How Far is the Asteroid Belt from the Sun?

It's long been thought that a giant asteroid, which broke up long ago in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually made its way to Earth and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. New studies say that the dinosaurs may have been facing extinction before the asteroid strike, and that mammals were already on the rise. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Eventually, astronomers realized that this region was pervaded by countless smaller bodies which they named “asteroids”. This in turn led to the term “Asteroid Belt”, which has since entered into common usage. Like all the planets in our Solar System, it orbits our Sun, and has played an important role in the evolution and history of our Solar System.

Structure and Composition:

The Asteroid Belt consists of several large bodies, along with millions of smaller size. The larger bodies, such as Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea, account for half of the belt’s total mass, with almost one-third accounted for by Ceres alone. Beyond that, over 200 asteroids that are larger than 100 km in diameter, and 0.7–1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km or more.

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
It total, the Asteroid Belt’s mass is estimated to be 2.8×1021 to 3.2×1021 kilograms – which is equivalent to about 4% of the Moon’s mass. While most asteroids are composed of rock, a small portion of them contain metls 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.

Despite the impressive number of objects contained within the belt, the Main Belt’s asteroids are also spread over a very large volume of space. As a result, the average distance between objects is roughly 965,600 km (600,000 miles), meaning that the Main Belt consists largely of empty space. 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.

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 gaps are similar to what is seen with Saturn’s and other gas giants’ systems of rings.

Origin:

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

For one, the amount of energy required to destroy a planet would have been staggering, and no scenario has been suggested that could account for such events. Second, there is the fact that the mass of the Asteroid Belt is only 4% that of the Moon (and 22% that of Pluto). The odds of a cataclysmic collision with such a tiny body are very unlikely. Lastly, the significant chemical differences between the asteroids do no point towards a common origin.

Today, the scientific consensus is that, rather than fragmenting from an original 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, gravitational accretion caused clumps of matter to form out of an accretion disc. These clumps gradually came together, eventually undergoing hydrostatic equilibrium (become spherical) and forming planets.

However, within the region of the Asteroid Belt, planestesimals were too strongly perturbed by Jupiter’s gravity to form a planet. As such, these objects would continue to orbit the Sun as they had before, with only one object (Ceres) having accumulated enough mass to undergo hydrostatic equilibrium. On occasion, they would collide to produce smaller fragments and dust.

The asteroids also melted to some degree during this time, 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. It likely ended about 4.5 billion years ago, a few tens of millions of years after 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).

Distance from the Sun:

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the belt ranges in distance between 2.2 and 3.2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun – 329 million to 478.7 million km (204.43 million to 297.45 million mi). It is also an estimated to be 1 AU thick (149.6 million km, or 93 million mi), meaning that it occupies the same amount of distance as what lies between the Earth to the Sun.

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

The distance of an asteroid from the Sun (its semi-major axis) depends upon its distribution into one of three different zones based on the Belt’s “Kirkwood Gaps”. Zone I lies between the 4:1 resonance and 3:1 resonance Kirkwood gaps, which are roughly 2.06 and 2.5 AUs (3 to 3.74 billion km; 1.86 to 2.3 billion mi) 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 (4.22 billion km; 2.6 mi) from the Sun. Zone III, the outermost section of the Belt, extends from the outer edge of Zone II to the 2:1 resonance gap, located some 3.28 AU (4.9 billion km; 3 billion mi) from the Sun.

While many spacecraft have been to the Asteroid Belt, most were passing through on their way to the outer Solar System. Only in recent years, with the Dawn mission, that the Asteroid Belt has been a focal point of scientific research. In the coming decades, we may find ourselves sending spaceships there to mine asteroids, harvest minerals and ices for use here on Earth.

We’ve written many articles about the Asteroid Belt here at Universe Today. Here’s What is the Asteroid Belt?, How Long Does it Take to get to the Asteroid Belt?, How Far is the Asteroid Belt from Earth?, Why Isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?, and Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft.

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

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

Sources:

Colonizing the Outer Solar System

Colonizing The Outer Solar System


Okay, so this article is Colonizing the Outer Solar System, and is actually part 2 of our team up with Fraser Cain of Universe Today, who looked at colonizing the inner solar system. You might want jump over there now and watch that part first, if you are coming in from having seen part 1, welcome, it is great having you here.

Without further ado let us get started. There is no official demarcation between the inner and outer solar system but for today we will be beginning the outer solar system at the Asteroid Belt.

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

The Asteroid Belt is always of interest to us for colonization. We have talked about mining them before if you want the details on that but for today I’ll just remind everyone that there are very rich in metals, including precious metals like gold and platinum, and that provides all the motivation we need to colonize them. We have a lot of places to cover so we won’t repeat the details on that today.

You cannot terraform asteroids the way you could Venus or Mars so that you could walk around on them like Earth, but in every respect they have a lot going for them as a candidate. They’ve got plenty for rock and metal for construction, they have lots of the basic organic elements, and they even have some water. They also get a decent amount of sunlight, less than Mars let alone Earth, but still enough for use as a power source and to grow plants.

But they don’t have much gravity, which – pardon the pun – has its ups and downs. There just isn’t much mass in the Belt. The entire thing has only a small fraction of the mass of our moon, and over half of that is in the four biggest asteroids, essentially dwarf planets in their own right. The remainder is scattered over millions of asteroids. Even the biggest, Ceres, is only about 1% of 1% of Earth’s mass, has a surface gravity of 3% Earth-normal, and an escape velocity low enough most model rockets could get into orbit. And again, it is the biggest, most you could get away from by jumping hard and if you dropped an object on one it might take a few minutes to land.

Don't blink... an artist's conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.
Don’t blink… an artist’s conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.

You can still terraform one though, by definition too. The gentleman who coined the term, science fiction author Jack Williamson, who also coined the term genetic engineering, used it for a smaller asteroid just a few kilometers across, so any definition of terraforming has to include tiny asteroids too.

Of course in that story it’s like a small planet because they had artificial gravity, we don’t, if we want to fake gravity without having mass we need to spin stuff around. So if we want to terraform an asteroid we need to hollow it out and fill it with air and spin it around.

Of course you do not actually hollow out the asteroid and spin it, asteroids are loose balls of gravel and most would fly apart given any noticeable spin. Instead you would hollow it out and set a cylinder spinning inside it. Sort of like how a good thermos has an outside container and inside one with a layer of vacuum in between, we would spin the inner cylinder.

You wouldn’t have to work hard to hollow out an asteroid either, most aren’t big enough to have sufficient gravity and pressure to crush an empty beer can even at their center. So you can pull matter out from them very easily and shore up the sides with very thin metal walls or even ice. Or just have your cylinder set inside a second non-spinning outer skin or superstructure, like your washer or dryer.

You can then conduct your mining from the inside, shielded from space. You could ever pressurize that hollowed out area if your spinning living area was inside its own superstructure. No gravity, but warmth and air, and you could get away with just a little spin without tearing it apart, maybe enough for plants to grow to normally.

It should be noted that you can potentially colonize even the gas giants themselves, even though our focus today is mostly on their moons. That requires a lot more effort and technology then the sorts of colonies we are discussing today, Fraser and I decided to keep things near-future and fairly low tech, though he actually did an article on colonizing Jupiter itself last year that was my main source material back before got to talking and decided to do a video together.

Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach
Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach

Hydrogen is plentiful on Jupiter itself and floating refineries or ships that fly down to scoop it up might be quite useful, but again today we are more interested in its moons. The biggest problem with colonizing the moons of Jupiter is all the radiation the planet gives off.

Europa is best known as a place where the surface is covered with ice but beneath it is thought to be a vast subsurface ocean. It is the sixth largest moon coming right behind our own at number five and is one of the original four moons Galileo discovered back in 1610, almost two centuries before we even discovered Uranus, so it has always been a source of interest. However as we have discovered more planets and moons we have come to believe quite a few of them might also have subsurface oceans too.

Now what is neat about them is that water, liquid water, always leaves the door open to the possibility of life already existing there. We still know so little about how life originally evolved and what conditions permit that to occur that we cannot rule out places like Europa already having their own plants and animals swimming around under that ice.

They probably do not and obviously we wouldn’t want to colonize them, beyond research bases, if they did, but if they do not they become excellent places to colonize. You could have submarine cities in such places floating around in the sea or those buried in the surface ice layer, well shielded from radiation and debris. The water also geysers up to the surface in some places so you can start off near those, you don’t have to drill down through kilometers of ice on day one.

Water, and hydrogen, are also quite uncommon in the inner solar system so having access to a place like Europa where the escape velocity is only about a fifth of our own is quite handy for export. Now as we move on to talk about moons a lot it is important to note that when I say something has a fifth of the escape velocity of Earth that doesn’t mean it is fives time easier to get off of. Energy rises with the square of velocity so if you need to go five times faster you need to spend 5-squared or 25 times more energy, and even more if that place has tons of air creating friction and drag, atmospheres are hard to claw your way up through though they make landing easier too. But even ignoring air friction you can move 25 liters of water off of Europa for every liter you could export from Earth and even it is a very high in gravity compared to most moons and comets. Plus we probably don’t want to export lots of water, or anything else, off of Earth anyway.

Artist's concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA

We should start by noting two things. First, the Asteroid Belt is not the only place you find asteroids, Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids are nearly as numerous, and every planet, including Earth, has an equivalent to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids at its own Lagrange Points with the Sun. Though just as Jupiter dwarfs all the other planets so to does its collection of Lagrangian objects. They can quite big too, the largest 624 Hektor, is 400 km across, and has a size and shape similar to Pennsylvania.

And as these asteroids are at stable Lagrange Points, they orbit with Jupiter but always ahead and behind it, making transit to and from Jupiter much easier and making good waypoints.

Before we go out any further in the solar system we should probably address how you get the energy to stay alive. Mars is already quite cold compared to Earth, and the Asteroids and Jupiter even more so, but with thick insulation and some mirrors to bounce light in you can do fairly decently. Indeed, sunlight out by Jupiter is already down to just 4% of what Earth gets, meaning at Jovian distances it is about 50 W/m²

That might not sound like much but it is actually almost a third of what average illumination is on Earth, when you factor in atmospheric reflection, cloudy days, nighttime, and higher, colder latitudes. It is also a good deal brighter than the inside of most well-lit buildings, and is enough for decently robust photosynthesis to grow food. Especially with supplemental light from mirrors or LED growth lamps.

But once you get out to Saturn and further that becomes increasingly impractical and a serious issue, because while food growth does not show up on your electric bill it is what we use virtually all our energy for. Closer in to the sun we can use solar panels for power and we do not need any power to grow food. As we get further out we cannot use solar and we need to heat or cold habitats and supply lighting for food, so we need a lot more power even as our main source dries up.

So what are our options? Well the first is simple, build bigger mirrors. A mirror can be quite large and paper thin after all. Alternatively we can build those mirrors far away, closer to the sun, and and either focus them on the place we want illuminated or send an energy beam, microwaves perhaps or lasers, out to the destination to supply energy.

We also have the option of using fission, if we can find enough Uranium or Thorium. There is not a lot of either in the solar system, in the area of about one part per billion, but that does amount to hundreds of trillions of tons, and it should only take a few thousand tons a year to supply Earth’s entire electric grid. So we would be looking at millions of years worth of energy supply.

Of course fusion is even better, particularly since hydrogen becomes much more abundant as you get further from the Sun. We do not have fusion yet, but it is a technology we can plan around probably having inside our lifetimes, and while uranium and thorium might be counted in parts per billion, hydrogen is more plentiful than every other element combines, especially once you get far from the Sun and Inner Solar System.

So it is much better power source, an effectively unlimited one except on time scales of billions and trillion of years. Still, if we do not have it, we still have other options. Bigger mirrors, beaming energy outwards from closer to the Sun, and classic fission of Uranium and Thorium. Access to fusion is not absolutely necessary but if you have it you can unlock the outer solar system because you have your energy supply, a cheap and abundant fuel supply, and much faster and cheaper spaceships.

Of course hydrogen, plain old vanilla hydrogen with one proton, like the sun uses for fusion, is harder to fuse than deuterium and may be a lot longer developing, we also have fusion using Helium-3 which has some advantages over hydrogen, so that is worth keeping in mind as well as we proceed outward.

Since NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet's appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet’s appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Okay, let’s move on to Saturn, and again our focus is on its moons more than the planet itself. The biggest of those an the most interesting for colonization is Titan.

Titan is aptly named, this titanic moon contains more mass than than all of Saturn’s sixty or so other moons and by an entire order of magnitude at that. It is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and one where the surface pressure is 45% higher than here on Earth. Even though Titan is much smaller than Earth, its atmosphere is about 20% more massive than our own. It’s almost all nitrogen too, even more than our own atmosphere, so while you would need a breather mask to supply oxygen and it is also super-cold, so you’d need a thick insulated suit, it doesn’t have to be a pressure suit like it would on Mars or almost anyplace else.

There’s no oxygen in the atmosphere, what little isn’t nitrogen is mostly methane and hydrogen, but there is plenty of oxygen in the ice on Titan which is quite abundant. So it has everything we need for life except energy and gravity. At 14% of earth normal it is probably too low for people to comfortably and safely adapt to, but we’ve already discussed ways of dealing with that. It is low enough that you could probably flap your arms and fly, if you had wing attached.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com
On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com

It needs some source of energy though, and we discussed that. Obviously if you’ve got fusion you have all the hydrogen you need, but Titan is one of those places we would probably want to colonize early on if we could, it is something you need a lot of to terraform other places, and is also rich in a lot of the others things we want. So we often think of it as a low-tech colony since it is one we would want early on.

In an scenario like that it is very easy to imagine a lot of local transit between Titan and its smaller neighboring moons, which are more rocky and might be easier to dig fissile materials like Uranium and Thorium out of. You might have a dozen or so small outposts on neighboring moons mining fissile materials and other metals and a big central hub on Titan they delivered that too which also exported Nitrogen to other colonies in the solar system.

Moving back and forth between moons is pretty easy, especially since things landing on Titan can aerobrake quite easily, whereas Titan itself has a pretty strong gravity well and thick atmosphere to climb out of but is a good candidate for a space elevator, since it requires nothing more sophisticated than a Lunar Elevator on our own moon and has an abundant supply of the materials needed to make Zylon for instance, a material strong enough to make an elevator there and which we can mass manufacture right now.

