What is the Asteroid Belt?

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.


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 1780’s.

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


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 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. It’s 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.

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.


Most asteroids are composed of rock, but a small portion of them contain 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 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, and their spectra matches the primordial composition of the early Solar System.

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 predicted appear to be 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 is believed to have involve 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, Eunoma, 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 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 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, 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 micrometres. 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.


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 collision 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, planestesimals were too strongly perturbed by Jupiter’s gravity to form a planet. These objects would therefore 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 mass equivalent to the 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).


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 flybys 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 mined be 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 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.

NASA: The Asteroid Belt
NASA: Asteroid

The Dwarf Planet (and Plutoid) Makemake

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.


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.


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.


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.


What is the Earth’s Average Temperature?

Earth Observation of sun-glinted ocean and clouds

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.


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.


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.

What Is A Dwarf Planet?

The term dwarf planet has been tossed around a lot in recent years. As part of a three-way categorization of bodies orbiting the Sun, the term was adopted in 2006 due to the discovery of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune that were comparable in size to Pluto. Since then, it has come to be used to describe many objects in our Solar System, upending the old classification system that claimed there were nine planets.

The term has also led to its fair share of confusion and controversy, with many questioning its accuracy and applicability to bodies like Pluto. Nevertheless, the IAU currently recognizes five bodies within our Solar System as dwarf planets, six more could be recognized in the coming years, and as many as 200 or more could exist within the expanse of the Kuiper Belt.


According to the definition adopted by the IAU in 2006, a dwarf planet is, “a celestial body orbiting a star that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity but has not cleared its neighboring region of planetesimals and is not a satellite. More explicitly, it has to have sufficient mass to overcome its compressive strength and achieve hydrostatic equilibrium.”

In essence, the term is meant to designate any planetary-mass object that is neither a planet nor a natural satellite that fits two basic criteria. For one, it must be in direct orbit of the Sun and not be a moon around another body. Second, it must be massive enough for it to have become spherical in shape under its own gravity. And, unlike a planet, it must have not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

The presently known largest trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) - are likely to be surpassed by future discoveries. Which of these trans-Neptunian objects (TSO) would you call planets and which "dwarf planets"? (Illustration Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)
The largest known trans-Neptunian objects (TNO), shown to scale. Credit: Larry McNish/M.Brown

Size and Mass:

In order for a body to be become rounded, it must be sufficiently massive, to the point that its own gravity is the dominant force effecting it. Here, the internal pressure created by this mass would cause a surface to achieve plasticity, allowing high elevations to sink and hollows to fill in. This does not occur with smaller bodies that are less than a few km in diameter (such as asteroids), which are dominated by forces outside of their own gravity forces and tend to maintain irregular shapes.

Meanwhile, bodies that measure a few kilometers across – where their gravity is more significant but not dominant – tend to be spheroid or “potato-shaped”. The bigger the body is, the higher its internal pressure, until the pressure is sufficient to overcome its internal compressive strength and it achieves hydrostatic equilibrium. At this point, a body is as round as it can possibly be, given its rotation and tidal effects. This is the defining limit of a dwarf planet.

However, rotation can also affect the shape of a dwarf planet. If the body does not rotate, it will be a sphere. But the faster it does rotate, the more oblate or even scalene it becomes. The extreme example of this is Haumea, which is twice as long along its major axis as it is at the poles. Tidal forces also cause a body’s rotation to gradually become tidally locked, such that it always presents the same face to its companion. An extreme example of this is the Pluto-Charon system, where both bodies are tidally locked to each other.

The upper and lower size and mass limits of dwarf planets have not been specified by the IAU. And while the lower limit is defined as the achievement of a hydrostatic equilibrium shape, the size or mass at which an object attains this shape depends on its composition and thermal history.

For example, bodies made of rigid silicates (such as rocky asteroids) should achieve hydrostatic equilibrium at a diameter of approx. 600 km and a mass of 3.4×1020 kg. For a body made of less rigid water ice, the limit would closer to 320 km and 1019 kg. As a result, no specific standard currently exists for defining a dwarf planet based on either its size or mass, but is instead more generally defined based on its shape.

Orbital Dominance:

In addition to hydrostatic equilibrium, many astronomers have insisted that a distinction between planets and dwarf planets be made based on the inability of the latter to “clear the neighborhood around their orbits”. In short, planets are able to remove smaller bodies near their orbits by collision, capture, or gravitational disturbance (or establish orbital resonances that prevent collisions), whereas dwarf planets do not have the requisite mass to do this.

To calculate the likelihood of a planet clearing its orbit, planetary scientists Alan Stern and Harold F. Levison (the former of whom is the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Chief Scientist at Moon Express) introduced a parameter they designated as ? (lambda).

This parameter expresses the likelihood of an encounter resulting in a given deflection of an object’s orbit. The value of this parameter in Stern’s model is proportional to the square of the mass and inversely proportional to the period, and can be used to estimate the capacity of a body to clear the neighborhood of its orbit.

Astronomers like Steven Soter, the scientist-in-residence for NYU and a Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History, have advocated using this parameter to differentiate between planets and dwarf planets. Soter has also proposed a parameter he refers to as the planetary discriminant – designated as µ (mu) – which is calculated by dividing the mass of the body by the total mass of the other objects that share its orbit.

Recognized and Possible Dwarf Planets:

There are currently five dwarf planets: Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumea, and Ceres. Only Ceres and Pluto have been observed enough to indisputably fit into the category. The IAU decided that unnamed Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) with an absolute magnitude brighter than +1 (and a mathematically delimited minimum diameter of 838 km) are to be named as dwarf planets.

Possible candidates that are currently under consideration include Orcus, 2002 MS4, Salacia, Quaoar, 2007 OR10, and Sedna. All of these objects are located in the Kuiper Belt or the Scattered Disc; with the exception of Sedna, which is a detached object – a special class that applies to dynamic TNOs in the outer Solar System.

It is possible that there are another 40 known objects in the solar system that could be rightly classified as dwarf planets. Estimates are that up to 200 dwarf planets may be found when the entire region known as the Kuiper belt is explored, and that the number may exceed 10,000 when objects scattered outside the Kuiper belt are considered.

Pluto and moons Charon, Hydra and Nix (left) compared to the dwarf planet Eris and its moon Dysmonia (right). This picture was taken before Kerberos and Styx were discovered in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Credit: International Astronomical Union
Pluto and moons Charon, Hydra and Nix (left) compared to the dwarf planet Eris and its moon Dysmonia (right). Credit: International Astronomical Union


In the immediate aftermath of the IAU decision regarding the definition of a planet, a number of scientists expressed their disagreement with the IAU resolution. Mike Brown (the leader of the Caltech team that discovered Eris) agrees with the reduction of the number of planets to eight. However, astronomers like Alan Stern have voiced criticism over the IAUs definition.

Stern has contended that much like Pluto, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune have not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits the Sun with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids, which in Stern’s estimation contradicts the notion that it has cleared its orbit. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by a whopping 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.

Thus, in 2011, Stern still referred to Pluto as a planet and accepted other dwarf planets such as Ceres and Eris, as well as the larger moons, as additional planets. However, other astronomers have countered this opinion by saying that, far from not having cleared their orbits, the major planets completely control the orbits of the other bodies within their orbital zone.

Another point of contention is the application of this new definition to planets outside of the Solar System. Techniques for identifying extrasolar objects generally cannot determine whether an object has “cleared its orbit”, except indirectly. As a result, a separate “working” definition for extrasolar planets was established by the IAU in 2001 and includes the criterion that, “The minimum mass/size required for an extrasolar object to be considered a planet should be the same as that used in the Solar System.”

Credit: The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo (phl.upl.edu)
How the current IAU definition applies to exoplanets is a source of controversy for many astronomers. Credit: phl.upl.edu

Beyond the content of the IAU’s decision, there is also the controversy surrounding the decision process itself. Essentially, the final vote involved a relatively small percentage of the IAU General Assembly – 425 out of 9000, or less than 5%. This was due in part to the timing of the vote, which happened on the final day of the ten-day event when many members had already left.

However, supporters of the decision emphasize that a sampling of 400 representative out of a population of 9,000 statistically yields a result with good accuracy. Ergo, even if only 4-5% of the members voted in favor of reclassifying Pluto, the fact that the majority of said members agreed could be taken as a sampling of IAU opinion as a whole.

There is also the issue of the many astronomers who were unable to attend to the conference or who chose not to make the trip to Prague. Astronomer Marla Geha has also clarified that not all members of the Union were needed to vote on the classification issue, and that only those whose work is directly related to planetary studies needed to be involved.

Lastly, NASA has announced that it will use the new guidelines established by the IAU, which constitutes an endorsement or at least acceptance of the IAUs position. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding the 2006 decision is by no means over, and we can expect further developments on this front as more “dwarf planets” are found and designated.

Understanding what is a dwarf planet according to the IAU is easy enough, but making the solar system fit into a three tiered classification system will prove increasingly difficult as our understanding of the universe increases and we are able to see farther and farther into space.

We have written many articles about dwarf planets for Universe Today. Here’s one about Dwarf Planets, and here’s one on Why Pluto is no longer a planet.

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

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Overview: Dwarf Planets, the Solar System Exploration Guide on Dwarf Planets, and Mike Brown’s Dwarf Planet page.

Here is the list of all the known Dwarf Planets and their moons. We hope you find what you are looking for:

Recognized Dwarf Planets:

Possible Dwarf Planets:

The Dwarf Planet Haumea

The Trans-Neptunian region has become a veritable treasure trove of discoveries in recent years. Since 2003, the dwarf planets and “plutoids” of Eris, Sedna, Makemake, Quaoar, and Orcus were all observed beyond the orbit of Pluto. And in between all of these, Haumea – that odd, oblong-shaped dwarf planet that has its own system of moons – was also discovered.

