite, which was discovered on February 22nd, 2007. It orbits its primary at a distance of 14,500 km and has an orbital eccentricity of 0.14. Based on the assumption that the moon has the same albedo and density as Quaoar, the apparent magnitude of the moon indicates that it is 74 km in diameter and has 1/2000 the mass of Quaoar.

In terms of where it came from, Brown has suggested that it may be a remnant from a collision, which lost most of its mantle ice in the process. The choice for naming the moon was deferred to the Tongva people themselves, who selected the sky god Weymot, who is the son of Quaoar in Tongva mythology. The name became official on October 4th, 2009, with the publication of the Minor Planet Center’s latest issue.

Artist’s impression of the moderately red Quaoar and its moon Weywot. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)
Artist’s impression of the moderately red Quaoar and its moon Weywot.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)

Classification:

According to the IAU, a dwarf planet is any celestial body that orbits a star, is massive enough to have become spherical under the power of its own gravity, but has not cleared its path of planetesimals, and is not the satellite of another object. Also, it must have enough mass to overcome its own compression and be in hydrostatic equilibrium.

Because Quaoar is a binary object, the mass of the system can be calculated from the orbit of the secondary. From this, Quaoar’s estimated density of 2.2 g/cm³ and its estimated diameter of 820 – 960 km suggest that it is large enough to be a dwarf planet.

This is based in part on estimates made by Mike Brown, who has claimed that rocky bodies around 900 km in diameter are sufficient to relax into hydrostatic equilibrium, whereas icy bodies can reach this state with diameters somewhere between 200 and 400 km.

In addition, Quaoar’s mass (which is believed to be greater than 1.6×1021 kg) is also greater than what the 2006 IAU draft definition of a planet claims is “usually” required for being in hydrostatic equilibrium (5×1020 kg, 800 km). Light-curve-amplitude analysis shows only small deviations, suggesting that Quaoar is indeed a spheroid with small albedo spots.

Therefore, while it is not currently classified as a dwarf planet, it is considered a viable candidate. In the coming years, it may go on to join the ranks of Pluto, Eris, Haumea and Makemake as being officially recognized as such by the IAU and other astronomical bodies.

Exploration:

So far, no missions have been planned to Quaoar. While some have advocated sending the New Horizons mission to visit Quaoar and/or Sedna now that it’s flyby of Pluto is complete, NASA has declared this to be impossible. Much like Sedna, Quaoar is too far from the trajectory of the spacecraft, but also insists that both KBOs will be high on the list of candidate targets for future missions to the outer Solar System.

It has further been calculated that a flyby mission to Quaoar could take 13.57 years, using a Jupiter gravity assist and based on the launch dates of December 25th, 2016, November 22nd, 2027, December 22nd, 2028, January 22nd, 2030, or December 20thm, 2040. During any of these launch windows, Quaoar would be at a distance of 41 to 43 AU from the Sun by the time the spacecraft arrived.

In the meantime, all we can do is wait, and continue to observe Quaoar and its fellow Kuiper Belt Objects from afar. In the coming years, a decision is also likely to be made about whether or not it will be included on the list of the Solar System’s acknowledge dwarf planets.

We have written many articles about Quaoar for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the discovery of Quaoar, and here’s an article about the Kuiper Belt.

If you’d like more info about Dwarf Planets, check out Solar System Exploration Guide on Dwarf Planets, and here’s a link to an article aboutthe dwarf planet, Ceres.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast entitled Episode 194: Dwarf Planets and an interview with Mike Brown himself!

Sources:

The Planet Jupiter

Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Ever since the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, astronomers have been fascinated by the gas giant known as Jupiter. Between its constant, swirling clouds, its many, many moons, and its Giant Red Spot, there are many things about this planet that are both delightful and fascinating.

But perhaps the most impressive feature about Jupiter is its sheer size. In terms of mass, volume, and surface area, Jupiter is the biggest planet in our Solar System by a wide margin. And since people have been aware of its existence for thousands of years, it has played an active role in the cosmological systems many cultures. But just what makes Jupiter so massive, and what else do we know about it?

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Jupiter’s mass, volume, surface area and mean circumference are 1.8981 x 1027 kg, 1.43128 x 1015 km3, 6.1419 x 1010 km2, and 4.39264 x 105 km respectively. To put that in perspective, Jupiter diameter is roughly 11 times that of Earth, and 2.5 the mass of all the other planets in the Solar System combined.

But, being a gas giant, it has a relatively low density – 1.326 g/cm3 – which is less than one quarter of Earth’s. This means that while Jupiter’s volume is equivalent to about 1,321 Earths, it is only 318 times as massive. The low density is one way scientists are able to determine that it is made mostly of gases, though the debate still rages on what exists at its core (see below).

Jupiter orbits the Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 778,299,000 km (5.2 AU), ranging from 740,550,000 km (4.95 AU) at perihelion and 816,040,000 km (5.455 AU) at aphelion. At this distance, Jupiter takes 11.8618 Earth years to complete a single orbit of the Sun. In other words, a single Jovian year lasts the equivalent of 4,332.59 Earth days.

However, Jupiter’s rotation is the fastest of all the Solar System’s planets, completing a rotation on its axis in slightly less than ten hours (9 hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds to be exact. Therefore, a single Jovian year lasts 10,475.8 Jovian solar days. This orbital period is two-fifths that of Saturn, which means that the two largest planets in our Solar System form a 5:2 orbital resonance.

Structure and Composition:

Jupiter is composed primarily of gaseous and liquid matter. It is the largest of the gas giants, and like them, is divided between a gaseous outer atmosphere and an interior that is made up of denser materials. It’s upper atmosphere is composed of about 88–92% hydrogen and 8–12% helium by percent volume of gas molecules, and approx. 75% hydrogen and 24% helium by mass, with the remaining one percent consisting of other elements.