Titan might be the largest and most useful of Saturn’s moons, but again it isn’t the only one and not all of the other are just rocks for mining. At last count it has over sixty and many of them quite large. One of those, Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is a lot like Jupiter’s Moon Europa, in that we believe it has a large and thick subsurface ocean. So just like Europa it is an interesting candidate for Colonization. So Titan might be the hub for Saturn but it wouldn’t be the only significant place to colonize.

Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)
Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)

While Saturn is best known for its amazing rings, they tend to be overlooked in colonization. Now those rings are almost all ice and in total mass about a quarter as much as Enceladus, which again is Saturn’s Sixth largest moon, which is itself not even a thousandth of the Mass of Titan.

In spite of that the rings are not a bad place to set up shop. Being mostly water, they are abundant in hydrogen for fusion fuel and have little mass individually makes them as easy to approach or leave as an asteroid. Just big icebergs in space really, and there are many moonlets in the rings that can be as large as half a kilometer across. So you can burrow down inside one for protection from radiation and impacts and possibly mine smaller ones for their ice to be brought to places where water is not abundant.

In total those rings, which are all frozen water, only mass about 2% of Earth’s oceans, and about as much as the entire Antarctic sheet. So it is a lot of fresh water that is very easy to access and move elsewhere, and ice mines in the rings of Saturn might be quite useful and make good homes. Living inside an iceball might not sound appealing but it is better than it sounds like and we will discuss that more when we reach the Kupier Belt.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

But first we still have two more planets to look at, Uranus and Neptune.

Uranus, and Neptune, are sometimes known as Ice Giants instead of Gas Giants because it has a lot more water. It also has more ammonia and methane and all three get called ices in this context because they make up most of the solid matter when you get this far out in the solar system.

While Jupiter is over a thousand times the mass of Earth, Uranus weighs in at about 15 times the Earth and has only about double the escape velocity of Earth itself, the least of any of the gas giants, and it’s strange rotation, and its strange tilt contributes to it having much less wind than other giants. Additionally the gravity is just a little less than Earth’s in the atmosphere so we have the option for floating habitats again, though it would be a lot more like a submarine than a hot air balloon.

Like Venus, Uranus has very long days, at least in terms of places receiving continual sunlight, the poles get 42 years of perpetual sunlight then 42 of darkness. Sunlight being a relative term, the light is quite minimal especially inside the atmosphere. The low wind in many places makes it a good spot for gas extraction, such as Helium-3, and it’s a good planet to try to scoop gas from or even have permanent installations.

Now Uranus has a large collection of moons as well, useful and colonizable like the other moons we have looked at, but otherwise unremarkable beyond being named for characters from Shakespeare, rather than the more common mythological names. None have atmospheres though there is a possibility Oberon or Titania might have subsurface oceans.

Neptune makes for a brief entry, it is very similar to Uranus except it has the characteristically high winds of gas giants that Uranus’s skewed poles mitigate, meaning it has no advantages over Uranus and the disadvantages of high wind speeds everywhere and being even further from the Sun. It too has moons and one of them, Triton, is thought to have subsurface oceans as well. Triton also presumably has a good amount of nitrogen inside it since it often erupts geysers of nitrogen from its surface.

Neptune's largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

Triton is one of the largest moons in the solar system, coming in seventh just after our Moon, number 5, and Europa at number 6. Meaning that were it not a moon it would probably qualify as a Dwarf Planet and it is often thought Pluto might be an escaped moon Neptune. So Triton might be one that didn’t escape, or didn’t avoid getting captured. In fact there are an awful lot of bodies in this general size range and composition wandering about in the outer regions of our solar system as we get out into the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

The Kuiper Belt is one of those things that has a claim on the somewhat arbitrary and hazy boundary marking the edge of the Solar System. It extends from out past Neptune to beyond Pluto and contains a good deal more mass than the asteroid Belt. It is where a lot of our comets come from and while there is plenty of rocks out there they tend to be covered in ice. In other words it is like our asteroid belt only there’s more of it and the one thing the belt is not very abundant in, water and hydrogen in general, is quite abundant out there. So if you have a power source life fusion they can be easily terraformed and are just as attractive as a source of minerals as the various asteroids and moons closer in.

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

We mentioned the idea of living inside hollowed out asteroids earlier and you can use the same trick for comets. Indeed you could shape them to be much bigger if you like, since they would be hollow and ice isn’t hard to move and shape especially in zero gravity. Same trick as before, you place a spinning cylinder inside it. Not all the objects entirely ice and indeed your average comet is more a frozen ball of mud then ice with rocky cores. We think a lot of near Earth Asteroids are just leftover comets. So they are probably pretty good homes if you have fusion, lots of fuel and raw materials for both life and construction.

This is probably your cheapest interstellar spacecraft too, in terms of effort anyway. People often talk about re-directing comets to Mars to bring it air and water, but you can just as easily re-direct it out of the solar system entirely. Comets tend to have highly eccentric orbits, so if you capture one when it is near the Sun you can accelerate it then, actually benefiting from the Oberth Effect, and drive it out of the solar system into deep space. If you have a fusion power source to live inside one then you also have an interstellar spaceship drive, so you just carve yourself a small colony inside the comet and head out into deep space.

You’ve got supplies that will last you many centuries at least, even if it were home to tens of thousand of people, and while we think of smaller asteroids and comets as tiny, that’s just in comparison to planets. These things tend to be the size of mountain so there is plenty of living space and a kilometer of dirty ice between you and space makes a great shield against even the kinds of radiation and collisions you can experience at relativistic speeds.

Artists' impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, showing both the origin and path of Halley's Comet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
Artists’ impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now the Oort Cloud is much like the Kupier Belt but begins even further out and extends out probably an entire light year or more. We don’t have a firm idea of its exact dimensions or mass, but the current notion is that it has at least several Earth’s worth of mass, mostly in various icy bodies. These will be quite numerous, estimates usually assumes at least trillion icy bodies a kilometer across or bigger, and even more smaller ones. However the volume of space is so large that those kilometer wide bodies might each be a around a billion kilometers distant from neighbors, or about a light hour. So it is spread out quite thinly, and even the inner edge is about 10 light days away.

That means that from a practical standpoint there is no source of power out there, the sun is simply too diffuse for even massive collections of mirrors and solar panels to be of use. It also means light-speed messages home or to neighbors are quite delayed. So in terms of communication it is a lot more like pre-modern times in sparsely settled lands where talking with your nearest neighbors might require an hour long walk over to their farm, and any news from the big cities might take months to percolate out to you.

There’s probably uranium and thorium out there to be found, maybe a decent amount of it, so fission as a power source is not ruled out. If you have fusion instead though each of these kilometer wide icy bodies is like a giant tank of gasoline, and as with the Kupier Belt, ice makes a nice shield against impacts and radiation.

And while there might be trillions of kilometer wide chunks of ice out there, and many more smaller bodies, you would have quite a few larger ones too. There are almost certainly tons of planets in the Pluto size-range out these, and maybe even larger ones. Even after the Oort cloud you would still have a lot of these deep space rogue planets which could bridge the gap to another solar system’s Oort Cloud. So if you have fusion you have no shortage of energy, and could colonize trillions of these bodies. There probably is a decent amount of rock and metal out there too, but that could be your major import/export option shipping home ice and shipping out metals.