In addition to being the largest member of its particular family of Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), Haumea is unique amongst known dwarf planets. This is due to its elongation, an unusually rapid rotation, two known moons, high density, and high albedo – all of which make Haumea something of an oddity when it comes to dwarf planets.

Discovery and Naming:

While bodies that are designated as dwarf planets tend to attract their share of controversy, dissension over Haumea began as soon as it was discovered. In fact, two teams claim credit for its discovery: Mike Brown and his team at Caltech and Jose Luis Ortiz Moreno and his team from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía at Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain.

The former discovered Haumea in December of 2004 from images they had taken on May 6th, 2004 from the W.M. Keck Observatory. They published an online abstract about their discovery on July 20th, 2005, and announced their discovery at a conference in September of that year. Meanwhile, Ortiz and his team emailed the IAU Minor Planet Center of the discovery of Haumea on July 27th, 2005, claiming they had found it on images taken from March 7th to 10th, 2003.

Keck image of 2003 EL61 Haumea, with moons Hi'iaka and Naumaka. Credit: CalTech/Mike Brown et al.
Keck image of 2003 EL61 Haumea, with moons Hi’iaka and Naumaka. Credit: CalTech/Mike Brown et al.

The IAU announcement on September 17th, 2008, that Haumea had been accepted as a dwarf planet, did not mention a discoverer. The location of discovery was listed as the Sierra Nevada Observatory of the Spanish team, but the chosen name, Haumea, was proposed by the Caltech team.

The name Haumea comes from Hawaiian mythology, specifically from the goddess of fertility who is also the matron goddess of the island of Hawaii where the W. M. Keck Observatory is located. Hence, the name was not only consistent with IAU guidelines – that classical Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) be given names of mythological beings associated with creation – but was also an homage to the facility that made the discovery.

Ortiz’s team had proposed “Ataecina”, named for the ancient Iberian goddess of Spring; but not meet the IAU requirements since she is not a creation goddess, and hence was rejected. Until it was given a permanent name, the Caltech discovery team used the nickname “Santa” among themselves, because they had discovered Haumea on December 28th, 2004, just after Christmas.

Because the Spanish team had filed their claim with the Minor Planet Center first, Haumea was given the provisional designation 2003 EL61 (based on the date of the Spanish discovery image) on July 29th, 2005.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Calculating Haumeau’s size, mass and density is somewhat complicated. Whereas it is large enough and bright enough for its albedo (and thus its size) to be measured, the calculations of its dimensions are made difficult by its rapid rotation. However, several ellipsoid-model calculations have been conducted using the Keck telescopes, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Herschel Space Telescope that have provided estimates.

The first calculations, conducted by Brown et al., provided the approximate dimensions of 2,000 x 1,500 x 1,000 km. Meanwhile, the Spitzer measurements gave it a diameter of 1050 – 1400 km, while subsequent light-curve analyses suggested an equivalent circular diameter of 1,450 km. In 2010 an analysis of measurements taken by Herschel Space Telescope together with the older Spitzer Telescope measurements yielded a new estimate of ~1300 km.

These independent size estimates overlap at an average geometric mean diameter of roughly 1,400 km. In essence, this means that Haumea is comparable in diameter to Pluto along its longest axis and about half that at its poles.  It’s mass, meanwhile, is estimated to be approximately 4.0 ×1021 kg – one-third the mass of Pluto and 1/1400th that of Earth.

This makes Haumea one of the largest trans-Neptunian objects discovered, smaller than Eris, Pluto, probably Makemake, and possibly 2007 OR10, but larger than Sedna, Quaoar, and Orcus. Combined with estimates of its density, Haumea is massive enough to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. Although Haumea appears to be far from spherical, its ellipsoidal shape is thought to result from its rapid rotation.

Haumea has a typical orbit for a classical KBO, with an eccentric orbit that takes it from 34.952 AU (5.23 billion km) at perihelion to 51.483 AU (7.7 billion km) at aphelion. Also consistent with other KBOs, it has an orbital period of 284 Earth years, an orbital inclination of 28°, and completes a sidereal rotation every 3.9 hours (0.163 Earth days).


Much like its size, Haumea’s rotation and the amplitude of its light curve make judging its composition rather difficult. If its density were consistent with Pluto and other KBOs (2.0 g/cm³) then its rapid rotation would have elongated it to a greater extent than current estimates allow for. As such,  Haumea’s density is believed to range between 2.6 – 3.3 g/cm³, which is comparable to Earth’s Moon (also 3.3 g/cm³).

Haumea’s possible density covers the values for silicate minerals such as olivine and pyroxene, which make up many of the rocky objects in the Solar System. This suggests that the bulk of Haumea is rock covered with a relatively thin layer of ice. It is possible that a thicker ice mantle that is more typical of Kuiper belt objects existed in the past, but was blasted off during the impact that formed the Haumean collisional family.

Haumea is as bright as snow, with an high albedo that is consistent with crystalline ice. Spectral modelling of the surface suggested that 66% to 80% of the Haumean surface appears to be pure crystalline water ice, with the possible presence of hydrogen cyanide or phyllosilicate clays. Inorganic cyanide salts such as copper potassium cyanide may also be present.

A large dark red area on Haumea’s bright white surface, possibly an impact feature, has also been observed which could indicate an area rich in minerals and organic (carbon-rich) compounds – or possibly a higher proportion of crystalline ice. Thus Haumea may have a mottled surface similar to that of Pluto.


Haumea has been classified as a plutoid and dwarf planet residing beyond Neptune’s orbit. This classification means that it is presumed to be massive enough to have been rounded by its own gravity, but not to have cleared its neighborhood of similar objects.

Although Haumea appears to be far from spherical, its ellipsoidal shape is thought to result from its rapid rotation and not from a lack of sufficient gravity to overcome the compressive strength of its material. Haumea was initially listed as a classical Kuiper Belt Object in 2006 by the Minor Planet Center, but that has since been revised.


Haumea has two known moons, which are named after the daughters of the Hawaiian goddess – Hi’iaka and Namaka. Both were discovered in 2005 by Brown’s team while conducting observations of Haumea at the W.M. Keck Observatory. Hi’iaka, which was initially nicknamed “Rudolph” by the Caltech team, was discovered January 26th, 2005.

It is the outer and – at roughly 310 km in diameter – the larger and brighter of the two, and orbits Haumea in a nearly circular path every 49 days. Infrared observations indicate that its surface is almost entirely covered by pure crystalline water ice. Because of this, Brown and his team have speculated that the moon is a fragment of Haumea that broke off during a collision.

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

Namaka, the smaller and innermost of the two, was discovered on June 30th, 2005, and nicknamed “Blitzen”. It is a tenth the mass of Hiiaka and orbits Haumea in 18 days in a highly elliptical orbit. Both moons circle Haumea is highly eccentric orbits. No estimates have been made yet as to their mass.


So far, no missions have been mounted to Haumea and none are currently planned. However, numerous scenarios have been calculated using hypothetical launch dates. For example, if a probe were launched on September 25th, 2025, a flyby mission could take place within 14.25 years, when Haumea would be 48.18 AU from the Sun. Based on a launch date of Nov. 1st, 2026, September 23rd, 2037, and October 29th, 2038, a flyby mission would take 16.45 years to get to Haumea.

So if the budget environment remains stable and scientists decide to make close-up observations of Haumea a priority, a flyby could be taking place no sooner than December of 2039. And with luck, we might learn more about this distant and odd little ball of rock and ice that stands out from its peers.

We have many interesting articles on Haumea, its surface features, the Kuiper Belt, Dwarf Planets, and Trans-Neptunian Objects here at Universe Today.

And here is What is the Kuiper Belt, KBOs, and What Has the Kuiper Belt Taught Us About The Solar System?


The Dwarf Planet Ceres

The Asteroid Belt is a pretty interesting place. In addition to containing between 2.8 and 3.2 quintillion metric tons of matter, the region is also home to many minor planets. The largest of these, known as Ceres, is not only the largest minor planet in the Inner Solar System, but also the only body in this region to be designated as a “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Due to its size and shape, when it was first observed, Ceres was thought to be a planet. While this belief has since been revised, Ceres is alone amongst objects in the Asteroid Belt in that it is the only object massive enough to have become spherical in shape. And like most of the dwarf planets in our Solar System, its status remains controversial, and our knowledge of it limited.

Discovery and Naming:

Ceres was discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi on January 1st, 1801, while searching for zodiacal stars. However, the existence of Ceres had been predicted decades before by Johann Elert Bode, a German astronomer who speculated that there had to be a planet between Mars and Jupiter. The basis for this assumption was the now defunct Bode-Titus law, which was first proposed by Johann Daniel Titius in 1766.

This law stated that there existed a regular pattern in the semi-major axes of the orbits of known planets, the only exception of which was the large gap between Mars and Jupiter. In an attempt to resolve this, in 1800, German astronomer Franz Xaver von Zach sent requests to twenty-four experienced astronomers (dubbed the “Celestial Police”) to combine their their efforts to located this missing planet.

Comparison of HST and Dawn FC images of Ceres taken nearly 11 years apart. Credit: NASA.
Comparison of HST and Dawn FC images of Ceres taken nearly 11 years apart. Credit: NASA.

One of these astronomers was Giuseppe Piazzi at the Academy of Palermo, who had made the discovery shortly before his invitation to join the group had arrived. At the time of his discovery, he mistook it for a comet, but subsequent observations led him to declare that it could be something more. He officially shared his observations with friends and colleagues by April of 1801, and sent the information to von Zach to be published in September.