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons
This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

The atmosphere contains trace amounts of methane, water vapor, ammonia, and silicon-based compounds as well as trace amounts of benzene and other hydrocarbons. There are also traces of carbon, ethane, hydrogen sulfide, neon, oxygen, phosphine, and sulfur. Crystals of frozen ammonia have also been observed in the outermost layer of the atmosphere.

The interior contains denser materials, such that the distribution is roughly 71% hydrogen, 24% helium and 5% other elements by mass. It is believed that Jupiter’s core is a dense mix of elements – a surrounding layer of liquid metallic hydrogen with some helium, and an outer layer predominantly of molecular hydrogen. The core has also been described as rocky, but this remains unknown as well.

In 1997, the existence of the core was suggested by gravitational measurements, indicating a mass of from 12 to 45 times the Earth’s mass, or roughly 4%–14% of the total mass of Jupiter. The presence of a core is also supported by models of planetary formation that indicate how a rocky or icy core would have been necessary at some point in the planet’s history in order to collect all of its hydrogen and helium from the protosolar nebula.

However, it is possible that this core has since shrunk due to convection currents of hot, liquid, metallic hydrogen mixing with the molten core. This core may even be absent now, but a detailed analysis is needed before this can be confirmed. The Juno mission, which launched in August 2011 (see below), is expected to provide some insight into these questions, and thereby make progress on the problem of the core.

The temperature and pressure inside Jupiter increase steadily toward the core. At the “surface”, the pressure and temperature are believed to be 10 bars and 340 K (67 °C, 152 °F). At the “phase transition” region, where hydrogen becomes metallic, it is believed the temperature is 10,000 K (9,700 °C; 17,500 °F) and the pressure is 200 GPa. The temperature at the core boundary is estimated to be 36,000 K (35,700 °C; 64,300 °F) and the interior pressure at roughly 3,000–4,500 GPa.

Jupiter’s Moons:

The Jovian system currently includes 67 known moons. The four largest are known as the Galilean Moons, which are named after their discoverer, Galileo Galilei. They include: Io, the most volcanically active body in our Solar System; Europa, which is suspected of having a massive subsurface ocean; Ganymede, the largest moon in our Solar System; and Callisto, which is also thought to have a subsurface ocean and features some of the oldest surface material in the Solar System.

Then there’s the Inner Group (or Amalthea group), which is made up of four small moons that have diameters of less than 200 km, orbit at radii less than 200,000 km, and have orbital inclinations of less than half a degree. This groups includes the moons of Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe. Along with a number of as-yet-unseen inner moonlets, these moons replenish and maintain Jupiter’s faint ring system.

Jupiter also has an array of Irregular Satellites, which are substantially smaller and have more distant and eccentric orbits than the others. These moons are broken down into families that have similarities in orbit and composition, and are believed to be largely the result of collisions from large objects that were captured by Jupiter’s gravity.

Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA
Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA

Atmosphere and Storms:

Much like Earth, Jupiter experiences auroras near its northern and southern poles. But on Jupiter, the auroral activity is much more intense and rarely ever stops. The intense radiation, Jupiter’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere create a light show that is truly spectacular.

Jupiter also experiences violent weather patterns. Wind speeds of 100 m/s (360 km/h) are common in zonal jets, and can reach as high as 620 kph (385 mph). Storms form within hours and can become thousands of km in diameter overnight. One storm, the Great Red Spot, has been raging since at least the late 1600s. The storm has been shrinking and expanding throughout its history; but in 2012, it was suggested that the Giant Red Spot might eventually disappear.

Jupiter is perpetually covered with clouds composed of ammonia crystals and possibly ammonium hydrosulfide. These clouds are located in the tropopause and are arranged into bands of different latitudes, known as “tropical regions”. The cloud layer is only about 50 km (31 mi) deep, and consists of at least two decks of clouds: a thick lower deck and a thin clearer region.

There may also be a thin layer of water clouds underlying the ammonia layer, as evidenced by flashes of lightning detected in the atmosphere of Jupiter, which would be caused by the water’s polarity creating the charge separation needed for lightning. Observations of these electrical discharges indicate that they can be up to a thousand times as powerful as those observed here on the Earth.

A color composite image of the June 3rd Jupiter impact flash. Credit: Anthony Wesley of Broken Hill, Australia.
A color composite image of the June 3rd Jupiter impact flash. Credit: Anthony Wesley

Historical Observations of the Planet:

As a planet that can be observed with the naked eye, humans have known about the existence of Jupiter for thousands of years. It has therefore played a vital role in the mythological and astrological systems of many cultures. The first recorded mentions of it date back to the Babylon Empire of the 7th and 8th centuries BCE.

In the 2nd century, the Greco-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy constructed his famous geocentric planetary model that contained deferents and epicycles to explain the orbit of Jupiter relative to the Earth (i.e. retrograde motion). In his work, the Almagest, he ascribed an orbital period of 4332.38 days to Jupiter (11.86 years).

In 499, Aryabhata – a mathematician-astronomer from the classical age of India – also used a geocentric model to estimate Jupiter’s period as 4332.2722 days, or 11.86 years. It has also been ventured that the Chinese astronomer Gan De discovered Jupiter’s moons in 362 BCE without the use of instruments. If true, it would mean that Galileo was not the first to discovery the Jovian moons two millennia later.

In 1610, Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to use a telescope to observe the planets. In the course of his examinations of the outer Solar System, he discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter (now known as the Galilean Moons). The discovery of moons other than Earth’s was a major point in favor of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the motions of the planets.

The first star party? Galileo shows of the sky in Saint Mark's square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. (Illustration in the Public Domain).
Galileo shows of the sky in Saint Mark’s square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. Credit: Public Domain

During the 1660s, Cassini used a new telescope to discover Jupiter’s spots and colorful bands and observed that the planet appeared to be an oblate spheroid. By 1690, he was also able to estimate the rotation period of the planet and noticed that the atmosphere undergoes differential rotation. In 1831, German astronomer Heinrich Schwabe produced the earliest known drawing to show details of the Great Red Spot.