That’s the edge of the Solar System so that’s the end of this article. If you haven’t already read the other half, colonizing the inner Solar System, head on over now.

How Long Does it Take to get to the Asteroid Belt?

It's long been thought that a giant asteroid, which broke up long ago in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, eventually made its way to Earth and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. New studies say that the dinosaurs may have been facing extinction before the asteroid strike, and that mammals were already on the rise. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt. Consisting of millions of objects that range in size from hundreds of kilometers in diameter (like Ceres and Vesta) to one kilometer or more, the Asteroid Belt has long been a source of fascination for astronomers. Initially, they wondered why the many objects that make it up did not come together to form a planet. But more recently, human beings have been eyeing the Asteroid Belt for other purposes.

Whereas most of our efforts are focused on research – in the hopes of shedding additional light on the history of the Solar System – others are looking to tap for its considerable wealth. With enough resources to last us indefinitely, there are many who want to begin mining it as soon as possible. Because of this, knowing exactly how long it would take for spaceships to get there and back is becoming a priority.

Distance from Earth:

The distance between the Asteroid Belt and Earth varies considerably depending on where we measure to. Based on its average distance from the Sun, the distance between Earth and the edge of the Belt that is closest to it can be said to be between 1.2 to 2.2 AUs, or 179.5 and 329 million km (111.5 and 204.43 million mi).

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

However, at any given time, part of the Asteroid Belt will be on the opposite side of the Sun, relative to Earth. From this vantage point, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Blt ranges from 3.2 and 4.2 AU – 478.7 to 628.3 million km (297.45 to 390.4 million mi). To put that in perspective, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges between being slightly more than the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1 AU), to being the same as the distance between Earth and Jupiter (4.2 AU) when they are at their closest.

But of course, for reasons of fuel economy and time, asteroid miners and exploration missions are not about to take the long way! As such, we can safely assume that the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt when they are at their closest is the only measurement worth considering.

Past Missions:

The Asteroid Belt is so thinly populated that several unmanned spacecraft have been able to move through it on their way to the outer Solar System. In more recent years, missions to study larger Asteroid Belt objects have also used this to their advantage, navigating between the smaller objects to rendezvous with bodies like Ceres and Vesta. 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.

The first spacecraft to make a journey through the asteroid belt was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which entered the region on July 16th, 1972 (a journey of 135 days). As part of its mission to Jupiter, the craft successfully navigated through the Belt and conducted a flyby of Jupiter (in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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 have 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 gravity data on the dwarf planet’s gravity) and is expected to remain there until 2017.

Fastest Mission to Date:

The fastest mission humanity has ever mounted was the New Horizons mission, which was launched from Earth on Jan. 19th, 2006. The mission began with a speedy launch aboard an Atlas V rocket, which accelerated it to a a speed of about 16.26 km per second (58,536 km/h; 36,373 mph). At this speed, the probe reached the Asteroid Belt by the following summer, and made a close approach to the tiny asteroid 132524 APL by June 13th, 2006 (145 days after launching).

However, even this pales in comparison to Voyager 1, which was launched on Sept. 5th, 1977 and reached the Asteroid Belt on Dec. 10th, 1977 – a total of 96 days. And then there was the Voyager 2 probe, which launched 15 days after Voyager 1 (on Sept. 20th), but still managed to arrive on the same date – which works out to a total travel time of 81 days.

For Voyager 2, out on the edge of our Solar system, conventional navigation methods don't work too well. Credit: NASA
For Voyager 2, out on the edge of our Solar system, conventional navigation methods don’t work too well. Credit: NASA

Not bad as travel times go. At these speed, a spacecraft could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt, spend several weeks conducting research (or extracting ore), and then make it home in just over six months time. However, one has to take into account that in all these cases, the mission teams did not decelerate the probes to make a rendezvous with any asteroids.

Ergo, a mission to the Asteroid Belt would take longer as the craft would have to slow down to achieve orbital velocity. And they would also need some powerful engines of their own in order to make the trip home. This would drastically alter the size and weight of the spacecraft, which would inevitably mean it would be bigger, slower and a heck of a lot more expensive than anything we’ve sent so far.

Another possibility would be to use ionic propulsion (which is much more fuel efficient) and pick up a gravity assist by conducting a flyby of Mars – which is precisely what the Dawn mission did. However, even with a boost from Mars’ gravity, the Dawn mission still took over three years to reach the asteroid Vesta – launching on Sept. 27th, 2007, and arriving on July 16th, 2011, (a total of 3 years, 9 months, and 19 days). Not exactly good turnaround!

Proposed Future Methods:

A number of possibilities exist that could drastically reduce both travel time and fuel consumption to the Asteroid Belt, many of which are currently being considered for a number of different mission proposals. One possibility is to use spacecraft equipped with nuclear engines, a concept which NASA has been exploring for decades.

The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA
The Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

In a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. A Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) rocket involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy, which would then power an electrical engine.

In both cases, the rocket would rely on nuclear fission or fusion to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date. According to NASA estimates, the most sophisticated NTP concept would have a maximum specific impulse of 5000 seconds (50 kN·s/kg).

Using this engine, NASA scientists estimate that it would take a spaceship only 90 days to get to Mars when the planet was at “opposition” – i.e. as close as 55,000,000 km from Earth. Adjusted for a distance of 1.2 AUs, that means that a ship equipped with a NTP/NEC propulsion system could make the trip in about 293 days (about nine months and three weeks). A little slow, but not bad considering the technology exists.

Another proposed method of interstellar travel comes in the form of the Radio Frequency (RF) Resonant Cavity Thruster, also known as the EM Drive. Originally proposed in 2001 by Roger K. Shawyer, a UK scientist who started Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR) to bring it to fruition, this drive is built around the idea that electromagnetic microwave cavities can allow for the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust.

Artist's concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit:
Artist’s concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Center

According to calculations based on the NASA prototype (which yielded a power estimate of 0.4 N/kilowatt), a spacecraft equipped with the EM drive could make the trip to Mars in just ten days. Adjusted for a trip to the Asteroid Belt, so a spacecraft equipped with an EM drive would take an estimated 32.5 days to reach the Asteroid Belt.

Impressive, yes? But of course, that is based on a concept that has yet to be proven. So let’s turn to yet another radical proposal, which is to use ships equipped with an antimatter engine. Created in particle accelerators, antimatter is the most dense fuel you could possibly use. When atoms of matter meet atoms of antimatter, they annihilate each other, releasing an incredible amount of energy in the process.

According to the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which is researching the technology, it would take just 10 milligrams of antimatter to propel a human mission to Mars in 45 days. Based on this estimate, a craft equipped with an antimatter engine and roughly twice as much fuel could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt in roughly 147 days. But of course, the sheer cost of creating antimatter – combined with the fact that an engine based on these principles is still theoretical at this point – makes it a distant prospect.

Basically, getting to the Asteroid Belt takes quite a bit of time, at least when it comes to the concepts we currently have available. Using theoretical propulsion concepts, we are able to cut down on the travel time, but it will take some time (and lots of money) before those concepts are a reality. However, compared to many other proposed missions – such as to Europa and Enceladus – the travel time is shorter, and the dividends quite clear.