Unfortunately, due to its change in its apparent position, Ceres was too close to the Sun’s glare to be visible to astronomers. It would not be until the end of the year that it would be spotted again, thanks in large part to German astronomer Carl Freidrich Gauss and the predictions he made of its orbit. On December 31st, von Zach and his colleague Heinrich W.M. Olbers found Ceres near the position predicted by Gauss, and thus recovered it.

Piazzi originally suggesting naming his discovery Cerere Ferdinandea, after the Roman goddess of agriculture Ceres (Cerere in Italian) and King Ferdinand of Sicily. The name Ferdinand was dropped in other nations, but Ceres was eventually retained. Ceres was also called Hera for a short time in Germany; whereas in Greece, it is still called Demeter after the Greek equivalent of the Roman goddess Ceres.


The classification of Ceres has changed more than once since its discovery, and remains the subject of controversy. For example, Johann Elert Bode – a contemporary of Piazzi –  believed Ceres to be the “missing planet” he had proposed to exist between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was assigned a planetary symbol, and remained listed as a planet in astronomy books and tables (along with 2 Pallas, 3 Juno, and 4 Vesta) until the mid-19th century.

Ceres compared to asteroids visited to date, including Vesta, Dawn's mapping target in 2011. Image by NASA/ESA. Compiled by Paul Schenck.
Ceres compared to asteroids visited to date, including Vesta, Dawn’s mapping target in 2011. Credit: NASA/ESA/Paul Schenck.

As other objects were discovered in the neighborhood of Ceres, it was realized that Ceres represented the first of a new class of objects. In 1802, with the discovery of 2 Pallas, William Herschel coined the term asteroid (“star-like”) for these bodies. As the first such body to be discovered, Ceres was given the designation 1 Ceres under the modern system of minor-planet designations.

By the 1860s, the existence of a fundamental difference between asteroids such as Ceres and the major planets was widely accepted, though a precise definition of “planet” was never formulated. The 2006 debate surrounding Eris, Pluto, and what constitutes a planet led to Ceres being considered for reclassification as a planet.

The definition that was adopted on August 24th, 2006 carried the requirements that a planet have sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium, be in orbit around a star and not be a satellite, and have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. As it is, Ceres does not dominate its orbit, but shares it with the thousands of other asteroids, and constitutes only about a third of the mass of the Asteroid Belt. Bodies like Ceres that met some of these qualification, but not all, were instead classified as “dwarf planets”.

In addition to the controversy surrounding the use of this term, there is also the question of whether or not Ceres status as a dwarf planet means that it can no longer be considered an asteroid. The 2006 IAU decision never addressed whether Ceres is an asteroid or not. In fact, the IAU has never defined the word ‘asteroid’ at all, having preferred the term ‘minor planet’ until 2006, and the terms ‘small Solar System body’ and ‘dwarf planet’ thereafter.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Early observations of Ceres were only able to calculate its size to within an order of magnitude. In 1802, English astronomer William Herschel underestimated its diameter as 260 km, whereas in 1811 Johann Hieronymus Schröter overestimated it as 2,613 km. Current estimates place its mean radius at 473 km, and its mass at roughly 9.39 × 1020 kg (the equivalent of 0.00015 Earths or 0.0128 Moons).

Size comparison of Vesta, Eros and Ceres and Eros
Size comparison of Vesta, Eros and Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

With this mass, Ceres comprises approximately a third of the estimated total mass of the asteroid belt (which is in turn approximately 4% of the mass of the Moon). The next largest objects are Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea, which have mean diameters of more than 400 km and masses of 2.6 x 1020 kg, 2.11 x 1020 kg, and 8.6 ×1019 kg respectively. The mass of Ceres is large enough to give it a nearly spherical shape, which  makes it unique amongst objects and minor planets in the Asteroid Belt.

Ceres follows a slightly inclined and moderately eccentric orbit, ranging from 2.5577 AU (382.6 million km) from the Sun at perihelion and 2.9773 AU (445.4 million km) at aphelion. It has an orbital period of 1,680 Earth days (4.6 years) and takes 0.3781 Earth days (9 hours and 4 minutes) to complete a sidereal rotation.

Composition and Atmosphere:

Based on its size and density (2.16 g/cm³), Ceres is believed to be differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. Based on evidence provided by the Keck telescope in 2002, the mantle is estimated to be 100 km-thick, and contains up to 200 million cubic km of water – which is more fresh water than exists on Earth. Infrared data on the surface also suggests that Ceres may have an ocean beneath its icy mantle.

If true, it is possible that this ocean could harbor microbial extraterrestrial life, similar to what has been proposed about Mars, Titan, Europa and Enceladus. It has further been hypothesized that ejecta from Ceres could have sent microbes to Earth in the past.

Other possible surface constituents include iron-rich clay minerals (cronstedtite) and carbonate minerals (dolomite and siderite), which are common minerals in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. The surface of Ceres is relatively warm, with the maximum temperature estimated to reach approximately 235 K (-38 °C, -36 °F) when the Sun is overhead.

Assuming the presence of sufficient antifreeze (such as ammonia), the water ice would become unstable at this temperature. Therefore, it is possible that Ceres may have a tenuous atmosphere caused by outgassing from water ice on the surface. The detection of significant amounts of hydroxide ions near Ceres’ north pole, which is a product of water vapor dissociation by ultraviolet solar radiation, is another indication of this.

However, it was not until early 2014 that several localized mid-latitude sources of water vapor were detected on Ceres. Possible mechanisms for the vapor release include sublimation from exposed surface ice (as with comets), cryovolcanic eruptions resulting from internal heat, and subsurface pressurization. The limited amount of data suggests that the vaporization is more consistent with cometary-style sublimation.


Multiple theories exist as to the origin of Ceres. On the one hand, it is widely believed that Ceres is a surviving protoplanet which formed 4.57 billion year ago in the Asteroid Belt. Unlike other inner Solar System protoplanets, Ceres neither merged with others to form a terrestrial planet and avoided being ejected from the Solar System by Jupiter. However, there is an alternate theory that proposes that Ceres formed in the Kuiper belt and later migrated to the asteroid belt.

The geological evolution of Ceres is dependent on the heat sources that were available during and after its formation, which would have been provided by friction from planetesimal accretion and decay of various radionuclides. These are thought to have been sufficient to allow Ceres to differentiate into a rocky core and icy mantle soon after its formation. This icy surface would have gradually sublimated, leaving behind various hydrated minerals like clay minerals and carbonates.

Today, Ceres appears to be a geologically inactive body, with a surface sculpted only by impacts. The presence of significant amounts of water ice in its composition is what has led scientists to the possible conclusion that Ceres has or had a layer of liquid water in its interior.


Until recently, very few direct observations had been made of Ceres and little was known about its surface features. In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope captured high-resolutions images that showed a dark spot in the surface that was thought to be a crater – and nicknamed “Piazzi” after its founder.

The near-infrared images taken by the Keck telescope in 2002 showed several bright and dark features moving with Ceres’s rotation. Two of the dark features had circular shapes and were presumed to be craters. One was identified as the “Piazzi” feature, while the other was observed to have a bright central region. In 2003 and 2004, visible-light images were taken by Hubble during a full rotation that showed 11 recognizable surface features, the natures of which are yet undetermined.

With the launch of the Dawn mission, with which NASA intends to conduct a nearly decade-long study of Ceres and Vesta, much more has been learned about this dwarf planet. For instance, after achieving orbit around the asteroid in March of 2015, Dawn revealed a large number of surface craters with low relief, indicating that they mark a relatively soft surface, most likely made of water ice.

Several bright spots have also been observed by Dawn, the brightest of which (“Spot 5”) is located in the middle of an 80 km (50 mi) crater called Occator. These bright features have an albedo of approximately 40% that are caused by a substance on the surface, possibly ice or salts, reflecting sunlight. A haze periodically appears above Spot 5, supporting the hypothesis that some sort of outgassing or sublimating ice formed the bright spots.

The Dawn spacecraft also noted the presence of a towering 6 kilometer-tall mountain (4 miles or 20,000 feet) in early August, 2015. This mountain, which is roughly pyramidal in shape and protrudes above otherwise smooth terrain, appears to be the only mountain of its kind on Ceres.

Like so many celestial bodies in our Solar System, Ceres is a mystery that scientists and astronomers are working to slowly unravel. In time, our exploration of this world will likely teach us much about the history and evolution of our Solar System, and may even lead to the discovery of life beyond Earth.

We have many interesting articles on Ceres here at Universe Today. For example, here are some articles on the many bright spots captured by the Dawn probe, and what they likely are.

And here are some articles on the Asteroid Belt and Why it Isn’t a Planet.

For more information, check out NASA’s Dawn – Ceres and Vesta and Dwarf Planets: Overview.

What is the Oort Cloud?

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

For thousands of years, astronomers have watched comets travel close to Earth and light up the night sky. In time, these observations led to a number of paradoxes. For instance, where were these comets all coming from? And if their surface material vaporizes as they approach the Sun (thus forming their famous halos), they must formed farther away, where they would have existed there for most of their lifespans.

In time, these observations led to the theory that far beyond the Sun and planets, there exists a large cloud of icy material and rock where most of these comets come from. This existence of this cloud, which is known as the Oort Cloud (after its principal theoretical founder), remains unproven. But from the many short and long-period comets that are believed to have come from there, astronomers have learned a great deal about it structure and composition.


The Oort Cloud is a theoretical spherical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals that is believed to surround the Sun at a distance of up to around 100,000 AU (2 ly). This places it in interstellar space, beyond the Sun’s Heliosphere where it defines the cosmological boundary between the Solar System and the region of the Sun’s gravitational dominance.

Like the Kuiper Belt and the Scattered Disc, the Oort Cloud is a reservoir of trans-Neptunian objects, though it is over a thousands times more distant from our Sun as these other two. The idea of a cloud of icy infinitesimals was first proposed in 1932 by Estonian astronomer Ernst Öpik, who postulated that long-period comets originated in an orbiting cloud at the outermost edge of the Solar System.