In 1892, E. E. Barnard observed a fifth satellite of Jupiter using the refractor telescope at the Lick Observatory in California. This relatively small object was later named Amalthea, and would be the last planetary moon to be discovered directly by visual observation.

In 1932, Rupert Wildt identified absorption bands of ammonia and methane in the spectra of Jupiter; and by 1938, three long-lived anticyclonic features termed “white ovals” were observed. For several decades, they remained as separate features in the atmosphere, sometimes approaching each other but never merging. Finally, two of the ovals merged in 1998, then absorbed the third in 2000, becoming Oval BA.

Beginning in the 1950s, radiotelescopic research of Jupiter began. This was due to astronomers Bernard Burke and Kenneth Franklin’s detection of radio signals coming from Jupiter in 1955. These bursts of radio waves, which corresponded to the rotation of the planet, allowed Burke and Franklin to refine estimates of the planet’s rotation rate.

Infrared image of Jupiter from SOFIA’s First Light flight composed of individual images at wavelengths of 5.4 (blue), 24 (green) and 37 microns (red) made by Cornell University’s FORCAST camera. A recent visual-wavelength picture of approximately the same side of Jupiter is shown for comparison. The white stripe in the infrared image is a region of relatively transparent clouds through which the warm interior of Jupiter can be seen. (Visual image credit: Anthony Wesley)
Infrared image of Jupiter from SOFIA’s First Light flight composed of individual images at wavelengths made by Cornell University’s FORCAST camera. Credit: Anthony Wesley/Cornell University

Over time, scientists discovered that there were three forms of radio signals transmitted from Jupiter – decametric radio bursts, decimetric radio emissions, and thermal radiation. Decametric bursts vary with the rotation of Jupiter, and are influenced by the interaction of Io with Jupiter’s magnetic field.

Decimetric radio emissions – which originate from a torus-shaped belt around Jupiter’s equator – are caused by cyclotronic radiation from electrons that are accelerated in Jupiter’s magnetic field. Meanwhile, thermal radiation is produced by heat in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Visualizations of Jupiter using radiotelescopes have allowed astronomers to learn much about its atmosphere, thermal properties and behavior.

Exploration:

Since 1973, a number of automated spacecraft have been sent to the Jovian system and performed planetary flybys that brought them within range of the planet. The most notable of these was Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to get close enough to send back photographs of Jupiter and its moons. Between this mission and Pioneer 11, astronomers learned a great deal about the properties and phenomena of this gas giant.

Artist impression of Pioneer 10 at Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Artist impression of Pioneer 10 at Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL

For example, they discovered that the radiation fields near the planet were much stronger than expected. The trajectories of these spacecraft were also used to refine the mass estimates of the Jovian system, and radio occultations by the planet resulted in better measurements of Jupiter’s diameter and the amount of polar flattening.

Six years later, the Voyager missions began, which vastly improved the understanding of the Galilean moons and discovered Jupiter’s rings. They also confirmed that the Great Red Spot was anticyclonic, that its hue had changed sine the Pioneer missions – turning from orange to dark brown – and spotted lightning on its dark side. Observations were also made of Io, which showed a torus of ionized atoms along its orbital path and volcanoes on its surface.

On December 7th, 1995, the Galileo orbiter became the first probe to establish orbit around Jupiter, where it would remain for seven years. During its mission, it conducted multiple flybys of all the Galilean moons and Amalthea and deployed an probe into the atmosphere. It was also in the perfect position to witness the impact of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 as it approached Jupiter in 1994.

On September 21st, 2003, Galileo was deliberately steered into the planet and crashed in its atmosphere at a speed of 50 km/s, mainly to avoid crashing and causing any possible contamination to Europa – a moon which is believed to harbor life.

Artist impression of New Horizons with Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
Artist impression of New Horizons with Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

Data gathered by both the probe and orbiter revealed that hydrogen composes up to 90% of Jupiter’s atmosphere. The temperatures data recorded was more than 300 °C (570 °F) and the wind speed measured more than 644 kmph (400 mph) before the probe vaporized.

In 2000, the Cassini probe (while en route to Saturn) flew by Jupiter and provided some of the highest-resolution images ever taken of the planet. While en route to Pluto, the New Horizons space probe flew by Jupiter and measured the plasma output from Io’s volcanoes, studied all four Galileo moons in detail, and also conducting long-distance observations of Himalia and Elara.

NASA’s Juno mission, which launched in August 2011, achieved orbit around the Jovian planet on July 4th, 2016. The purpose of this mission to study Jupiter’s interior, its atmosphere, its magnetosphere and gravitational field, ultimately for the purpose of determining the history of the planet’s formation (which will shed light on the formation of the Solar System).

As the probe entered its polar elliptical orbit on July 4th after completing a 35-minute-long firing of the main engine, known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion (or JOI). As the probe approached Jupiter from above its north pole, it was afforded a view of the Jovian system, which it took a final picture of before commencing JOI.

Illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin
Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

On July 10th, the Juno probe transmitted its first imagery from orbit after powering back up its suite of scientific instruments. The images were taken when the spacecraft was 4.3 million km (2.7 million mi) from Jupiter and on the outbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit. The color image shows atmospheric features on Jupiter, including the famous Great Red Spot, and three of the massive planet’s four largest moons – Io, Europa and Ganymede, from left to right in the image.

The next planned mission to the Jovian system will be performed by the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), due to launch in 2022, followed by NASA’s Europa Clipper mission in 2025.

Exoplanets:

The discovery of exoplanets has revealed that planets can get even bigger than Jupiter. In fact, the number of “Super Jupiters” observed by the Kepler space probe (as well as ground-based telescopes) in the past few years has been staggering. In fact, as of 2015, more than 300 such planets have been identified.