As already stated, there are enough resources – in the form of minerals and volatiles – in the Asteroid Belt to last us indefinitely. And, should we someday find a way to cost-effective way to send spacecraft there rapidly, we could tap that wealth and begin to usher in an age of post-scarcity! But as with so many other proposals and mission concepts, it looks like we’ll have to wait for the time being.

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

How Do We Terraform Ceres?

We continue our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming” series with a look at another body in our Solar System – the dwarf planet Ceres. Like many moons in the outer Solar System, Ceres is a world of ice and rock, and is the largest body in the Asteroid Belt. Humans beings could one day call it home, but could its surface also be made “Earth-like”?

In the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt, there are literally millions of celestial bodies to be found. And while the majority of these range in size from tiny rocks to planetesimals, there are also a handful of bodies that contain a significant percentage of the mass of the entire Asteroid Belt. Of these, the dwarf planet Ceres is the largest, constituting of about a third of the mass of the belt and being the sixth-largest body in the inner Solar System by mass and volume.

In addition to its size, Ceres is the only body in the Asteroid Belt that has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium – a state where an object becomes rounded by the force of its own gravity. On top of all that, it is believed that this dwarf planet has an interior ocean, one which contains about one-tenth of all the water found in the Earth’s oceans. For this reason, the idea of colonizing Ceres someday has some appeal, as well as terraforming.

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Ceres?”

How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?

Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.

As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?”

How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.

As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?”

The Next Generation of Exploration: The NEOCam Mission

In February of 2014, NASA put out the call for submissions for the thirteenth mission of their Discovery Program. In keeping with the program’s goal of mounting low-cost, highly focused missions to explore the Solar System, the latest program is focused on missions that look beyond Mars to new research goals. On September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, which included proposals for sending probes back to Venus, to sending orbiters to study asteroids and Near-Earth Objects.

Among the proposed NEO missions is the Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam. Consisting of a space-based infrared telescope designed to survey the Solar System for potentially hazardous asteroids, the NEOCam would be responsible for discovering and characterizing ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs that have discovered to date.

If deployed, NEOCam will begin discovering approximately one million asteroids in the Main Belt and thousands of comets in the course of its 4 year mission. However, the primary scientific goal of NEOCam is to discover and characterize over two-thirds of the asteroids that are larger that 140 meters, since it is possible some of these might pose a threat to Earth someday.

The NEOCam space telescope will survey the regions of space closest to the Earth's orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids are most likely to be found. NEOCam will use infrared light to characterize their physical properties such as their diameters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the NEOCam spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA’s Discovery program that would search for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The technical term is Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO), and it applies to near-Earth asteroids/comets that have an orbit that will allow them to make close approaches to Earth. And measuring more than 140 meters in diameter, they are of sufficient size that they could cause significant regional damage if they struck Earth.

In fact, a study conducted in 2010 through the Imperial College of London and Purdue University found that an asteroid measuring 50-meters across with a density of 2.6 grams per cubic centimeter and a speed of 12.7 kps could generate 2.9 Megatons of airburst energy once it passed through our atmosphere. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about nine W87 thermonuclear warheads!

By comparison, the meteor that appeared over the small Russian community of Chelyabinsk in 2013 measured only 20 meters across. Nevertheless, the explosive airbust caused by it entering our atmosphere generated only 500 kilotons of energy,  creating a zone of destruction tens of kilometers wide and injuring 1,491 people. One can imagine without much effort how much worse it would have been had the explosion been six times as big!

What’s more, as of August 1st, 2015, NASA has listed a total of 1,605 potentially hazardous asteroids and 85 near-Earth comets. Among these, there are 154 PHAs believed to be larger than one kilometer in diameter. This represents a tenfold increase in discoveries since the end of the 1990s, which is due to several astronomical surveys being performed (as well as improvements in detection methods) over the past two and a half decades.

The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As a result, monitoring and characterizing which of these objects is likely to pose a threat to Earth in the future has been a scientific priority in recent years. It is also why the U.S. Congress passed the “George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act” in 2005. Also known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2005”, this Act of Congress mandated that NASA identify 90% of all NEOs that could pose a threat to Earth.

If deployed, NEOCam will monitor NEOs from the Earth–Sun L1 Lagrange point, allowing it to look close to the Sun and see objects inside Earth’s orbit. To this, NEOCam will rely on a single scientific instrument: a 50 cm diameter telescope that operates at two heat-sensing infrared wavelengths, to detect the even the dark asteroids that are hardest to find.

By using two heat-sensitive infrared imaging channels, NEOCam can also make accurate measurements of NEO and gain valuable information about their sizes, composition, shapes, rotational states, and orbits. As Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Principal Investigator of the NEOCam mission,  explained:

“Everyone wants to know about asteroids hitting the Earth; NEOCam is designed to tackle this issue. We expect that NEOCam will discover about ten times more asteroids than are currently known, plus millions of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. By conducting a comprehensive asteroid survey, NEOCam will address three needs: planetary defense, understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system, and finding new destinations for future exploration.”

Dr. Mainzer is no stranger to infrared imaging for the sake of space exploration. In addition to being the Principal Investigator on this mission and a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she is also the Deputy Project Scientist for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Principal Investigator for the NEOWISE project to study minor planets.

She has also appeared many times on the History Channel series The Universe, the documentary featurette “Stellar Cartography: On Earth”, and serves as the science consultant and host for the live-action PBS Kids series Ready Jet Go!, which will be debuting in the winter of 2016. Under her direction, the NEOCam mission will also study the origin and ultimate fate of our solar system’s asteroids, and finding the most suitable NEO targets for future exploration by robots and humans.

Proposals for NEOCam have been submitted a total of three times to the NASA Discovery Program – in 2006, 2010, and 2015, respectively. In 2010, NEOCam was selected to receive technology development funding to design and test new detectors optimized for asteroid and comet detection and discovery. However, the mission was ultimately overruled in favor of the Mars InSight Lander, which is scheduled for launch in 2016.

As one of the semifinalists for Discovery Mission 13, the NEOCam mission has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. In September of 2016, one or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations), and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

In related news, NASA has confirmed that the asteroid known as 86666 (2000 FL10) will be passing Earth tomorrow. No need to worry, though. At its closest approach, the asteroid will still be at a distance of 892,577 km (554,000 mi) from Earth. Still, every passing rock underlines the need for knowing more about NEOs and where they might be headed one day!

A Mission to a Metal World: The Psyche Mission

In their drive to set exploration goals for the future, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for proposals for their thirteenth Discovery mission in February 2014. After reviewing the 27 initial proposals, a panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers recently selected five semifinalists for additional research and development, one or two of which will be launching by the 2020s.

With an eye to Venus, near-Earth objects and asteroids, these missions are looking beyond Mars to address other questions about the history and formation of our Solar System. Among them is the proposed Psyche mission, a robotic spacecraft that will explore the metallic asteroid of the same name – 16 Psyche – in the hopes of shedding some light on the mysteries of planet formation.

Discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17th, 1852 – and named after a Greek mythological figure – Psyche is one the ten most-massive asteroids in the Asteroid Belt. It is also the most massive M-type asteroid, a special class pertaining to asteroids composed primarily of nickel and iron.