In 1950, the concept was resurrected by Jan Oort, who independently hypothesized its existence to explain the behavior of long-term comets. Although it has not yet been proven through direct observation, the existence of the Oort Cloud is widely accepted in the scientific community.

Structure and Composition:

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.

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.

A belt of comets called the Oort Cloud is theorized to encircle the Solar system (image credit: NASA/JPL).
A belt of comets called the Oort Cloud is theorized to encircle the Solar system (image credit: NASA/JPL).


The Oort cloud is thought to be a remnant of the original protoplanetary disc that formed around the Sun approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The most widely accepted hypothesis is that the Oort cloud’s objects initially coalesced much closer to the Sun as part of the same process that formed the planets and minor planets, but that gravitational interaction with young gas giants such as Jupiter ejected them into extremely long elliptic or parabolic orbits.

Recent research by NASA suggests that a large number of Oort cloud objects are the product of an exchange of materials between the Sun and its sibling stars as they formed and drifted apart. It is also suggested that many – possibly the majority – of Oort cloud objects were not formed in close proximity to the Sun.

Alessandro Morbidelli of the Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur has conducted simulations on the evolution of the Oort cloud from the beginnings of the Solar System to the present. These simulations indicate that gravitational interaction with nearby stars and galactic tides modified cometary orbits to make them more circular. This is offered as an explanation for why the outer Oort Cloud is nearly spherical in shape while the Hills cloud, which is bound more strongly to the Sun, has not acquired a spherical shape.

A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz's Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System (Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester)
A comparison of the Solar System and its Oort Cloud. 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star and companion passed along the outer boundaries of our Solar System. Credit: NASA, Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester

Recent studies have shown that the formation of the Oort cloud is broadly compatible with the hypothesis that the Solar System formed as part of an embedded cluster of 200–400 stars. These early stars likely played a role in the cloud’s formation, since the number of close stellar passages within the cluster was much higher than today, leading to far more frequent perturbations.


Comets are thought to have two points of origin within the Solar System. They start as infinitesimals in the Oort Cloud and then become comets when passing stars knock some of them out of their orbits, sending into a long-term orbit that take them into the inner solar system and out again.

Short-period comets have orbits that last up to two hundred years while the orbits of long-period comets can last for thousands of years. Whereas short-period comets are believed to have emerged from either the Kuiper Belt or the scattered disc, the accepted hypothesis is that long-period comets originate in the Oort Cloud. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.

For example, there are two main varieties of short-period comet: Jupiter-family comets and Halley-family comets. Halley-family comets, named for their prototype (Halley’s Comet) are unusual in that although they are short in period, they are believed to have originated from the Oort cloud. Based on their orbits, it is suggested they were once long-period comets that were captured by the gravity of a gas giant and sent into the inner Solar System.

Evolution of a comet as it orbits the sun. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Sciences/ NASA
Evolution of a comet as it orbits the sun. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Sciences/ NASA


Because the Oort Cloud is so much farther out than the Kuiper Belt, the region remained unexplored and largely undocumented. Space probes have yet to reach the area of the Oort cloud, and Voyager 1 – the fastest and farthest of the interplanetary space probes currently exiting the Solar System – is not likely to provide any information on it.

At its current speed, Voyager 1 will reach the Oort cloud in about 300 years, and will will take about 30,000 years to pass through it. However, by around 2025, the probe’s radioisotope thermoelectric generators will no longer supply enough power to operate any of its scientific instruments. The other four probes currently escaping the Solar System – Voyager 2, Pioneer 10 and 11, and New Horizons – will also be non-functional when they reach the Oort cloud.

Exploring the Oort Cloud presents numerous difficulties, most of which arise from the fact that it is incredible distant from Earth. By the time a robotic probe could actually reach it and begin exploring the area in earnest, centuries will have passed here on Earth. Not only would those who had sent it out in the first place be long dead, but humanity will have most likely invented far more sophisticated probes or even manned craft in the meantime.

Still, studies can be (and are) conducted by examining the comets that it periodically spits out, and long-range observatories are likely to make some interesting discoveries from this region of space in the coming years. It’s a big cloud. Who knows what we might find lurking in there?

We have many interesting articles about the Oort Cloud and Solar System for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how big the Solar System is, and one on the diameter of the Solar System. And here’s all you need to know about Halley’s Comet and Beyond Pluto.

You might also want to check out this article from NASA on the Oort Cloud and one from the University of Michigan on the origin of comets.

Do not forget to take a look at the podcast from Astronomy Cast. Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System and Episode 292: The Oort Cloud.

NASA Solar System Exploration: Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud

The Dwarf Planet Sedna

There has been quite a bit of buzz about dwarf planets lately. Ever since the discovery of Eris in 2005, and the debate that followed over the proper definition of the word “planet”, this term has been adopted to refer to planets beyond Neptune that rival Pluto in size. Needless to say, it has been a controversial subject, and one which is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

In the meantime, the category has been used tentatively to describe many Trans-Neptunian objects that were discovered before or since the discovery of Eris. Sedna, which was discovered in the outer reaches of the Solar System in 2003, is most likely a dwarf planet. And as the furthest known object from the Sun, and located within the hypothetical Oort Cloud, it is quite the fascinating find.

Discovery and Naming:

Much like Eris, Haumea and Makemake, Sedna was co-discovered by Mike Brown of Caltech, with assistance from Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory, and David Rabinowitz of Yale University on November 14th, 2003. Initially designated as 2003 VB12, the discovery was part of a survey that commenced in 2001 using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California.

Observations at the time indicated the presence of an object at a distance of approximately 100 AU from the Sun. Follow-up observations made in November and December of 2003 by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii revealed that the object was moving along a distant highly eccentric orbit.

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

It was later learned that the object had been previously observed by the Samual Oschin telescope as well as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) consortium. Comparisons with these previous observations have since allowed for a more precise calculation of Sedna’s orbit and orbital arc.

According to Mike Brown’s website, the planet was named Sedna after the Inuit Goddess of the sea. According to legend, Sedna was once mortal but became immortal after drowning in the Arctic Ocean, where she now resides and protects all the creatures of the sea. This name seemed appropriate to Brown and his team because Sedna is currently the farthest (and hence coldest) object from the Sun.

The team made the name public before the object had been officially numbered; and while this represented a breach in IAU protocol, no objections were raised. In 2004, the IAU’s Committee on Small Body Nomenclature formally accepted the name.


Astronomers remain somewhat divided when it comes to Sedna’s proper classification. On the one hand, its discovery resurrected the question of which astronomical objects should be considered planets and which ones could not. Under the IAU’s definition of a planet, which was adopted on August 24th, 2006 (in response to the discovery of Eris), a planet needs to have cleared its orbit. Hence, Sedna does not qualify.

However, to be a dwarf planet, a celestial body must be in hydrostatic equilibrium – meaning that it is symmetrically rounded into a spheroid or ellipsoid shape. With a surface albedo of 0.32 ± 0.06 – and an estimated diameter of between 915 and 1800 km (compared to Pluto’s 1186 km) – Sedna is bright enough, and also large enough, to be spheroid in shape.

Therefore, Sedna is believed by many astronomers to be a dwarf planet, and is often referred to confidently as such. One reason why astronomers are reluctant to definitively place it in that category is because it is so far away that it is difficult to observe.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

In 2004, Mike Brown and his team placed an upper limit of 1,800 km on its diameter, but by 2007 this was revised downward to less than 1,600 km after observations were made by the Spitzer Space Telescope. In 2012, measurements from the Herschel Space Observatory suggested that Sedna’s diameter was between 915 and 1075 km, which would make it smaller than Pluto’s moon Charon.

Because Sedna has no known moons, determining its mass is currently impossible without sending a space probe. Nevertheless, many astronomers think that Sedna is the fifth largest trans-Neptunian object (TNO) and dwarf planet – after Eris, Pluto, Makemake, and Haumea, respectively.

Sedna has a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun, which means it ranges in distance from 76 astronomical units (AU) at perihelion (114 billion km/71 billion mi) to 936 AU (140 billion km/87 billion mi) at aphelion.

Sedna's orbit, compared to other bodies in the Solar System and the Kuiper Belt. Credit: web.gps.caltech.edu
Sedna’s orbit, compared to other bodies in the Solar System, the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Credit: web.gps.caltech.edu

Estimations on how long it takes Sedna to orbit the Sun vary, although it is known to be more than 10,000 years. Some astronomers calculate the orbital period could be as long as 12,000 years. Although astronomers believed at first that Sedna had a satellite, they have not been able to prove it.


At the time of its discovery, Sedna was the intrinsically brightest object found in the Solar System since Pluto in 1930. In terms of color, Sedna appears to be almost as red as Mars, which some astronomers believe is caused by hydrocarbon or tholin.  Its surface is also rather homogeneous in terms of color and spectrum, which may the result of Sedna’s distance from the Sun.

Unlike planets in the Inner Solar System, Sedna experiences very few surface impacts from meteors or stray objects. As a result, it does not have as many exposed bright patches of fresh icy material. Sedna, and the entire Oort Cloud, is freezing at temperatures below 33 Kelvin (-240.2°C).

Models have been constructed of Sedna that place an upper limit of 60% for methane ice and 70% for water ice. This is consistent with the existence of tholins on it’s surface, since they are produced by the irradiation of methane. Meanwhile, M. Antonietta Barucci and colleagues compared Sedna’s spectrum to that of Triton and came up with a model that included 24% Triton-type tholins, 7% amorphous carbon, 10% nitrogen, 26% methanol and 33% methane.

Planetoid Sedna
Artist’s concept of the surface of Sedna. Credit: NASA/ESA/Adolf Schaller

The presence of nitrogen on the surface suggests the possibility that, at least for a short time, Sedna may have a tenuous atmosphere. During a 200-year period near perihelion, the maximum temperature on Sedna would likely exceed 35.6 K (-237.6 °C), which would be just warm enough for some of the nitrogen ice to sublimate. Models of internal heating via radioactive decay suggest that, like many bodies in the Outer Solar System, Sedna might be capable of supporting a subsurface ocean of liquid water.


When he and his colleagues first observed Sedna, they claimed that it was part of the Oort Cloud – the hypothetical cloud of comets believed to exist a light-year’s distance from the Sun. This was based on the fact that Sedna’s perihelion (76 AUs) made it too distant to be scattered by the gravitational influence of Neptune.

Because it was also closer to the Sun than was expected from on Oort cloud object, and has an inclination in line with the planets and Kuiper Belt, they described it as being an “inner Oort Cloud object”. Brown and his colleagues have proposed that Sedna’s orbit is best explained by the Sun having formed in an open cluster of several stars that gradually disassociated over time.

In this scenario, Sedna was lifted into its current orbit by a star that was part of this cluster rather than it having been formed in its current location. This hypothesis has also been confirmed by computer simulations that suggest that multiple close passes by young stars in such a cluster would pull many objects into Sedna-like orbits.

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

On the other hand, if Sedna formed in its current location, then it would mean that the Sun’s original protoplanetary disc would have extended farther than previously expected – approximately 75 AUs into space. Also, Sedna’s initial orbit would have been approximately circular, otherwise its formation by the accretion of smaller bodies into a whole would not have been possible.

Therefore, it must have been tugged into its current eccentric orbit by a gravitational interaction with another body – which could have been another planet in the Kuiper Belt, a passing star, or one of the young stars embedded with the Sun in the stellar cluster in which it formed.

Another possibility is the Sedna’s orbit is the result of influence by a large binary companion thousands of AU distant from our Sun. One such hypothetical companion is Nemesis, a dim companion to the Sun. However, to date no direct evidence of Nemesis has been found, and many lines of evidence have thrown its existence into doubt.

More recently, it has also been suggested that Sedna did not originate in the Solar System, but was captured by the Sun from a passing extrasolar planetary system.

Astronomers believe that they will find more objects in the Oort Cloud in years to come, especially as ground-based and space telescopes become more advanced and sensitive. Most likely, we will also see Sedna officially christened a “dwarf planet” by the IAU. As with other astronomical bodies that have been designated as such, we can expect some controversy to follow!

Universe Today has many interesting articles on Sedna, including Sedna probably doesn’t have a moon and Dwarf Planets.

For more information, check out the story of Sedna and Sedna.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Pluto and the icy outer Solar System, and The Oort Cloud.


The Planet Mercury

Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun, the smallest of the eight planets, and one of the most extreme worlds in our Solar Systems. Named after the Roman messenger of the gods, the planet is one of a handful that can be viewed without the aid of a telescope. As such, it has played an active role in the mythological and astrological systems of many cultures.

In spite of that, Mercury is one of the least understood planets in our Solar System. Much like Venus, its orbit between Earth and the Sun means that it can be seen at both morning and evening (but never in the middle of the night). And like Venus and the Moon, it also goes through phases; a characteristic which originally confounded astronomers, but eventually helped them to realize the true nature of the Solar System.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 2440 km and a mass of 3.3022×1023 kg, Mercury is the smallest planet in our Solar System – equivalent in size to 0.38 Earths. And while it is smaller than the largest natural satellites in our system – such as Ganymede and Titan – it is more massive. In fact, Mercury’s density (at 5.427 g/cm3) is the second highest in the Solar System, only slightly less than Earth’s (5.515 g/cm3).

Mercury has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System (0.205). Because of this, its distance from the Sun varies between 46 million km (29 million mi) at its closest (perihelion) to 70 million km (43 million mi) at its farthest (aphelion). And with an average orbital velocity of 47.362 km/s (29.429 mi/s), it takes Mercury a total 87.969 Earth days to complete a single orbit.

Mercury and Earth, size comparison. Credit: NASA / APL (from MESSENGER)
Mercury and Earth, size comparison. Credit: NASA / APL (from MESSENGER)

With an average rotational speed of 10.892 km/h (6.768 mph), Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation. This means that Mercury has a spin-orbit resonance of 3:2, which means that it completes three rotations on its axis for every two rotations around the Sun. This does not, however, mean that three days last the same as two years on Mercury.

In fact, its high eccentricity and slow rotation mean that it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (aka. a solar day). This means that a single day on Mercury is twice as long as a single year. Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027 degrees compared to Jupiter’s 3.1 degrees (the second smallest).

Composition and Surface Features:

As one of the four terrestrial planets of the Solar System, Mercury is composed of approximately 70% metallic and 30% silicate material. Based on its density and size, a number of inferences can be made about its internal structure. For example, geologists estimate that Mercury’s core occupies about 42% of its volume, compared to Earth’s 17%.

The interior is believed to be composed of a molten iron which is surrounded by a 500 – 700 km mantle of silicate material. At the outermost layer is Mercury’s crust, which is believed to be 100 – 300 km thick. The surface is also marked by numerous narrow ridges that extend up to hundreds of kilometers in length. It is believed that these were formed as Mercury’s core and mantle cooled and contracted at a time when the crust had already solidified.

Mercury’s core has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System, and several theories have been proposed to explain this. The most widely accepted theory is that Mercury was once a larger planet which was struck by a planetesimal measuring several thousand km in diameter. This impact could have then stripped away much of the original crust and mantle, leaving behind the core as a major component.

Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL
Internal structure of Mercury, consisting of the crust (100–300 km thick), mantle (600 km thick) and core (1,800 km radius). Credit: MASA/JPL

Another theory is that Mercury may have formed from the solar nebula before the Sun’s energy output had stabilized. In this scenario, Mercury would have originally been twice its present mass, but would have been subjected to temperatures of 25,000 to 35,000 K (or as high as 10,000 K) as the protosun contracted. This process would have vaporized much of Mercury’s surface rock, reducing it to its current size and composition.

A third hypothesis is that the solar nebula caused drag on the particles from which Mercury was accreting, which meant that lighter particles were lost and not gathered to form Mercury. Naturally, further analysis is needed before any of these theories can be confirmed or ruled out.

At a glance, Mercury looks similar to the Earth’s moon. It has a dry landscape pockmarked by asteroid impact craters and ancient lava flows. Combined with extensive plains, these indicate that the planet has been geologically inactive for billions of years. However, unlike the Moon and Mars, which have significant stretches of similar geology, Mercury’s surface appears much more jumbled. Other common features include dorsa (aka. “wrinkle-ridges”), Moon-like highlands, montes (mountains), planitiae (plains), rupes (escarpments) and valles (valleys).

Names for these features come from a variety of sources. Craters are named for artists, musicians, painters, and authors; ridges are named for scientists; depressions are named after works of architecture; mountains are named for the word “hot” in different languages; planes are named for Mercury in various languages; escarpments are named for ships of scientific expeditions, and valleys are named after radio telescope facilities.

Enhanced-color image of Munch, Sander and Poe craters amid volcanic plains (orange) near Caloris Basin NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Enhanced-color image of Munch, Sander and Poe craters amid volcanic plains (orange) near Caloris Basin. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University/Carnegie Institution

During and following its formation 4.6 billion years ago, Mercury was heavily bombarded by comets and asteroids, and perhaps again during the Late Heavy Bombardment period. During this period of intense crater formation, the planet received impacts over its entire surface, thanks in part to the lack of any atmosphere to slow impactors down. During this time, the planet was volcanically active, and released magma would have produced the smooth plains.

Craters on Mercury range in diameter from small bowl-shaped cavities to multi-ringed impact basins hundreds of kilometers across. The largest known crater is Caloris Basin, which measures 1,550 km in diameter. The impact that created it was so powerful that it caused lava eruptions on the other side of the planet and left a concentric ring over 2 km tall surrounding the impact crater. Overall, about 15 impact basins have been identified on those parts of Mercury that have been surveyed.

Despite its small size and slow 59-day-long rotation, Mercury has a significant, and apparently global, magnetic field that is about 1.1% the strength of Earth’s. It is likely that this magnetic field is generated by a dynamo effect, in a manner similar to the magnetic field of Earth. This dynamo effect would result from the circulation of the planet’s iron-rich liquid core.

Mercury’s magnetic field is strong enough to deflect the solar wind around the planet, thus creating a magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetosphere, though small enough to fit within Earth, is strong enough to trap solar wind plasma, which contributes to the space weathering of the planet’s surface.

Mercury's Magnetic Field. Credit: NASA
Mercury’s Magnetic Field. Credit: NASA

Atmosphere and Temperature:

Mercury is too hot and too small to retain an atmosphere. However, it does have a tenuous and variable exosphere that is made up of hydrogen, helium, oxygen, sodium, calcium, potassium and water vapor, with a combined pressure level of about 10-14 bar (one-quadrillionth of Earth’s atmospheric pressure). It is believed this exosphere was formed from particles captured from the Sun, volcanic outgassing and debris kicked into orbit by micrometeorite impacts.

Because it lacks a viable atmosphere, Mercury has no way to retain the heat from the Sun. As a result of this and its high eccentricity, the planet experiences considerable variations in temperature. Whereas the side that faces the Sun can reach temperatures of up to 700 K (427° C), while the side in shadow dips down to 100 K (-173° C).

Despite these highs in temperature, the existence of water ice and even organic molecules has been confirmed on Mercury’s surface. The floors of deep craters at the poles are never exposed to direct sunlight, and temperatures there remain below the planetary average.

These icy regions are believed to contain about 1014–1015 kg of frozen water, and may be covered by a layer of regolith that inhibits sublimation. The origin of the ice on Mercury is not yet known, but the two most likely sources are from outgassing of water from the planet’s interior or deposition by the impacts of comets.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s north pole, provided by MESSENGER. Red indicates shaded regions while yellow indicates the presence of ice. Credit: NASA/JPL

Historical Observations:

Much like the other planets that are visible to the naked eye, Mercury has a long history of being observed by human astronomers. The earliest recorded observations of Mercury are believed to be from the Mul Apin tablet, a compendium of Babylonian astronomy and astrology.

The observations, which were most likely made during the 14th century BCE, refer to the planet as “the jumping planet”. Other Babylonian records, which refer to the planet as “Nabu” (after the messenger to the gods in Babylonian mythology) date back to the first millennium BCE. The reason for this has to do with Mercury being the fastest-moving planet across the sky.

To the ancient Greeks, Mercury was known variously as “Stilbon” (a name which means “the gleaming”), Hermaon, and Hermes. As with the Babylonians, this latter name came from the messenger of the Greek pantheon. The Romans continued this tradition, naming the planet Mercurius after the swift-footed messenger of the gods, which they equated with the Greek Hermes.

Ibn al-Shatir's model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication of epicycles using the Tusi couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics and equant. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Ibn al-Shatir’s model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication of epicycles using the Tusi couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics and equant. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In his book Planetary Hypotheses, Greco-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy wrote about the possibility of planetary transits across the face of the Sun. For both Mercury and Venus, he suggested that no transits had been observed because the planet was either too small to see or because the transits are too infrequent.

To the ancient Chinese, Mercury was known as Chen Xing (“the Hour Star”), and was associated with the direction of north and the element of water. Similarly, modern Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese cultures refer to the planet literally as the “water star” based on the Five Elements. In Hindu mythology, the name Budha was used for Mercury – the god that was thought to preside over Wednesday.

The same is true of the Germanic tribes, who associated the god Odin (or Woden) with the planet Mercury and Wednesday. The Maya may have represented Mercury as an owl – or possibly four owls, two for the morning aspect and two for the evening – that served as a messenger to the underworld.

In medieval Islamic astronomy, the Andalusian astronomer Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Zarqali in the 11th century described Mercury’s geocentric orbit as being oval, although this insight did not influence his astronomical theory or his astronomical calculations. In the 12th century, Ibn Bajjah observed “two planets as black spots on the face of the Sun”, which was later suggested as the transit of Mercury and/or Venus.

Mercury's path across the solar disk as seen from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on November 8, 2006. The transit was visible in eastern Europe and the eastern hemisphere. Credit: NASA.
Mercury’s path across the solar disk as seen from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on November 8th, 2006. The transit was visible in eastern Europe and the eastern hemisphere. Credit: NASA.

In India, the Kerala school astronomer Nilakantha Somayaji in the 15th century developed a partially heliocentric planetary model in which Mercury orbits the Sun, which in turn orbits Earth, similar to the system proposed by Tycho Brahe in the 16th century.

The first observations using a telescope took place in the early 17th century by Galileo Galilei. Although he had observed phases when looking at Venus, his telescope was not powerful enough to see Mercury going through similar phases. In 1631, Pierre Gassendi made the first telescopic observations of the transit of a planet across the Sun when he saw a transit of Mercury, which had been predicted by Johannes Kepler.

In 1639, Giovanni Zupi used a telescope to discover that the planet had orbital phases similar to Venus and the Moon. These observations demonstrated conclusively that Mercury orbited around the Sun, which helped to definitively prove that the Copernican Heliocentric model of the universe was the correct one.

In the 1880s, Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped the planet more accurately, and suggested that Mercury’s rotational period was 88 days, the same as its orbital period due to tidal locking. The effort to map the surface of Mercury was continued by Eugenios Antoniadi, who published a book in 1934 that included both maps and his own observations. Many of the planet’s surface features, particularly the albedo features, take their names from Antoniadi’s map.

Map of Mercury prepared by E.M. Antoniadi in the 1920's. Credit: airandspace.si.edu
Map of Mercury prepared by E.M. Antoniadi during the 1920s. Credit: airandspace.si.edu

In June of 1962, Soviet scientists at the USSR Academy of Sciences became first to bounce a radar signal off Mercury and receive it, which began the era of using radar to map the planet. Three years later, Americans Gordon Pettengill and R. Dyce conducted radar observations using the Arecibo Observatory’s radio telescope. Their observations demonstrated conclusively that the planet’s rotational period was about 59 days and the planet did not have a synchronous rotation (which was widely believed at the time).

Ground-based optical observations did not shed much further light on Mercury, but radio astronomers using interferometry at microwave wavelengths – a technique that enables removal of the solar radiation – were able to discern physical and chemical characteristics of the subsurface layers to a depth of several meters.

In 2000, high-resolution observations were conducted by the Mount Wilson Observatory which provided the first views that resolved surface features on previously unseen parts of the planet. Most of the planet has been mapped by the Arecibo radar telescope, with 5 km resolution, including polar deposits in shadowed craters of what was believed to be water ice.


Prior to the first space probes flying past Mercury, many of its most fundamental morphological properties remained unknown. The first of these was NASA’s Mariner 10, which flew past the planet between 1974 and 1975. During the course of its three close approaches to the planet, it was able to capture the first close-up images of Mercury’s surface, which revealed heavily cratered terrain, giant scarps, and other surface features.

Mariner 10
NASA’s Mariner 10 space probe, which conducted flybys of Venus and Mercury during the 1970s. Credit: NASA

Unfortunately, due to the length of Mariner 10‘s orbital period, the same face of the planet was lit at each of Mariner 10‘s close approaches. This made observation of both sides of the planet impossible, and resulted in the mapping of less than 45% of the planet’s surface.

During its first close approach, instruments also detected a magnetic field, to the great surprise of planetary geologists. The second close approach was primarily used for imaging, but at the third approach, extensive magnetic data were obtained. The data revealed that the planet’s magnetic field is much like Earth’s, which deflects the solar wind around the planet.

On March 24th, 1975, just eight days after its final close approach, Mariner 10 ran out of fuel, prompting its controllers to shut the probe down. Mariner 10 is thought to be still orbiting the Sun, passing close to Mercury every few months.

The second NASA mission to Mercury was the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (or MESSENGER) space probe. The purpose of this mission was to clear up six key issues relating to Mercury, namely – its high density, its geological history, the nature of its magnetic field, the structure of its core, whether it has ice at its poles, and where its tenuous atmosphere comes from.

To this end, the probe carried imaging devices that gathered much-higher-resolution images of much more of the planet than Mariner 10, assorted spectrometers to determine abundances of elements in the crust, and magnetometers and devices to measure velocities of charged particles.

The MESSENGER spacecraft has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011. Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington
The MESSENGER spacecraft has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Having launched from Cape Canaveral on August 3rd, 2004, it made its first fly-by of Mercury on January 14th, 2008, a second on October 6th, 2008, and a third on September 29th, 2009. Most of the hemisphere not imaged by Mariner 10 was mapped during these fly-bys. On March 18th, 2011, the probe successfully entered an elliptical orbit around the planet and began taking images by March 29th.

After finishing its one-year mapping mission, it then entered a one-year extended mission that lasted until 2013. MESSENGER’s final maneuver took place on April 24th, 2015, which left it without fuel and an uncontrolled trajectory that inevitably led it to crash into Mercury’s surface on April 30th, 2015.

In 2016, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) plan to launch a joint mission called BepiColombo. This robotic space probe, which is expected to reach Mercury by 2024, will orbit Mercury with two probes: a mapper probe and a magnetosphere probe.

The magnetosphere probe will be released into an elliptical orbit, then fire its chemical rockets to deposit the mapper probe into circular orbit. The mapper probe will then go on to study the planet in many different wavelengths – infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma ray – using an array of spectrometers similar to those on MESSENGER.

Caloris in Color – An enhanced-color view of Mercury, assembled from images taken at various wavelengths by the cameras on board the MESSENGER spacecraft. The circular, orange area near the center-top of the disc is Caloris Basin. Apollodorus and Pantheon Fossae can be seen at the center-left of the basin. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington
An enhanced-color view of Mercury, assembled from images taken at various wavelengths by the cameras on board the MESSENGER spacecraft. Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington

Yes, Mercury is a planet of extremes and is riddled with contradictions. It ranges from extreme hot to extreme cold; it has a molten surface but also has water ice and organic molecules on its surface; and it has no discernible atmosphere but possessing an exosphere and magnetosphere. Combined with its proximity to the Sun, it is little wonder why we don’t know much about this terrestrial world.

One can only hope that the technology exists in the future for us to get closer to this world and study its extremes more thoroughly.

In the meantime, here are some articles on Mercury that we hope you find interesting, illuminating, and fun to read:

Location and Movement of Mercury:

Structure of Mercury:

Conditions on Mercury:

History of Mercury:

Other Mercury Articles:

The Planet Saturn

The farthest planet from the Sun that can be observed with the naked eye, the existence of Saturn has been known for thousands of years. And much like all celestial bodies that can be observed with the aid of instruments – i.e. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the Moon – it has played an important role in the mythology and astrological systems of many cultures.

Saturn is one of the four gas giants in our Solar System, also known as the Jovian planets, and the sixth planet from the Sun. It’s ring system, which is it famous for, is also the most observable – consisting of nine continuous main rings and three discontinuous arcs.

Saturn’s Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a polar radius of 54364±10 km and an equatorial radius of 60268±4 km, Saturn has a mean radius of 58232±6 km, which is approximately 9.13 Earth radii. At 5.6846×1026 kg, and a surface area, at 4.27×1010 km2, it is roughly 95.15 as massive as Earth and 83.703 times it’s size. However, since it is a gas giant, it has significantly greater volume – 8.2713×1014 km3, which is equivalent to 763.59 Earths.