Notable examples include PSR B1620-26 b (Methuselah), which was the first super-Jupiter to be observed (in 2003). At 12.7 billion years of age, it is also the third oldest known planet in the universe. There’s also HD 80606 b (Niobe), which has the most eccentric orbit of any known planet, and 2M1207b (Lerna), which orbits the brown dwarf Fomalhaut b (Illion).

Here’s an interesting fact. Scientist theorize that a gas gain could get 15 times the size of Jupiter before it began deuterium fusion, making it a brown dwarf star. Good thing too, since the last thing the Solar System needs is for Jupiter to go nova!

Jupiter was appropriately named by the ancient Romans, who chose to name after the king of the Gods (also known as Jove). The more we have come to know and understand about this most-massive of Solar planets, the more deserving of this name it appears.

We have many interesting articles on Jupiter here at Universe Today. Here are some articles on the color and gravity of Jupiter, how it got its name, and how it shaped our Solar System.

Got questions about Jupiter’s greater mysteries? Then here’s Does Jupiter Have a Solid Core?, Could Jupiter Become a Star?, Could We Live on Jupiter?, and Could We Terraform Jupiter?

We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast.

What is the Asteroid Belt?

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

In the 18th century, observations made of all the known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) led astronomers to discern a pattern in their orbits. Eventually, this led to the Titius–Bode Law, which predicted the amount of space between the planets. In accordance with this law, there appeared to be a discernible gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and investigation into it led to a major discovery.

In addition to several larger objects being observed, astronomers began to notice countless smaller bodies also orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. This led to the creation of the term “asteroid”, as well as “Asteroid Belt” once it became clear just how many there were. Since that time, the term has entered common usage and become a mainstay of our astronomical models.

Discovery:

In 1800, hoping to resolve the issue created by the Titius-Bode Law, astronomer Baron Franz Xaver von Zach recruited 24 of his fellow astronomers into a club known as the “United Astronomical Society” (sometimes referred to the as “Stellar Police”). At the time, its ranks included famed astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered Uranus and its moons in the 1780s.

Ironically, the first astronomer to make a discovery in this regions was Giuseppe Piazzi – the chair of astronomy at the University of Palermo – who had been asked to join the Society but had not yet received the invitation. On January 1st, 1801, Piazzi observed a tiny object in an orbit with the exact radius predicted by the Titius-Bode law.

Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.)
Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.

Initially, he believed it to be a comet, but ongoing observations showed that it had no coma. This led Piazzi to consider that the object he had found – which he named “Ceres” after the Roman goddess of the harvest and patron of Sicily – could, in fact, be a planet. Fifteen months later, Heinrich Olbers ( a member of the Society) discovered a second object in the same region, which was later named 2 Pallas.

In appearance, these objects seemed indistinguishable from stars. Even under the highest telescope magnifications, they did not resolve into discs. However, their rapid movement was indicative of a shared orbit. Hence, William Herschel suggested that they be placed into a separate category called “asteroids” – Greek for “star-like”.

By 1807, further investigation revealed two new objects in the region, 3 Juno and 4 Vesta; and by 1845, 5 Astraea was found. Shortly thereafter, new objects were found at an accelerating rate, and by the early 1850s, the term “asteroids” gradually came into common use. So too did the term “Asteroid Belt”, though it is unclear who coined that particular term. However, the term “Main Belt” is often used to distinguish it from the Kuiper Belt.

One hundred asteroids had been located by mid-1868, and in 1891 the introduction of astrophotography by Max Wolf accelerated the rate of discovery even further. A total of 1,000 asteroids were found by 1921, 10,000 by 1981, and 100,000 by 2000. Modern asteroid survey systems now use automated means to locate new minor planets in ever-increasing quantities.

The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Structure:

Despite common perceptions, the Asteroid Belt is mostly empty space, with the asteroids spread over a large volume of space. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of asteroids are currently known, and the total number ranges in the millions or more. Over 200 asteroids are known to be larger than 100 km in diameter, and a survey in the infrared wavelengths has shown that the asteroid belt has 0.7–1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km (0.6 mi) or more.

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the belt ranges from 2.2 to 3.2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and is 1 AU thick. Its total mass is estimated to be 2.8×1021 to 3.2×1021 kilograms – which is equivalent to about 4% of the Moon’s mass. The four largest objects – Ceres, 4 Vesta, 2 Pallas, and 10 Hygiea – account for half of the belt’s total mass, with almost one-third accounted for by Ceres alone.

The main (or core) population of the asteroid belt is sometimes divided into three zones, which are based on what is known as Kirkwood Gaps. Named after Daniel Kirkwood, who announced in 1866 the discovery of gaps in the distance of asteroids, these describe the dimensions of an asteroid’s orbit based on its semi-major axis.

Within this scheme, there are three zones. Zone I lies between the 4:1 resonance and 3:1 resonance Kirkwood gaps, which are 2.06 and 2.5 AU from the Sun respectively. Zone II continues from the end of Zone I out to the 5:2 resonance gap, which is 2.82 AU from the Sun. Zone III extends from the outer edge of Zone II to the 2:1 resonance gap at 3.28 AU.

The asteroid belt may also be divided into the inner and outer belts, with the inner belt formed by asteroids orbiting nearer to Mars than the 3:1 Kirkwood gap (2.5 AU), and the outer belt formed by those asteroids closer to Jupiter’s orbit.

The asteroids that have a radius of 2.06 AU from the Sun can be considered the inner boundary of the asteroid belt. Perturbations by Jupiter send bodies straying there into unstable orbits. Most bodies formed inside the radius of this gap were swept up by Mars (which has an aphelion at 1.67 AU) or ejected by its gravitational perturbations in the early history of the Solar System.