For some time, scientists have speculated that this metallic asteroid is in fact the survivor of a protoplanet. In this scenario, a violent collision with a planetesimal stripped off Psyche’s outer, rocky layers, leaving behind only the dense, metallic interior. This theory is supported by estimates of Psyche’s bulk density, spectra, and radar surface properties; all of which show it to be an object unlike any others in the Belt.

Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.
Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.

In addition, this composition of 16 Psyche is strikingly similar to that of Earth’s metal core. Given that astronomers think that larger planets like Venus, Earth and Mars formed from the collision and merger of smaller worlds, Psyche could be the remains of a protoplanet that did not get to create a larger body.

Had such a planetesimal been struck by a large enough object, it would have been able to lose its lower-mass exterior while keeping its core intact. Thus, studying this 250 km (155 mile) wide body, offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the interiors of planets and large moons, whose cores are hidden beneath many miles of rock.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is the Principle Investigator of this mission. As she and her team stated in their mission proposal paper, which was originally submitted as part of the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2014):

“This mission would be a journey back in time to one of the earliest periods of planetary accretion, when the first bodies were not only differentiating, but were being pulverized, shredded, and accreted by collisions. It is also an exploration, by proxy, of the interiors of terrestrial planets and satellites today: we cannot visit a metallic core any other way.

“For all of these reasons, coupled with the relative accessibility to low- cost rendezvous and orbit, Psyche is a superb target for a Discovery-class mission that would characterize its geology, shape, elemental composition, magnetic field , and mass distribution.”

The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss
The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss

A robotic mission to Pysche would also help astronomers learn more about metal worlds, a type of solar system object that scientists know very little about. But perhaps the greatest reason to study 16 Psyche is the fact that it is unique. So far, this body is the only metallic core-like body that has been discovered in the Solar System.

The proposed spacecraft would orbit Psyche for six months, studying its topography, surface features, gravity, magnetism, and other characteristics. The mission would also be cost-effective and quick to launch, since it is largely based on technology that went into the making of NASA’s Dawn probe. Currently in orbit around Ceres, the Dawn mission has demonstrated the effectiveness of many new technologies, not the least of which was the xenon ion thruster.

The Psyche orbiter mission was selected as one of the Discovery Program’s five semifinalists on September 30th, 2015. Each proposal has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. One or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations) and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

The Planet Neptune

Neptune photographed by Voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Neptune is the eight planet from our Sun, one of the four gas giants, and one of the four outer planets in our Solar System. Since the “demotion” of Pluto by the IAU to the status of a dwarf planet – and/or Plutoid and Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – Neptune is now considered to be the farthest planet in our Solar System.

As one of the planets that cannot be seen with the naked eye, Neptune was not discovered until relatively recently. And given its distance, it has only been observed up close on one occasion – in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spaceprobe. Nevertheless, what we’ve come to know about this gas (and ice) giant in that time has taught us much about the outer Solar System and the history of its formation.

Discovery and Naming:

Neptune’s discovery did not take place until the 19th century, though there are indications that it was observed before long that. For instance, Galileo’s drawings from December 28th, 1612, and January 27th, 1613, contained plotted points which are now known to match up with the positions of Neptune on those dates. However, in both cases, Galileo appeared to have mistaken it for a star.

1821, French astronomer Alexis Bouvard published astronomical tables for the orbit of Uranus. Subsequent observations revealed substantial deviations from the tables, which led Bouvard to hypothesize that an unknown body was perturbing Uranus’ orbit through gravitational interaction.

New Berlin Observatory at Linden Street, where Neptune was discovered observationally. Credit: Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam
New Berlin Observatory at Linden Street, where Neptune was discovered observationally. Credit: Leibniz-Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam

In 1843, English astronomer John Couch Adams began work on the orbit of Uranus using the data he had and produced several different estimates in the following years of the planet’s orbit. In 1845–46, Urbain Le Verrier, independently of Adams, developed his own calculations, which he shared with Johann Gottfried Galle of the Berlin Observatory. Galle confirmed the presence of a planet at the coordinates specified by Le Verrier on September 23rd, 1846.

The announcement of the discovery was met with controversy, as both Le Verrier and Adams claimed responsibility. Eventually, an international consensus emerged that both Le Verrier and Adams jointly deserved credit. However, a re-evaluation by historians in 1998 of the relevant historical documents led to the conclusion that Le Verrier was more directly responsible for the discovery and deserves the greater share of the credit.

Claiming the right of discovery, Le Verrier suggested the planet be named after himself, but this met with stiff resistance outside of France. He also suggested the name Neptune, which was gradually accepted by the international community. This was largely because it was consistent with the nomenclature of the other planets, all of which were named after deities from Greco-Roman mythology.

Neptune’s Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 24,622 ± 19 km, Neptune is the fourth largest planet in the Solar System and four times as large as Earth. But with a mass of 1.0243×1026 kg – which is roughly 17 times that of Earth – it is the third most massive, outranking Uranus. The planet has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0086, and orbits the Sun at a distance of 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion and 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion.

A size comparison of Neptune and Earth. Credit: NASA
A size comparison of Neptune and Earth. Credit: NASA

Neptune takes 16 h 6 min 36 s (0.6713 days) to complete a single sidereal rotation, and 164.8 Earth years to complete a single orbit around the Sun. This means that a single day lasts 67% as long on Neptune, whereas a year is the equivalent of approximately 60,190 Earth days (or 89,666 Neptunian days).

Because Neptune’s axial tilt (28.32°) is similar to that of Earth (~23°) and Mars (~25°), the planet experiences similar seasonal changes. Combined with its long orbital period, this means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. Also owing to its axial tilt being comparable to Earth’s is the fact that the variation in the length of its day over the course of the year is not any more extreme than it on Earth.

Neptune’s orbit also has a profound impact on the region directly beyond it, known as the Kuiper Belt (otherwise known as the “Trans-Neptunian Region”). Much in the same way that Jupiter’s gravity dominates the Asteroid Belt, shaping its structure, so Neptune’s gravity dominates the Kuiper Belt. Over the age of the Solar System, certain regions of the Kuiper belt became destabilised by Neptune’s gravity, creating gaps in the Kuiper belt’s structure.

There also exists orbits within these empty regions where objects can survive for the age of the Solar System. These resonances occur when Neptune’s orbital period is a precise fraction of that of the object – meaning they complete a fraction of an orbit for every orbit made by Neptune. The most heavily populated resonance in the Kuiper belt, with over 200 known objects, is the 2:3 resonance.

Objects in this resonance complete 2 orbits for every 3 of Neptune, and are known as plutinos because the largest of the known Kuiper belt objects, Pluto, is among them. Although Pluto crosses Neptune’s orbit regularly, the 2:3 resonance ensures they can never collide.

Neptune has a number of known trojan objects occupying both the Sun–Neptune L4 and L5 Lagrangian Points – regions of gravitational stability leading and trailing Neptune in its orbit. Some Neptune trojans are remarkably stable in their orbits, and are likely to have formed alongside Neptune rather than being captured.

Neptune’s Composition:

Due to its smaller size and higher concentrations of volatiles relative to Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune (much like Uranus) is often referred to as an “ice giant” – a subclass of a giant planet. Also like Uranus, Neptune’s internal structure is differentiated between a rocky core consisting of silicates and metals; a mantle consisting of water, ammonia and methane ices; and an atmosphere consisting of hydrogen, helium and methane gas.