The sixth most distant planet, Saturn orbits the Sun at an average distance of 9 AU (1.4 billion km; 869.9 million miles). Due to its slight eccentricity, the perihelion and aphelion distances are 9.022 (1,353.6 million km; 841.3 million mi) and 10.053 AU (1,513,325,783 km; 940.13 million mi), on average respectively.

Saturn Compared to Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Saturn Compared to Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL

With an average orbital speed of 9.69 km/s, it takes Saturn 10,759 Earth days to complete a single revolution of the Sun. In other words, a single Cronian year is the equivalent of about 29.5 Earth years. However, as with Jupiter, Saturn’s visible features rotate at different rates depending on latitude, and multiple rotation periods have been assigned to various regions.

The latest estimate of Saturn’s rotation as a whole are based on a compilation of various measurements from the Cassini, Voyager and Pioneer probes. Saturn’s rotation causes it to have the shape of an oblate spheroid; flattened at the poles but bulging at the equator.

Saturn’s Composition:

As a gas giant, Saturn is predominantly composed of hydrogen and helium gas. With a mean density of 0.687 g/cm3, Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System that is less dense than water; which means that it lacks a definite surface, but is believed to have a solid core. This is due to the fact that Saturn’s temperature, pressure, and density all rise steadily toward the core.

Standard planetary models suggest that the interior of Saturn is similar to that of Jupiter, having a small rocky core surrounded by hydrogen and helium with trace amounts of various volatiles. This core is similar in composition to the Earth, but more dense due to the presence of metallic hydrogen, which as a result of the extreme pressure.

Diagram of Saturn's interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons
Diagram of Saturn’s interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons

Saturn has a hot interior, reaching 11,700 °C at its core, and it radiates 2.5 times more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. This is due in part to the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism of slow gravitational compression, but may also be attributable to droplets of helium rising from deep in Saturn’s interior out to the lower-density hydrogen. As these droplets rise, the process releases heat by friction and leaves Saturn’s outer layers depleted of helium. These descending droplets may have accumulated into a helium shell surrounding the core.

In 2004, French astronomers Didier Saumon and Tristan Guillot estimated that the core must 9-22 times the mass of Earth, which corresponds to a diameter of about 25,000 km. This is surrounded by a thicker liquid metallic hydrogen layer, followed by a liquid layer of helium-saturated molecular hydrogen that gradually transitions to a gas with increasing altitude. The outermost layer spans 1,000 km and consists of gas.

Saturn’s Atmosphere:

The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The gas giant is also known to contain heavier elements, though the proportions of these relative to hydrogen and helium is not known. It is assumed that they would match the primordial abundance from the formation of the Solar System.

Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. The upper clouds are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to consist of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes methane photolysis in the upper atmosphere, leading to a series of hydrocarbon chemical reactions with the resulting products being carried downward by eddies and diffusion.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captures a composite near-true-color view of the huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captures a composite near-true-color view of the huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter’s, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in range of 100–160 K and pressures between 0.5–2 bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice.

Water ice clouds begin at a level where the pressure is about 2.5 bar and extend down to 9.5 bar, where temperatures range from 185–270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 290–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10–20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in an aqueous solution.

On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.

These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. If the periodic nature of these storms is maintained, another one will occur in about 2020.

 The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, after Neptune’s. Voyager data indicate peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a hexagonal wave pattern, whereas the south shows evidence of a massive jet stream.

The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior.

The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years. In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter.

Saturn’s Moons:

Saturn has at least 150 moons and moonlets, but only 53 of these moons have been given official names. Of these moons, 34 are less than 10 km in diameter and another 14 are between 10 and 50 km in diameter. However, some of its inner and outer moons are rather large, ranging from 250 to over 5000 km.

Images of several moons of Saturn. From left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Moons of Saturn (from left to right): Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Traditionally, most of Saturn’s moons have been named after the Titans of Greek mythology, and are grouped based on their size, orbits, and proximity to Saturn. The innermost moons and regular moons all have small orbital inclinations and eccentricities and prograde orbits. Meanwhile, the irregular moons in the outermost regions have orbital radii of millions of kilometers, orbital periods lasting several years, and move in retrograde orbits.

The Inner Large Moons, which orbit within the E Ring (see below), includes the larger satellites Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, and Dione. These moons are all composed primarily of water ice, and are believed to be differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle and crust. With a diameter of 396 km and a mass of 0.4×1020 kg, Mimas is the smallest and least massive of these moons. It is ovoid in shape and orbits Saturn at a distance of 185,539 km with an orbital period of 0.9 days.

Enceladus, meanwhile, has a diameter of 504 km, a mass of 1.1×1020 km and is spherical in shape. It orbits Saturn at a distance of 237,948 km and takes 1.4 days to complete a single orbit. Though it is one of the smaller spherical moons, it is the only Cronian moon that is endogenously active – and one of the smallest known bodies in the Solar System that is geologically active. This results in features like the famous “tiger stripes” – a series of continuous, ridged, slightly curved and roughly parallel faults within the moon’s southern polar latitudes.

Large geysers have also been observed in the southern polar region that periodically release plumes of water ice, gas and dust which replenish Saturn’s E ring. These jets are one of several indications that Enceladus has liquid water beneath it’s icy crust, where geothermal processes release enough heat to maintain a warm water ocean closer to its core. With a geometrical albedo of more than 140%, Enceladus is one of the brightest known objects in the Solar System.

Artist's rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

At 1066 km in diameter, Tethys is the second-largest of Saturn’s inner moons and the 16th-largest moon in the Solar System. The majority of its surface is made up of heavily cratered and hilly terrain and a smaller and smoother plains region. Its most prominent features are the large impact crater of Odysseus, which measures 400 km in diameter, and a vast canyon system named Ithaca Chasma – which is concentric with Odysseus and measures 100 km wide, 3 to 5 km deep and 2,000 km long.

With a diameter and mass of 1,123 km and 11×1020 kg, Dione is the largest inner moon of Saturn. The majority of Dione’s surface is heavily cratered old terrain, with craters that measure up to 250 km in diameter. However, the moon is also covered with an extensive network of troughs and lineaments which indicate that in the past it had global tectonic activity.

The Large Outer Moons, which orbit outside of the Saturn’s E Ring, are similar in composition to the Inner Moons – i.e. composed primarily of water ice and rock. Of these, Rhea is the second largest – measuring 1,527 km in diameter and 23 × 1020 kg in mass – and the ninth largest moon of the Solar System. With an orbital radius of 527,108 km, it is the fifth-most distant of the larger moons, and takes 4.5 days to complete an orbit.

Like other Cronian satellites, Rhea has a rather heavily cratered surface, and a few large fractures on its trailing hemisphere. Rhea also has two very large impact basins on its anti-Saturnian hemisphere – the Tirawa crater (similar to Odysseus on Tethys) and an as-yet unnamed crater – that measure 400 and 500 km across, respectively.

A composite image of Titan's atmosphere, created using blue, green and red spectral filters to create an enhanced-color view. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
A composite image of Titan’s atmosphere, created using blue, green and red spectral filters to create an enhanced-color view. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

At 5150 km in diameter, and 1,350×1020 kg in mass, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and comprises more than 96% of the mass in orbit around the planet. Titan is also the only large moon to have its own atmosphere, which is cold, dense, and composed primarily of nitrogen with a small fraction of methane. Scientists have also noted the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, as well as methane ice crystals.

The surface of Titan, which is difficult to observe due to persistent atmospheric haze, shows only a few impact craters, evidence of cryo-volcanoes, and longitudinal dune fields that were apparently shaped by tidal winds. Titan is also the only body in the Solar System beside Earth with bodies of liquid on its surface, in the form of methane–ethane lakes in Titan’s north and south polar regions.

With an orbital distance of 1,221,870 km, it is the second-farthest large moon from Saturn, and completes a single orbit every 16 days. Like Europa and Ganymede, it is believed that Titan has a subsurface ocean made of water mixed with ammonia, which can erupt to the surface of the moon and lead to cryovolcanism.

Hyperion is Titan’s immediate neighbor. At an average diameter of about 270 km, it is smaller and lighter than Mimas. It is also irregularly shaped and quite odd in composition. Essentially, the moon is an ovoid, tan-colored body with an extremely porous surface (which resembles a sponge).  The surface of Hyperion is covered with numerous impact craters, most of which are 2 to 10 km in diameter. It also has a highly unpredictable rotation, with no well-defined poles or equator.

The two sides of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL
The two sides of Iapetus, which is known as “Saturn’s yin yang moon” because of the contrast in its color composition. Credit: NASA/JPL

At 1,470 km in diameter and 18×1020 kg in mass, Iapetus is the third-largest of Saturn’s large moons. And at a distance of 3,560,820 km from Saturn, it is the most distant of the large moons, and takes 79 days to complete a single orbit. Due to its unusual color and composition – its leading hemisphere is dark and black whereas its trailing hemisphere is much brighter – it is often called the “yin and yang” of Saturn’s moons.

Beyond these larger moons are Saturn’s Irregular Moons. These satellites are small, have large-radii, are inclined, have mostly retrograde orbits, and are believed to have been acquired by Saturn’s gravity. These moons are made up of three basic groups – the Inuit Group, the Gallic Group, and the Norse Group.

The Inuit Group consists of five irregular moons that are all named from Inuit mythology – Ijiraq, Kiviuq, Paaliaq, Siarnaq, and Tarqeq. All have prograde orbits that range from 11.1 to 17.9 million km, and from 7 to 40 km in diameter. They are all similar in appearance (reddish in hue) and have orbital inclinations of between 45 and 50°.

The Gallic group are a group of four prograde outer moons named for characters in Gallic mythology -Albiorix, Bebhionn, Erriapus, and Tarvos. Here too, the moons are similar in appearance and have orbits that range from 16 to 19 million km. Their inclinations are in the 35°-40° range, their eccentricities around 0.53, and they range in size from 6 to 32 km.

Saturns rings and moons Credit: NASA
Saturns rings and moons, shown to scale. Credit: NASA

Last, there is the Norse group, which consists of 29 retrograde outer moons that take their names from Norse mythology. These satellites range in size from 6 to 18 km, their distances from 12 and 24 million km, their inclinations between 136° and 175°, and their eccentricities between 0.13 and 0.77. This group is also sometimes referred to as the Phoebe group, due to the presence of a single larger moon in the group – which measures 240 km in diameter. The second largest, Ymir, measures 18 km across.

Within the Inner and Outer Large Moons, there are also those belonging to Alkyonide group. These moons – Methone, Anthe, and Pallene – are named after the Alkyonides of Greek mythology, are located between the orbits of Mimas and Enceladus, and are among the smallest moons around Saturn.

Some of the larger moons even have moons of their own, which are known as Trojan moons. For instance, Tethys has two trojans – Telesto and Calypso, while Dione has Helene and Polydeuces.

Saturn’s Ring System:

Saturn’s rings are believed to be very old, perhaps even dating back to the formation of Saturn itself. There are two main theories as to how these rings formed, each of which have variations. One theory is that the rings were once a moon of Saturn whose orbit decayed until it came close enough to be ripped apart by tidal forces.

In version of this theory, the moon was struck by a large comet or asteroid – possible during the Late Heavy Bombardment – that pushed it beneath the Roche Limit. The second theory is that the rings were never part of a moon, but are instead left over from the original nebular material from which Saturn formed billions of years ago.

The structure is subdivided into seven smaller ring sets, each of which has a division (or gap) between it and its neighbor. The A and B Rings are the densest part of the Cronian ring system and are 14,600 and 25,500 km in diameter, respectively. They extend to a distance of 92,000 – 117,580 km (B Ring) and 122,170 – 136,775 km (A Ring) from Saturn’s center, and are separated by the 4,700 km wide Cassini Division.

Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Saturn’s rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

The C Ring, which is separated from the B Ring by the 64 km Maxwell Gap, is approximately 17,500 km in width and extends 74,658 – 92,000 from Saturn’s center. Together with the A and B Rings, they comprise the main rings, which are denser and contain larger particles than the “dusty rings”.

These tenuous rings are called “dusty” due to the small particles that make them up. They include the D Ring, a 7,500 km ring that extends inward to Saturn’s cloud tops (66,900 – 74,510 km from Saturn’s center) and is separated from the C Ring by the 150 km Colombo Gap. On the other end of the system, the G and E Rings are located, which are also “dusty” in composition.

The G Ring is 9000 km in width and extends 166,000 – 175,000 km from Saturn’s center. The E Ring, meanwhile, is the largest single ring section, measuring 300,000 km in width and extending 166,000 to 480,000 km from Saturn’s center. It is here where the majority of Saturn’s moons are located (see above).

The narrow F Ring, which sits on the outer edge of the A Ring, is more difficult to categorize. While some parts of it are very dense, it also contains a great deal of dust-size particles. For this reason, estimates on its width range from 30 to 500 km, and it extends roughly 140,180 km from Saturn’s center.

History of Observing Saturn:

Because it is visible to the naked eye in the night sky, human beings have been observing Saturn for thousands of years. In ancient times, it was considered the most distant of five known the planets, and thus was accorded special meaning in various mythologies. The earliest recorded observations come from the Babylonians, where astronomers systematically observed and recorded its movements through the zodiac.

From the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries CE, found in Rome.
Roman astrological calendar, from the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries CE, Rome. Credit: Museo della civiltà romana

To the ancient Greeks, this outermost planet was named Cronus (Kronos), after the Greek god of agriculture and youngest of the Titans. The Greek scientist Ptolemy made calculations of Saturn’s orbit based on observations of the planet while it was in opposition.The Romans followed in this tradition, identifying it with their equivalent of Cronos (named Saturnus).

In ancient Hebrew, Saturn is called ‘Shabbathai’, whereas in Ottoman Turkish, Urdu and Malay, its name is ‘Zuhal’, which derived is from the original Arabic. In Hindu astrology, there are nine astrological objects known as Navagrahas. Saturn, which is one of them, is known as “Shani”, who judges everyone based on the good and bad deeds performed in life. In ancient China and Japan, the planet was designated as the “earth star” – based on the Five Elements of earth, air, wind, water and fire.

However, the planet was not directly observed until 1610, when Galileo Galilee first discerned the presence of rings. At the time, he mistook them for two moons that were located on either side. It was not until Christiaan Huygens used a telescope with greater magnification that this was corrected. Huygens also discovered Saturn’s moon Titan, and Giovanni Domenico Cassini later discovered the moons of Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione.

No further discoveries of significance were made again until the 181th and 19th centuries. The first occurred in 1789 when William Herschel discovered the two distant moons of Mimas and Enceladus, and then in 1848 when a British team discovered the irregularly-shaped moon of Hyperion.

Robert Hooke noted the shadows (a and b) cast by both the globe and the rings on each other in this drawing of Saturn in 1666. Robert Hooke - Philosophical Transactions (Royal Society publication)
Drawing of Saturn by Robert Hook, taken from Philosophical Transactions (1666). Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In 1899 William Henry Pickering discovered Phoebe, noting that it had a highly irregular orbit that did not rotate synchronously with Saturn as the larger moons do. This was the first time any satellite had been found to move about a planet in retrograde orbit. And by 1944, research conducted throughout the early 20th century confirmed that Titan has a thick atmosphere – a feature unique among the Solar System’s moons.

Exploration of Saturn:

By the late 20th century, unmanned spacecraft began to conduct flybys of Saturn, gathering information on its composition, atmosphere, ring structure, and moons. The first flyby was conducted by NASA using the Pioneer 11 robotic space probe, which passed Saturn at a distance of 20,000 km in September of 1979.

Images were taken of the planet and a few of its moons, although their resolution was too low to discern surface detail. The spacecraft also studied Saturn’s rings, revealing the thin F Ring and the fact that dark gaps in the rings are bright when facing towards the Sun, meaning that they contain fine light-scattering material. In addition, Pioneer 11 measured the temperature of Titan.

The next flyby took place in November of 1980 when the Voyager 1 space probe passed through the Saturn system.  It sent back the first high-resolution images of the planet, its rings and satellites – which included features of various moons that had never before been seen.

These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1, which was more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system which shows six of the planets. Mercury is too close to the sun to be seen. Mars was not detectable by the Voyager cameras due to scattered sunlight in the optics, and Pluto was not included in the mosaic because of its small size and distance from the sun. These blown-up images, left to right and top to bottom are Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The background features in the images are artifacts resulting from the magnification. The images were taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color images. Jupiter and Saturn were resolved by the camera but Uranus and Neptune appear larger than they really are because of image smear due to spacecraft motion during the long (15 second) exposure times. Earth appears to be in a band of light because it coincidentally lies right in the center of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixels in size. Venus was 0.11 pixel in diameter. The planetary images were taken with the narrow-angle camera (1500 mm focal length). Credit: NASA/JPL
These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1 in November 1980. Credit: NASA/JPL

In August 1981, Voyager 2 conducted its flyby and gathered more close-up images of Saturn’s moons, as well as evidence of changes in the atmosphere and the rings. The probes discovered and confirmed several new satellites orbiting near or within the planet’s rings, as well as the small Maxwell Gap and Keeler gap (a 42 km wide gap in the A Ring).

In June of 2004, the Cassini–Huygens space probe entered the Saturn system and conducted a close flyby of Phoebe, sending back high-resolution images and data. By July 1st, 2004, the probe entered orbit around Saturn, and by December, it had completed two flybys of Titan before releasing the Huygens probe. This lander reached the surface and began transmitting data on the atmospheric and surface by by Jan. 14th, 2005. Cassini has since conducted multiple flybys of Titan and other icy satellites.

In 2006, NASA reported that Cassini had found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Over 100 geysers have since been identified, which are concentrated around the southern polar region. In May 2011, NASA scientists at an Enceladus Focus Group Conference reported that Enceladus’ interior ocean may be the most likely candidate in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

In addition, Cassini photographs have revealed a previously undiscovered planetary ring, eight new satellites, and evidence of hydrocarbon lakes and seas near Titan’s north pole. The probe was also responsible for sending back high-resolution images of the intense storm activity at Saturn’s northern and southern poles.

Cassini’s primary mission ended in 2008, but the probe’s mission has been extended twice since then – first to September 2010 and again to 2017. In the coming years, NASA hopes to use the probe to study a full period of Saturn’s seasons.

Cassini-Huygens Mission
Artist Illustration of the Cassini space probe to Saturn and Titan, a joint NASA, ESA mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

From being a very important part of the astrological systems of many cultures to becoming the subject of ongoing scientific fascination, Saturn continues to occupy a special place in our hearts and minds. Whether it’s Saturn’s fantastically large and beautiful ring system, its many many moons, its tempestuous weather, or its curious composition, this gas giant continues to fascinate and inspire.

In the coming years and decades, additional robotic explorer missions will likely to be sent to investigate Saturn, its rings and its system of moons in greater detail. What we find may constitute some of the most groundbreaking discoveries of all time, and will likely teach us more about the history of our Solar System.

Universe Today has articles on the density of Saturn, the Orbit of Saturn, and Interesting Facts about Saturn.

If you want to learn more about Saturn’s rings and moons, check out Where Did Saturn’s Rings Come From? and How Many Moons Does Saturn Have?

For more information, check out Saturn and all about Saturn, and NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Saturn.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject – Episode 59: Saturn.