The temperature of the Asteroid Belt varies with the distance from the Sun. For dust particles within the belt, typical temperatures range from 200 K (-73 °C) at 2.2 AU down to 165 K (-108 °C) at 3.2 AU. However, due to rotation, the surface temperature of an asteroid can vary considerably as the sides are alternately exposed to solar radiation and then to the stellar background.

Composition:

Much like the terrestrial planets, most asteroids are composed of silicate rock while a small portion contains metals such as iron and nickel. The remaining asteroids are made up of a mix of these, along with carbon-rich materials. Some of the more distant asteroids tend to contain more ices and volatiles, which includes water ice.

Vesta seen from the Earth-orbit based Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 (left) and up close with the Dawn spacecraft in 2011. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. McFadden (University of Maryland). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell
Vesta seen from the Earth-orbit based Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 (left) and up close with the Dawn spacecraft in 2011. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. McFadden (University of Maryland). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell

The Main Belt consists primarily of three categories of asteroids: C-type, or carbonaceous asteroids; S-type, or silicate asteroids; and M-type, or metallic asteroids. Carbonaceous asteroids are carbon-rich, dominate the belt’s outer regions, and comprise over 75% of the visible asteroids. Their surface composition is similar to that of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites while their spectra is similar to what the early Solar System’s is believed to be.

S-type (silicate-rich) asteroids are more common toward the inner region of the belt, within 2.5 AU of the Sun. These are typically composed of silicates and some metals, but not a significant amount of carbonaceous compounds. This indicates that their materials have been modified significantly over time, most likely through melting and reformation.

M-type (metal-rich) asteroids form about 10% of the total population and are composed of iron-nickel and some silicate compounds. Some are believed to have originated from the metallic cores of differentiated asteroids, which were then fragmented from collisions. Within the asteroid belt, the distribution of these types of asteroids peaks at a semi-major axis of about 2.7 AU from the Sun.

There’s also the mysterious and relatively rare V-type (or basaltic) asteroids. This group takes their name from the fact that until 2001, most basaltic bodies in the Asteroid Belt were believed to have originated from the asteroid Vesta. However, the discovery of basaltic asteroids with different chemical compositions suggests a different origin. Current theories of asteroid formation predict that the V-type asteroids should be more plentiful, but 99% of those that have been predicted are currently missing.

Families and Groups:

Approximately one-third of the asteroids in the asteroid belt are members of an asteroid family. These are based on similarities in orbital elements – such as semi-major axis, eccentricity, orbital inclinations, and similar spectral features, all of which indicate a common origin. Most likely, this would have involved collisions between larger objects (with a mean radius of ~10 km) that then broke up into smaller bodies.

This artist's conception shows how families of asteroids are created. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s conception shows how families of asteroids are created. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of the most prominent families in the asteroid belt are the Flora, Eunomia, Koronis, Eos, and Themis families. The Flora family, one of the largest with more than 800 known members, may have formed from a collision less than a billion years ago. Located within the inner region of the Belt, this family is made up of S-type asteroids and accounts for roughly 4-5% of all Belt objects.

The Eunomia family is another large grouping of S-type asteroids, which takes its name from the Greek goddess Eunomia (goddess of law and good order). It is the most prominent family in the intermediate asteroid belt and accounts for 5% of all asteroids.

The Koronis family consists of 300 known asteroids which are thought to have been formed at least two billion years ago by a collision. The largest known, 208 Lacrimosa, is about 41 km (25 mi) in diameter, while an additional 20 more have been found that are larger than 25 km in diameter.

The Eos (or Eoan) family is a prominent family of asteroids that orbit the Sun at a distance of 2.96 – 3.03 AUs, and are believed to have formed from a collision 1-2 billion years ago. It consists of 4,400 known members that resemble the S-type asteroid category. However, the examination of Eos and other family members in the infrared show some differences with the S-type, thus why they have their own category (K-type asteroids).

Asteroids we've seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering on comets. Credit: NASA
Asteroids we’ve seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering on comets. Credit: NASA

The Themis asteroid family is found in the outer portion of the asteroid belt, at a mean distance of 3.13 AU from the Sun.  This core group includes the asteroid 24 Themis (for which it is named) and is one of the more populous asteroid families. It is made up of C-type asteroids with a composition believed to be similar to that of carbonaceous chondrites and consists of a well-defined core of larger asteroids and a surrounding region of smaller ones.

The largest asteroid to be a true member of a family is 4 Vesta. The Vesta family is believed to have formed as the result of a crater-forming impact on Vesta. Likewise, the HED meteorites may also have originated from Vesta as a result of this collision.

Along with the asteroid bodies, the asteroid belt also contains bands of dust with particle radii of up to a few hundred micrometers. This fine material is produced, at least in part, from collisions between asteroids, and by the impact of micrometeorites upon the asteroids. Three prominent bands of dust have been found within the asteroid belt – which have similar orbital inclinations as the Eos, Koronis, and Themis asteroid families – and so are possibly associated with those groupings.

Origin:

Originally, the Asteroid Belt was thought to be the remnants of a much larger planet that occupied the region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This theory was originally suggested by Heinrich Olbders to William Herschel as a possible explanation for the existence of Ceres and Pallas. However, this hypothesis has since fallen out of favor for a number of reasons.

Artist's impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the early Solar System, where collisions between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

First, there is the amount of energy it would have required to destroy a planet, which would have been staggering. Second, there is the fact that the entire mass of the Belt is only 4% that of the Moon.  Third, the significant chemical differences between the asteroids do not point towards them having been once part of a single planet.

Today, the scientific consensus is that, rather than fragmenting from a progenitor planet, the asteroids are remnants from the early Solar System that never formed a planet at all. During the first few million years of the Solar System’s history, when gravitational accretion led to the formation of the planets, clumps of matter in an accretion disc coalesced to form planetesimals. These, in turn, came together to form planets.

However, within the region of the Asteroid Belt, planetesimals were too strongly perturbed by Jupiter’s gravity to form a planet. These objects would continue to orbit the Sun as before, occasionally colliding and producing smaller fragments and dust.

During the early history of the Solar System, the asteroids also melted to some degree, allowing elements within them to be partially or completely differentiated by mass. However, this period would have been necessarily brief due to their relatively small size, and likely ended about 4.5 billion years ago, in the first tens of millions of years of the Solar System’s formation.

Though they are dated to the early history of the Solar System, the asteroids (as they are today) are not samples of its primordial self. They have undergone considerable evolution since their formation, including internal heating, surface melting from impacts, space weathering from radiation, and bombardment by micrometeorites. Hence, the Asteroid Belt today is believed to contain only a small fraction of the mass of the primordial belt.

Computer simulations suggest that the original asteroid belt may have contained as much mass as Earth. Primarily because of gravitational perturbations, most of the material was ejected from the belt a million years after its formation, leaving behind less than 0.1% of the original mass. Since then, the size distribution of the asteroid belt is believed to have remained relatively stable.

When the asteroid belt was first formed, the temperatures at a distance of 2.7 AU from the Sun formed a “snow line” below the freezing point of water. Essentially, planetesimals formed beyond this radius were able to accumulate ice, some of which may have provided a water source of Earth’s oceans (even more so than comets).

Exploration:

The asteroid belt is so thinly populated that several unmanned spacecraft have been able to move through it; either as part of a long-range mission to the outer Solar System, or (in recent years) as a mission to study larger Asteroid Belt objects. In fact, due to the low density of materials within the Belt, the odds of a probe running into an asteroid are now estimated at less than one in a billion.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first spacecraft to make a journey through the asteroid belt was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which entered the region on July 16th, 1972. As part of a mission to Jupiter, the craft successfully navigated through the Belt and conducted a flyby of Jupiter (which culminated in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

At the time, there were concerns that the debris would pose a hazard to the Pioneer 10 space probe. But since that mission, 11 additional spacecraft passed through the Asteroid Belt without incident. These included Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, NEAR, Cassini, Stardust, New Horizons, the ESA’s Rosetta, and most recently, the Dawn spacecraft.

For the most part, these missions were part of missions to the outer Solar System, where opportunities to photograph and study asteroids were brief. Only the Dawn, NEAR and JAXA’s Hayabusa missions have studied asteroids for a protracted period in orbit and at the surface. Dawn explored Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012 and is currently orbiting Ceres (and sending back many interesting pictures of its surface features).

And someday, if all goes well, humanity might even be in a position to begin mining the asteroid belt for resources – such as precious metals, minerals, and volatiles. These resources could be mined from an asteroid and then used in space of in-situ utilization (i.e. turning them into construction materials and rocket propellant), or brought back to Earth.

It is even possible that humanity might one day colonize larger asteroids and establish outposts throughout the Belt. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of exploring left to do, and quite possibly millions of more objects out there to study.

We have written many articles about the asteroid belt for Universe Today. Here’s Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, and Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?.

Also, be sure to learn which is the Largest Asteroid in the Solar System, and about the asteroid named after Leonard Nimoy. And here’s 10 Interesting Facts about Asteroids.

We also have many interesting articles about the Dawn spacecraft’s mission to Vesta and Ceres, and asteroid mining.

To learn more, check out NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science Page on asteroids, and the Hubblesite’s News Releases about Asteroids.

Astronomy Cast also some interesting episodes about asteroids, like Episode 55: The Asteroid Belt and Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.

Sources:

The Dwarf Planet (and Plutoid) Makemake

Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA

In 2003, astronomer Mike Brown and his team from Caltech began a discovery process which would change the way we think of our Solar System. Initially, it was the discovery of a body with a comparable mass to Pluto (Eris) that challenged the definition of the word “planet”. But in the months and years that followed, more discoveries would be made that further underlined the need for a new system of classification.

This included the discovery of Haumea, Orcus and Salacia in 2004, and Makemake in 2005. Like many other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) discovered in the past decade, this planet’s status is the subject of some debate. However, the IAU was quick to designate it as the fourth dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third “Plutoid“.

Discovery and Naming:

Makemake was discovered on March 31st, 2005, at the Palomar Observatory by a team consisting of Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rainowitz. The discovery was announced to the public on July 29th, 2005, coincident with the announcement of the discovery of Eris. Originally, Brown and his team had been intent on waiting for further confirmation, but chose to proceed after a different team in Spain announced the discovery of Haumea on July 27th.

The provisional designation of 2005 FY9 was given to Makemake when the discovery was first made public. Before that, the discovery team used the codename “Easterbunny” for the object, because it was observed shortly after Easter. In July of 2008, in accordance with IAU rules for classical Kuiper Belt Objects, 2005 FY9 was given the name of a creator deity.

 Photograph of Makemake taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Mike Brown
Photograph of Makemake taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Mike Brown

In order to preserve the object’s connection with Easter, the object was given a name derived from the mythos of the Rapa Nui (the native people of Easter Island) to whom Makemake is the creator God. It was officially classified as a dwarf planet and a plutoid by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) on July 19th, 2008.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Based on infrared observations conducted by Brown and his team using the Spitzer Space Telescope, which were compared to similar observations made by the Herschel Space Telescope, an estimated diameter of 1,360 – 1,480 km was made. Subsequent observations made during the 2011 stellar occulation by Makemake produced estimated dimensions of 1502 ± 45 × 1430 ± 9 km.

Estimates of its mass place it in the vicinity of 4 x 10²¹ kg (4,000,000,000 trillion kg), which is the equivalent of 0.00067 Earths. This makes Makemake the third largest known Trans-Neptunian Object (TNOs) – smaller than Pluto and Eris, and slightly larger than Haumea.

Makemake has a slightly eccentric orbit (of 0.159), which ranges from 38.590 AU (5.76 billion km/3.58 billion mi) at perihelion to 52.840 AU ( 7.94 billion km or 4.934 billion miles) at aphelion. It has an orbital period of 309.09 Earth years, and takes about 7.77 Earth hours to complete a single sidereal rotation. This means that a single day on Makemake is less than 8 hours and a single year last as long as 112,897 days.

A selection of dwarf planets, sometimes considered trans-Neptunian objects depending on their interactions with the planet Neptune. Credit: NASA/STSci
A selection of dwarf planets, sometimes considered trans-Neptunian objects depending on their interactions with the planet Neptune. Credit: NASA/STSci

As a classical Kuiper Belt Object, Makemake’s orbit lies far enough from Neptune to remain stable over the age of the Solar System. Unlike plutinos, which can cross Neptune’s orbit, classical KBOs are free from Neptune’s perturbation. Such objects have relatively low eccentricities (below 0.2) and orbit the Sun in much the same way the planets do. Makemake, however, is a member of the “dynamically hot” class of classical KBOs, meaning that it has a high inclination compared to others in its population.

Composition and Surface:

With an estimated mean density of 1.4–3.2 g/cm³, Makemake is believed to be differentiated between an icy surface and a rocky core. Like Pluto and Eris, the surface ice is believed to be composed largely of frozen methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6). Though evidence exists for traces of nitrogen ice as well, it is nowhere near as prevalent as with Pluto or Triton.

Javier Licandro and his colleagues at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias performed examinations of Makemake using the William Herschel Telescope and Telescopio Nazionale Galileo. According to their findings, Makemake has a very bright surface (with a surface albedo of 0.81) which means it closely resembles that of Pluto.

In essence, it appears reddish in color (significantly more so than Eris), which also indicates strong concentrations of tholins in the surface ice. This is consistent with the presence of methane ice, which would have turned red due to exposure to solar radiation over time.

Atmosphere:

During it’s 2011 occultation with an 18th-magnitutde star, Makemake abruptly blocked all of its light. These results showed that Makemake lacks a substantial atmosphere, which contradicted earlier assumptions about it having an atmosphere comparable to that of Pluto. However, the presence of methane and possibly nitrogen suggests that Makemake could have a transient atmosphere similar to that of Pluto when it reaches perihelion.

Makemake. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the surface of Makemake. Credit: NASA

Essentially, when Makemake is closest to the Sun, nitrogen and other ices would sublimate, forming a tenuous atmosphere composed of nitrogen gas and hydrocarbons. The existence of an atmosphere would also provide a natural explanation for the nitrogen depletion, which could have been lost over time through the process of atmospheric escape.

Moon:

In April of 2016, observations using the Hubble Space Telescope‘s Wide Field Camera 3 revealed that Makemake had a natural satellite – which was designated S/2015 (136472) 1 (nicknamed MK 2 by the discovery team). It is estimated to be 175 km (110 mi) km in diameter and has a semi-major axis at least 21,000 km (13,000 mi) from Makemake.

Exploration:

Currently, no missions have been planned to the Kuiper Belt for the purpose of conducting a survey of Makemake. However, it has been calculated that – based on a launch date of August 21st, 2024, and August 24th, 2036 – a flyby mission to Makemake could take just over 16 years, using a Jupiter gravity assist. On either occasion, Makemake would be approximately 52 AU from the Sun when the spacecraft arrives.

Makemake is now the fourth designated dwarf planet in the solar system, and the third Plutoid. In the coming years, it is likely to be joined several more objects in the Trans-Neptunian region that are similar in size, mass, and orbit. And assuming we mount a flyby to the region, we may discover many similar objects, and learn a great deal more about this one.

We have many interesting articles on Makemake and the Kuiper Belt here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Planets are in the Solar System, and Makemake’s Mysterious Atmosphere.

Sources:

What is the Earth’s Average Temperature?

Earth Observation of sun-glinted ocean and clouds
Earth Observation of sun-glinted ocean and clouds. Credit: NASA

Earth is the only planet in our Solar System where life is known to exists. Note the use of the word “known”, which is indicative of the fact that our knowledge of the Solar System is still in its infancy, and the search for life continues. However, from all observable indications, Earth is the only place in our Solar System where life can – and does – exist on the surface.

This is due to a number of factors, which include Earth’s position relative to the Sun. Being in the “Goldilocks Zone” (aka. habitable zone), and the existence of an atmosphere (and magnetosphere), Earth is able to maintain a stable average temperature on its surface that allows for the existence of warm, flowing water on its surface, and conditions favorable to life.

Variations:

The average temperature on the surface of Earth depends on a number of factors. These include the time of day, the time of year, and where the temperatures measurements are being taken. Given that the Earth experiences a sidereal rotation of approximately 24 hours – which means one side is never always facing towards the Sun – temperatures rise in the day and drop in the evening, sometimes substantially.

And given that Earth has an inclined axis (approximately 23° towards the Sun’s equator), the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of Earth are either tilted towards or away from the Sun during the summer and winter seasons, respectively. And given that equatorial regions of the Earth are closer to the Sun, and certain parts of the world experience more sunlight and less cloud cover, temperatures range widely across the planet.

However, not every region on the planet experiences four seasons. At the equator, the temperature is on average higher and the region does not experience cold and hot seasons in the same way the Northern and Southern Hemispheres do. This is because the amount of sunlight the reaches the equator changes very little, although the temperatures do vary somewhat during the rainy season.

Measurement:

The average surface temperature on Earth is approximately 14°C; but as already noted, this varies. For instance, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 70.7°C (159°F), which was taken in the Lut Desert of Iran. These measurements were part of a global temperature survey conducted by scientists at NASA’s Earth Observatory during the summers of 2003 to 2009. For five of the seven years surveyed (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009) the Lut Desert was the hottest spot on Earth.

However, it was not the hottest spot for every single year in the survey. In 2003, the satellites recorded a temperature of 69.3°C (156.7°F) – the second highest in the seven-year analysis – in the shrublands of Queensland, Australia. And in 2008, the Flaming Mountain got its due, with a yearly maximum temperature of 66.8°C (152.2°F) recorded in the nearby Turpan Basin in western China.

Meanwhile, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was measured at the Soviet Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau. Using ground-based measurements, the temperature reached a historic low of -89.2°C (-129°F) on July 21st, 1983. Analysis of satellite data indicated a probable temperature of around -93.2 °C (-135.8 °F; 180.0 K), also in Antarctica, on August 10th, 2010. However, this reading was not confirmed by ground measurements, and thus the previous record remains.

All of these measurements were based on temperature readings that were performed in accordance with the World Meteorological Organization standard. By these regulations, air temperature is measured out of direct sunlight – because the materials in and around the thermometer can absorb radiation and affect the sensing of heat – and thermometers are to be situated 1.2 to 2 meters off the ground.

Comparison to Other Planets:

Despite variations in temperature according to time of day, season, and location, Earth’s temperatures are remarkably stable compared to other planets in the Solar System. For instance, on Mercury, temperatures range from molten hot to extremely cold, due to its proximity to the Sun, lack of an atmosphere, and its slow rotation. In short, temperatures can reach up to 465 °C on the side facing the Sun, and drop to -184°C on the side facing away from it.

Venus, thanks to its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, is the hottest planet in our Solar System. At its hottest, it can reach temperatures of up to 460 °C on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Mars’ average surface temperature is -55 °C, but the Red Planet also experiences some variability, with temperatures ranging as high as 20 °C at the equator during midday, to as low as -153 °C at the poles.

On average though, it is much colder than Earth, being just on the outer edge of the habitable zone, and because of its thin atmosphere – which is not sufficient to retain heat. In addition, its surface temperature can vary by as much as 20 °C due to Mars’ eccentric orbit around the Sun (meaning that it is closer to the Sun at certain points in its orbit than at others).

Since Jupiter is a gas giant, and has no solid surface, an accurate assessment of it’s “surface temperature” is impossible. But measurements taken from the top of Jupiter’s clouds indicate a temperature of approximately -145°C. Similarly, Saturn is a rather cold gas giant planet, with an average temperature of -178 °Celsius. But because of Saturn’s tilt, the southern and northern hemispheres are heated differently, causing seasonal temperature variation.

Uranus is the coldest planet in our Solar System, with a lowest recorded temperature of -224°C, while temperatures in Neptune’s upper atmosphere reach as low as -218°C. In short, the Solar System runs the gambit from extreme cold to extreme hot, with plenty of variance and only a few places that are temperate enough to sustain life. And of all of those, it is only planet Earth that seems to strike the careful balance required to sustain it perpetually.

Variations Throughout History:

Estimates on the average surface temperature of Earth are somewhat limited due to the fact that temperatures have only been recorded for the past two hundred years. Thus, throughout history the recorded highs and lows have varied considerably. An extreme example of this would during the early history of the Solar System, some 3.75 billion years ago.

At this time, the Sun roughly 25% fainter than it is today, and Earth’s atmosphere was still in the process of formation. Nevertheless, according to some research, it is believed that the Earth’s primordial atmosphere – due to its concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide – could have sustained surface temperatures above freezing.

This data visualization from the AMSR-E instrument on the Aqua satellite show the maximum sea ice extent for 2008-09, which occurred on Feb. 28, 2009. Credit: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio
The Earth has been through five major ice ages in the past 2.4 billion years, including the one we are currently living in. Credit: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Earth has also undergone periodic climate shifts in the past 2.4 billion years, including five major ice ages – known as the Huronian, Cryogenian, Andean-Saharan, Karoo, and Pliocene-Quaternary, respectively. These consisted of glacial periods where the accumulation of snow and ice increased the surface albedo, more of the Sun’s energy was reflected into space, and the planet maintained a lower atmospheric and average surface temperature.

These periods were separated by “inter-glacial periods”, where increases in greenhouse gases – such as those released by volcanic activity – increased the global temperature and produced a thaw. This process, which is also known as “global warming”, has become a source of controversy during the modern age, where human agency has become a dominant factor in climate change. Hence why some geologists use the term “Anthropocene” to refer to this period.

Thanks to increasing concentrations of CO² and other greenhouses gases, which are generated by human activity, average surface temperatures have been steadily increasing since the mid-20th century. For the past few decades, NASA has been charting average surface temperature increases through the Earth Observatory.

This map represents global temperature anomalies averaged from 2008 through 2012. Credit: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies/NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio.
This map represents global temperature anomalies averaged from 2008 through 2012. Credit: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies/NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio.

Internal Temperatures:

When talking about the temperatures of planets, there is a major difference between what is measured at the surface and what conditions exist within the planet’s interior. Essentially, the temperature gets cooler the farther one ventures from the core, which is due to the planet’s internal pressure steadily decreasing the father out one goes. And while scientists have never sent a probe to our planet’s core to obtain accurate measurements, various estimates have been made.

For instance, it is believed that the temperature of the Earth’s inner core is as high as 7000 °C, whereas the outer core is thought to be between 4000 and 6000 °C. Meanwhile, the mantle, the region that lies just below the Earth’s outer crust, is estimated to be around 870 °C. And of course, the temperature continues to steadily cool as you rise in the atmosphere.

In the end, temperatures vary considerably on every planet in our Solar System, due to a multitude of factors. But from what we can tell, Earth is alone in that it experiences temperature variations small enough to achieve a degree of stability. Basically, it is the only place we know of that it is both warm enough and cool enough to support life. Everywhere else is just too extreme!

Universe Today has articles on the temperature of Earth and the temperature of the planets. Here are some interesting facts about planet Earth, and here’s an article about why Earth has seasons.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

For more information, try Earth’s temperature tracker and seasonal temperature cycles.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.