The core of Neptune is composed of iron, nickel and silicates, with an interior model giving it a mass about 1.2 times that of Earth. The pressure at the center is estimated to be 7 Mbar (700 GPa), about twice as high as that at the center of Earth, and with temperatures as high as 5,400 K. At a depth of 7000 km, the conditions may be such that methane decomposes into diamond crystals that rain downwards like hailstones.

The mantle is equivalent to 10 – 15 Earth masses and is rich in water, ammonia and methane. This mixture is referred to as icy even though it is a hot, dense fluid, and is sometimes called a “water-ammonia ocean”.  Meanwhile, the atmosphere forms about 5% to 10% of its mass and extends perhaps 10% to 20% of the way towards the core, where it reaches pressures of about 10 GPa – or about 100,000 times that of Earth’s atmosphere.

Composition of Neptune. Image credit: NASA
Composition of Neptune. Image credit: NASA

Increasing concentrations of methane, ammonia and water are found in the lower regions of the atmosphere. Unlike Uranus, Neptune’s composition has a higher volume of ocean, whereas Uranus has a smaller mantle.

Neptune’s Atmosphere:

At high altitudes, Neptune’s atmosphere is 80% hydrogen and 19% helium, with a trace amount of methane. As with Uranus, this absorption of red light by the atmospheric methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune’s is darker and more vivid. Because Neptune’s atmospheric methane content is similar to that of Uranus, some unknown atmospheric constituent is thought to contribute to Neptune’s more intense coloring.

Neptune’s atmosphere is subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere (where temperature decreases with altitude), and the stratosphere (where temperature increases with altitude). The boundary between the two, the tropopause, lies at a pressure of 0.1 bars (10 kPa). The stratosphere then gives way to the thermosphere at a pressure lower than 10-5 to 10-4 microbars (1 to 10 Pa), which gradually transitions to the exosphere.

Neptune’s spectra suggest that its lower stratosphere is hazy due to condensation of products caused by the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane (i.e. photolysis), which produces compounds such as ethane and ethyne. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which are responsible for Neptune’s stratosphere being warmer than that of Uranus.

In this image, the colors and contrasts were modified to emphasize the planet’s atmospheric features. The winds in Neptune’s atmosphere can reach the speed of sound or more. Neptune’s Great Dark Spot stands out as the most prominent feature on the left. Several features, including the fainter Dark Spot 2 and the South Polar Feature, are locked to the planet’s rotation, which allowed Karkoschka to precisely determine how long a day lasts on Neptune. (Image: Erich Karkoschka)
A modified color/contrast image emphasizing Neptune’s atmospheric features, including wind speed. Credit Erich Karkoschka)

For reasons that remain obscure, the planet’s thermosphere experiences unusually high temperatures of about 750 K (476.85 °C/890 °F). The planet is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated by ultraviolet radiation, which means another heating mechanism is involved – which could be the atmosphere’s interaction with ion’s in the planet’s magnetic field, or gravity waves from the planet’s interior that dissipate in the atmosphere.

Because Neptune is not a solid body, its atmosphere undergoes differential rotation. The wide equatorial zone rotates with a period of about 18 hours, which is slower than the 16.1-hour rotation of the planet’s magnetic field. By contrast, the reverse is true for the polar regions where the rotation period is 12 hours.

This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and results in strong latitudinal wind shear and violent storms. The three most impressive were all spotted in 1989 by the Voyager 2 space probe, and then named based on their appearances.

The first to be spotted was a massive anticyclonic storm measuring 13,000 x 6,600 km and resembling the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Known as the Great Dark Spot, this storm was not spotted five later (Nov. 2nd, 1994) when the Hubble Space Telescope looked for it. Instead, a new storm that was very similar in appearance was found in the planet’s northern hemisphere, suggesting that these storms have a shorter life span than Jupiter’s.

Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL
Reconstruction of Voyager 2 images showing the Great Black spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Black Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

The Scooter is another storm, a white cloud group located farther south than the Great Dark Spot. This nickname first arose during the months leading up to the Voyager 2 encounter in 1989, when the cloud group was observed moving at speeds faster than the Great Dark Spot.

The Small Dark Spot, a southern cyclonic storm, was the second-most-intense storm observed during the 1989 encounter. It was initially completely dark; but as Voyager 2 approached the planet, a bright core developed and could be seen in most of the highest-resolution images.

Neptune’s Moons:

Neptune has 14 known satellites, all but one of which are named after Greek and Roman deities of the sea (S/2004 N 1 is currently unnamed). These moons are divided into two groups – the regular and irregular moons – based on their orbit and proximity to Neptune. Neptune’s Regular Moons – Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Galatea, Larissa, S/2004 N 1, and Proteus – are those that are closest to the planet and which follow circular, prograde orbits that lie in the planet’s equatorial plane.

They range in distance from 48,227 km (Naiad) to 117,646 km (Proteus) from Neptune, and all but the outermost two (S/2004 N 1, and Proteus) orbit Neptune slower than its orbital period of 0.6713 days. Based on observational data and assumed densities, these moons range in size and mass from 96 x 60 x 52 km and 1.9 x 1017 kg (Naiad) to 436 x 416 x 402 km and 50.35 x 1017 kg (Proteus).

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting the giant planet Neptune, nearly 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).
This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting the giant planet Neptune, nearly 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute).

With the exception of Larissa and Proteus (which are largely rounded) all of Neptune’s inner moons are believed to be elongated in shape. Their spectra also indicates that they are made from water ice contaminated by some very dark material, probably organic compounds. In this respect, the inner Neptunian moons are similar to the inner moons of Uranus.

Neptune’s irregular moons consist of the planet’s remaining satellites (including Triton). They generally follow inclined eccentric and often retrograde orbits far from Neptune. The only exception is Triton, which orbits close to the planet, following a circular orbit, though retrograde and inclined.

In order of their distance from the planet, the irregular moons are Triton, Nereid, Halimede, Sao, Laomedeia, Neso and Psamathe – a group that includes both prograde and retrograde objects. With the exception of Triton and Nereid, Neptune’s irregular moons are similar to those of other giant planets and are believed to have been gravitationally captured by Neptune.

In terms of size and mass, the irregular moons are relatively consistent, ranging from approximately 40 km in diameter and 4 x 1016 kg in mass (Psamathe) to 62 km and 16 x 1016 kg for Halimede. Triton and Nereid are unusual irregular satellites and are thus treated separately from the other five irregular Neptunian moons. Between these two and the other irregular moons, four major differences have been noted.

First of all, they are the largest two known irregular moons in the Solar System. Triton itself is almost an order of magnitude larger than all other known irregular moons and comprises more than 99.5% of all the mass known to orbit Neptune (including the planet’s rings and thirteen other known moons).

Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Global Color Mosaic of Triton, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

Secondly, they both have atypically small semi-major axes, with Triton’s being over an order of magnitude smaller than those of all other known irregular moons. Thirdly, they both have unusual orbital eccentricities: Nereid has one of the most eccentric orbits of any known irregular satellite, and Triton’s orbit is a nearly perfect circle. Finally, Nereid also has the lowest inclination of any known irregular satellite

With a mean diameter of around 2700 km and a mass of 214080 ± 520 x 1017 kg, Triton is the largest of Neptune’s moons, and the only one large enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. is spherical in shape). At a distance of 354,759 km from Neptune, it also sits between the planet’s inner and outer moons.

Triton follows a retrograde and quasi-circular orbit, and is composed largely of nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and water ices. With a geometric albedo of more than 70% and a Bond albedo as high as 90%, it is also one of the brightest objects in the Solar System. The surface has a reddish tint, owning to the interaction of ultraviolet radiation and methane, causing tholins.

Triton is also one of the coldest moons in the Solar System, with surface temperature of about 38 K (-235.2 °C). However, owing to the moon being geologically active (which results in cryovolcanism) and surface temperature variations that cause sublimation, Triton is one of only two moons in the Solar System that has a substantial atmosphere. Much like it’s surface, this atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen with small amounts of methane and carbon monoxide, and with an estimated pressure of about 14 nanobar.

Triton has a relatively high density of about 2 g/cm3 indicating that rocks constitute about two thirds of its mass, and ices (mainly water ice) the remaining one third. There also may be a layer of liquid water deep inside Triton, forming a subterranean ocean. Surface features include the large southern polar cap, older cratered planes cross-cut by graben and scarps, as well as youthful features caused by endogenic resurfacing.

Because of its retrograde orbit and relative proximity to Neptune (closer than the Moon is to Earth), Triton is grouped with the planet’s irregular moons (see below). In addition, it is believed to be a captured object, possibly a dwarf planet that was once part of the Kuiper Belt. At the same time, these orbital characteristics are the reason why Triton experiences tidal deceleration. and will eventually spiral inward and collide with the planet in about 3.6 billion years.

Nereid is the third-largest moon of Neptune. It has a prograde but very eccentric orbit and is believed to be a former regular satellite that was scattered to its current orbit through gravitational interactions during Triton’s capture. Water ice has been spectroscopically detected on its surface. Nereid shows large, irregular variations in its visible magnitude, which are probably caused by forced precession or chaotic rotation combined with an elongated shape and bright or dark spots on the surface.

Neptune’s Ring System:

Neptune has five rings, all of which are named after astronomers who made important discoveries about the planet – Galle, Le Verrier, Lassell, Arago, and Adams. The rings are composed of at least 20% dust (with some containing as much as 70%) while the rest of the material consists of small rocks. The planet’s rings are difficult to see because they are dark and vary in density and size.

The Galle ring was named after Johann Gottfried Galle, the first person to see the planet using a telescope; and at 41,000–43,000 km, it is the nearest of Neptune’s rings.  The La Verrier ring – which is very narrow at 113 km in width – is named after French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, the planet’s co-founder.

At a distance of between 53,200 and 57,200 km from Neptune (giving it a width of 4,000 km) the Lassell ring is the widest of Neptune’s rings. This ring is named after William Lassell, the English astronomer who discovered Triton just seventeen days after Neptune was discovered. The Arago ring is 57,200 kilometers from the planet and less than 100 kilometers wide. This ring section is named after Francois Arago, Le Verrier’s mentor and the astronomer who played an active role in the dispute over who deserved credit for discovering Neptune.

The outer Adams ring was named after John Couch Adams, who is credited with the co-discovery of Neptune. Although the ring is narrow at only 35 kilometers wide, it is the most famous of the five due to its arcs. These arcs accord with areas in the ring system where the material of the rings is grouped together in a clump, and are the brightest and most easily observed parts of the ring system.

Although the Adams ring has five arcs, the three most famous are the “Liberty”, “Equality”, and “Fraternity” arcs. Scientists have been traditionally unable to explain the existence of these arcs because, according to the laws of motion, they should distribute the material uniformly throughout the rings. However, stronomers now estimate that the arcs are corralled into their current form by the gravitational effects of Galatea, which sits just inward from the ring.

The rings of Neptune as seen from Voyager 2 during the 1989 flyby. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
The rings of Neptune as seen from Voyager 2 during the 1989 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL

The rings of Neptune are very dark, and probably made of organic compounds that have been altered due to exposition to cosmic radiation. This is similar to the rings of Uranus, but very different to the icy rings around Saturn. They seem to contain a large quantity of micrometer-sized dust, similar in size to the particles in the rings of Jupiter.

It’s believed that the rings of Neptune are relatively young – much younger than the age of the Solar System, and much younger than the age of Uranus’ rings. Consistent with the theory that Triton was a KBO that was seized, by Neptune’s gravity, they are believed to be the result of a collision between some of the planet’s original moons.

Exploration:

The Voyager 2 probe is the only spacecraft to have ever visited Neptune. The spacecraft’s closest approach to the planet occurred on August 25th, 1989, which took place at a distance of 4,800 km (3,000 miles) above Neptune’s north pole. Because this was the last major planet the spacecraft could visit, it was decided to make a close flyby of the moon Triton – similar to what had been done for Voyager 1s encounter with Saturn and its moon Titan.

The spacecraft performed a near-encounter with the moon Nereid before it came to within 4,400 km of Neptune’s atmosphere on August 25th, then passed close to the planet’s largest moon Triton later the same day. The spacecraft verified the existence of a magnetic field surrounding the planet and discovered that the field was offset from the center and tilted in a manner similar to the field around Uranus.

Neptune’s rotation period was determined using measurements of radio emissions and Voyager 2 also showed that Neptune had a surprisingly active weather system. Six new moons were discovered during the flyby, and the planet was shown to have more than one ring.

While no missions to Neptune are currently being planned, some hypothetical missions have been suggested. For instance, a possible Flagship Mission has been envisioned by NASA to take place sometime during the late 2020s or early 2030s. Other proposals include a possible Cassini-Huygens-style “Neptune Orbiter with Probes”, which was suggested back in 2003.

Another, more recent proposal by NASA was for Argo – a flyby spacecraft that would be launched in 2019, which would visit Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and a Kuiper belt object. The focus would be on Neptune and its largest moon Triton, which would be investigated around 2029.

With its icy-blue color, liquid surface, and wavy weather patterns, Neptune was appropriately named after the Roman god of the sea. And given its distance from our planet, there is still a great deal that remains to be learned about it. In the coming decades, one can only hope that a mission to the outer Solar System and/or Kuiper Belt includes a flyby of Neptune.

We have many interesting articles about Neptune here at Universe Today. Below is a comprehensive list for your viewing (and possibly researching) pleasure!

Characteristics of Neptune:

Position and Movement of Neptune:

Neptune’s Moon and Rings:

History of Neptune:

Neptune’s Surface and Structure:

Solar System Guide

The Solar System. Image Credit: NASA

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

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

Discovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and Composition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formation and Evolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inner Solar System:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outer Solar System:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans-Neptunian Region:

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

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

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

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

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

Oort Cloud and Farthest Regions:

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration:

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

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

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

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

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

By the 1970’s, probes were being dispatched to the outer planets as well, beginning with the Pioneer 10 mission which flew past Jupiter in 1973 and the Pioneer 11 visit to Saturn in 1979. The Voyager probes performed a grand tour of the outer planets following their launch in 1977, with both probes passing Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980-1981. Voyager 2 then went on to make close approaches to Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Solar System:

Theories about the Solar System:

Moons:

Anything EXTREME!:

Solar System Stuffs: