Centaurs Keep Their Rings From Greedy Gas Giants

Artist's impression of what the rings of the asteroid Chariklo would look like from the small body's surface. The rings' discovery was a first for an asteroid. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

When we think of ring systems, what naturally comes to mind are planets like Saturn. It’s beautiful rings are certainly the most well known, but they are not the only planet in our Solar System to have them. As the Voyager missions demonstrated, every planet in the outer Solar System – from Jupiter to Neptune – has its own system of rings. And in recent years, astronomers have discovered that even certain minor planets – like the Centaur asteroids 10199 Chariklo and 2006 Chiron – have them too.

This was a rather surprising find, since these objects have such chaotic orbits. Given that their paths through the Solar System are frequently altered by the powerful gravity of gas giants, astronomers have naturally wondered how a minor planet could retain a system of rings. But thanks to a team of researchers from the Sao Paulo State University in Brazil, we may be close to answering that question.

In a study titled “The Rings of Chariklo Under Close Encounters With The Giant Planets“, which appeared recently in The Astrophysical Journal, they explained how they constructed a model of the Solar System that incorporated 729 simulated objects. All of these objects were the same size as Chariklo and had their own system of rings. They then went about the process of examining how interacting with gas giant effected them.

Artist's impression of rings around the asteroid Chariklo. This was the first asteroid where rings were discovered. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)
Artist’s impression of rings around the Centaur Chariklo, the first asteroid where rings were discovered. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

To break it down, Centaurs are a population of objects within our Solar System that behave as both comets and asteroids (hence why they are named after the hybrid beasts of Greek mythology). 10199 Chariklo is the largest known member of the Centaur population, a possible former Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) which currently orbits between Saturn and Uranus.

The rings around this asteroid were first noticed in 2013 when the asteroid underwent a stellar occultation. This revealed a system of two rings, with a radius of 391 and 405 km and widths of about 7 km 3 km, respectively. The absorption features of the rings showed that they were partially composed of water ice. In this respect, they were much like the rings of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and the other gas giants, which are composed largely of water ice and dust.

This was followed by findings made in 2015 that indicated that 2006 Chiron – another major Centaur – could have a ring of its own. This led to further speculation that there might be many minor planets in our Solar System that have a system of rings. Naturally, this was a bit perplexing to astronomers, since rings are fragile structures that were thought to be exclusive to the gas giants of our System.

As Professor Othon Winter, the lead researcher of the Sao Paulo team, told Universe Today via email:

“At first it was a surprise to find a Centaur with rings, since the Centaurs have chaotic orbits wandering between the giant planets and having frequent close encounters with them. However, we have shown that in most of the cases the ring system can survive all the close encounters with the giant planets. Therefore,  Centaurs with rings might be much more common than we thought before.”

Arist's impression of Chiron and its possible ring. Credit: dailygalaxy.com
Artist’s impression of Chiron, showing a possible ring system. Credit: dailygalaxy.com

For the sake of their study, Winter and his colleagues considered the orbits of 729 simulated clones of Chariklo as they orbited the Sun over the course of 100 million years. From this, Winter and his colleagues found that each Centaur averaged about 150 close encounters with a gas giant, within one Hill radius of the planet in question. As Winter described it:

“The study was made in two steps. First we considered a set of more than 700 clones of Chariklo. The clones had initial trajectories that were slightly different from Chariklo for statistical purposes (since we are dealing with chaotic trajectories) and computationally simulated their orbital evolution forward in time (to see their future) and also backward in time (to see their past). During these simulations we archived the information of all the close encounters (many thousands) they had with each of the giant planets.”

“In the second step, we performed simulations of each one of the close encounters found in the first step, but now including a disk of particles around Chariklo  (representing the ring particles). Then, at the end of each simulation we analyzed what happened to the particles. Which ones were removed from Chariklo  (escaping its gravitational field)? Which ones were strongly disturbed (still orbiting around Chariklo)? Which ones did not suffer any significant effect?”

In the end, the simulations showed that in 90 percent of the cases, the rings of the Centaurs survived their close encounters with gas giants, whereas they were disturbed in 4 percent of cases, and were stripped away only 3 percent of the time. Thus, they concluded that if there is an efficient mechanism that creates the rings, then it is strong enough to let Centaurs keep them.

Due to their dual nature, astronomers refer to asteroids that behave as both comets and asteroids as Centaurs. Credit: jpl.nasa.gov
Due to their dual nature, the name Centaur has stuck when referring to objects that act as both comets and asteroids. Credit: jpl.nasa.gov

More than that, their research would seem to indicate that what was considered unique to certain planetary bodies may actually be more commonplace. “It reveals that our Solar System is complex not just as whole or for large bodies,” said Winter, “but even small bodies may show complex structures and even more complex temporal evolution.”

The next step for the research team is to study ring formation, which could show that they in fact picking them up from the gas giants themselves. But regardless of where they come from, its becoming increasingly clear that Centaurs like 10199 Chariklo are not alone. What’s more, they aren’t giving up their rings anytime soon!

Further Reading: iopscience.iop.org

Surveying the “Fossils of Planet Formation”: The Lucy Mission

Lucy, an SwRI mission proposal to study primitive asteroids orbiting near Jupiter, is one of five science investigations under the NASA Discovery Program up for possible funding. Credit: swri.org

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for mission proposals, one or two of which will have the honor of taking part in Discovery Mission Thirteen. Hoping to focus the next round of exploration efforts to places other than Mars, the five semifinalists (which were announced this past September) include proposed missions to Venus, Near-Earth Objects, and asteroids.

When it comes to asteroid exploration, one of the possible contenders is Lucy – a proposed reconnaissance orbiter that would study Jupiter‘s Trojan Asteroids. In addition to being the first mission of its kind, examining the Trojans Asteroids could also lead to several scientific finds that will help us to better understand the history of the Solar System.

By definition, Trojan are populations of asteroids that share their orbit with other planets or moons, but do not collide with it because they orbit in one of the two Lagrangian points of stability. The most significant population of Trojans in the Solar System are Jupiter’s, with a total of 6,178 having been found as of January 2015. In accordance with astronomical conventions, objects found in this population are named after mythical figures from the Trojan War.

There are two main theories as to where Jupiter’s Trojans came from. The first suggests that they formed in the same part of the Solar System as Jupiter and were caught by the gas giant’s gravity as it accumulated hydrogen and helium from the protoplanetary disk. Since they would have shared the same approximate orbit as the forming gas giant, they would have been caught in its gravity and orbited it ever since.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the Inner Solar System and Jupiter. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The second theory, part of the Nice model, proposes that the Jupiter Trojans were captured about 500-600 million years after the Solar System’s formation. During this period Uranus, Neptune – and to a lesser extent, Saturn – moved outward, whereas Jupiter moved slightly inward. This migration could have destabilized the primordial Kuiper Belt, throwing millions of objects into the inner Solar System, some of which Jupiter then captured.

In either case, the presence of Trojan asteroids around Jupiter can be traced back to the early Solar System. Studying them therefore presents an opportunity to learn more about its history and formation. And if in fact the Trojans are migrant from the Kuiper Belt, it would also be a chance for scientists to learn more about the most distant reaches of the solar system without having to send a mission all the way out there.

The mission would be led by Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, with the Goddard Space Center managing the project. Its targets would most likely include asteroid (3548) Eurybates, (21900) 1999 VQ10, (11351) 1997 TS25, and the binary (617) Patroclus/Menoetius.  It would also visit a main-belt asteroid (1981 EQ5) on the way.

The spacecraft would perform scans of the asteroids and determine their geology, surface features, compositions, masses and densities using a sophisticated suite of remote-sensing and radio instruments. In addition, during it’s proposed 11-year mission, Lucy would also gather information on the asteroids thermal and other physical properties from close range.

Artit's concept of the Trojan asteroids. By sheer number, small bodies dominate our solar system — and NASA's latest Discovery competition. Credit: NASA artist's concept - See more at: http://spacenews.com/small-bodies-dominate-nasas-latest-discovery-competition/#sthash.pOgot1ye.dpuf
Artist’s concept of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids hovering in the foreground in Jupiter’s path, with the “Greeks” at left in the background. Credit: NASA.

The project is named Lucy in honor of one of the most influential human fossils found on Earth. Discovered in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy’s remains – several hundred bone fragments that belonged to a member the hominid species of Australopithecus afarensis – proved to be an extraordinary find that advanced our knowledge of hominid species evolution.

Levison and his team are hoping that a similar find can be made using the probe of the same name. As he and his colleagues describe it, the Lucy mission is aimed at “Surveying the diversity of Trojan asteroids: The fossils of planet formation.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Levinson. “Because the Trojan asteroids are remnants of that primordial material, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. These asteroids are in an area that really is the last population of objects in the solar system to be visited.”

The payload is expected to include three complementary imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer. NASA has also offered an additional $5 to $30 million in funding if mission planners choose to incorporate a laser communications system, a 3D woven heat shield, a Deep Space atomic clock, and/or ion engines.

As one of the semifinalists, the Lucy mission has received $3 million dollars to conduct concept design studies and analyses over the course of the next year. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016. In the end, one or two missions will receive the mission’s budget of $450 million (not including launch vehicle funding or post-launch operations) and will be launched by 2020 at the earliest.

Solar System Guide

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

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

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

Discovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure and Composition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formation and Evolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inner Solar System:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outer Solar System:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans-Neptunian Region:

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

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

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

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

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

Oort Cloud and Farthest Regions:

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Solar System:

Theories about the Solar System:

Moons:

Anything EXTREME!:

Solar System Stuffs:

Which Planets Have Rings?

Which Planets Have Rings?
This colorized image taken by the Cassini orbiter, shows Saturn's A and F rings, the small moon Epimetheus and Titan, the planet's largest moon. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Planetary rings are an interesting phenomena. The mere mention of these two words tends to conjure up images of Saturn, with its large and colorful system of rings that form an orbiting disk. But in fact, several other planets in our Solar System have rings. It’s just that, unlike Saturn, their systems are less visible, and perhaps less beautiful to behold.

Thanks to exploration efforts mounted in the past few decades, which have seen space probes dispatched to the outer Solar System, we have come to understand that all the gas giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – all have their own ring systems. And that’s not all! In fact, ring systems may be more common than previously thought…

Jupiter’s Rings:

In was not until 1979 that the rings of Jupiter were discovered when the Voyager 1 space probe conducted a flyby of the planet. They were also thoroughly investigated in the 1990s by the Galileo orbiter. Because it is composed mainly of dust, the ring system is faint and can only be observed by the most powerful telescopes, or up-close by orbital spacecraft. However, during the past twenty-three years, it has been observed from Earth numerous times, as well as by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A schema of Jupiter's ring system showing the four main components. For simplicity, Metis and Adrastea are depicted as sharing their orbit. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University
A schema of Jupiter’s ring system showing the four main components. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

The ring system has four main components: a thick inner torus of particles known as the “halo ring”; a relatively bright, but extremely thin “main ring”; and two wide, thick, and faint outer “gossamer rings”. These outer rings are composed of material from the moons Amalthea and Thebe and are named after these moons (i.e. the “Amalthea Ring” and “Thebe Ring”).

The main and halo rings consist of dust ejected from the moons Metis, Adrastea, and other unobserved parent bodies as the result of high-velocity impacts. Scientists believe that a ring could even exist around the moon of Himalia’s orbit, which could have been created when another small moon crashed into it and caused material to be ejected from the surface.

Saturn’s Rings:

The rings of Saturn, meanwhile, have been known for centuries. Although Galileo Galilei became the first person to observe the rings of Saturn in 1610, he did not have a powerful enough telescope to discern their true nature. It was not until 1655 that Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch mathematician and scientist, became the first person to describe them as a disk surrounding the planet.

Subsequent observations, which included spectroscopic studies by the late 19th century, confirmed that they are composed of smaller rings, each one made up of tiny particles orbiting Saturn. These particles range in size from micrometers to meters that form clumps orbiting the planet, and which are composed almost entirely of water ice contaminated with dust and chemicals.

Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Assembled by Gordan Ugarkovic.
Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Gordan Ugarkovic

In total, Saturn has a system of 12 rings with 2 divisions. It has the most extensive ring system of any planet in our solar system. The rings have numerous gaps where particle density drops sharply. In some cases, this due to Saturn’s Moons being embedded within them, which causes destabilizing orbital resonances to occur.

However, within the Titan Ringlet and the G Ring, orbital resonance with Saturn’s moons has a stabilizing influence. Well beyond the main rings is the Phoebe ring, which is tilted at an angle of 27 degrees to the other rings and, like Phoebe, orbits in retrograde fashion.

Uranus’ Rings:

The rings of Uranus are thought to be relatively young, at not more than 600 million years old. They are believed to have originated from the collisional fragmentation of a number of moons that once existed around the planet. After colliding, the moons probably broke up into numerous particles, which survived as narrow and optically dense rings only in strictly confined zones of maximum stability.

Uranus has 13 rings that have been observed so far. They are all very faint, the majority being opaque and only a few kilometers wide. The ring system consists mostly of large bodies 0.2 to 20 m in diameter. A few rings are optically thin and are made of small dust particles which makes them difficult to observe using Earth-based telescopes.

The labeled ring arcs of Neptune as seen in newly processed data. The image spans 26 exposures combined into a equivalent 95 minute exposure, and the ring trace and an image of the occulted planet Neptune is added for reference. (Credit: M. Showalter/SETI Institute).
The labeled ring arcs of Neptune as seen in newly processed data. Credit: M. Showalter/SETI Institute

Neptune’s Rings:

The rings of Neptune were not discovered until 1989 until the Voyager 2 space probe conducted a flyby of the planet. Six rings have been observed in the system, which are best described as faint and tenuous. The rings are very dark, and are likely composed by organic compounds processed by radiation, similar to that found in the rings of Uranus. Much like Uranus, and Saturn, four of Neptune’s moons orbit within the ring system.

Other Bodies:

Back in 2008, it was suggested that the magnetic effects around the Saturnian moon of Rhea may indicate that it has its own ring system. However, a subsequent study indicated that observations obtained the Cassini mission suggested that some other mechanism was responsible for the magnetic effects.

Years before the the New Horizons probe visited the system, astronomers speculated that Pluto might also have a ring system. However, after conducting its historic flyby of the system in July of 2015, the New Horizons probe did not find any evidence of a ring system. While the dwarf planet had many satellites aside from its largest (Charon), debris from around the planet has not coalesced into rings, as was theorized.

Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto (Charon is seen in the background). Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto (Charon is seen in the background). Credit: NASA/JPL

The minor planet of Chariklo – an asteroid that orbits the Sun between Saturn and Uranus – also has two rings that orbit it. These are perhaps due to a collision that caused a chain of debris to form in orbit around it. The announcement of these rings was made on March 26th of 2014, and was based on observations made during a stellar occultation on June 3rd, 2013.

This was followed by findings made in 2015 that indicated that 2006 Chiron – another major Centaur – could have a ring of its own. This led to further speculation that there might be many minor planets in our Solar System that have a system of rings.

In short, four planets in our Solar System have intricate ring systems, as well as the minor planet Chariklo, and perhaps even many other smaller objects. In this sense, ring systems appear to be a lot more common in our Solar System than previously thought.

We have written many articles about planets with rings for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the composition of Saturn’s rings, and here’s an article about the planets with rings.

If you’d like more info on the planets, check out NASA’s Solar System exploration page, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Simulator.

We’ve also recorded a series of episodes of Astronomy Cast about every planet in the Solar System. Start here, Episode 49: Mercury.

Is Our Solar System Weird?

This artist’s view shows an extrasolar planet orbiting a star (the white spot in the right).
This artist’s view shows an extrasolar planet orbiting a star (the white spot in the right). Image Credit: IAU/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Is our Solar System normal? Or is it weird? How does the Solar System fit within the strange star systems we’ve discovered in the Milky Way so far?

With all the beautiful images that come down the pipe from Hubble, our Solar System has been left with celestial body image questions rivaling that of your average teenager. They’re questions we’re all familiar with. Is my posture crooked? Do I look pasty? Are my arms too long? Is it supposed to bulge out like this in the middle? Some of my larger asteroids are slightly asymmetrical. Can everyone tell? And of course the toughest question of all… Am I normal?

The idea that stars are suns with planets orbiting them dates back to early human history. This was generally accompanied by the idea that other planetary systems would be much like our own. It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve had real evidence of planets around other stars, known as exoplanets. The first extrasolar planet was discovered around a pulsar in 1992 and the first “hot jupiter” was discovered in 1995.

Most of the known exoplanets have been discovered by the amazing Kepler spacecraft. Kepler uses the transit method, observing stars over long periods of time to see if they dim as a planet passes in front of the star. Since then, astronomers have found more than 1700 exoplanets, and 460 stars are known to have multiple planets. Most of these stellar systems are around main sequence stars, just like the Sun. Leaving us with plenty of systems for comparison.

Artist's impression of the solar system showing the inner planets (Mercury to Mars), the outer planets (Jupiter to Neptune) and beyond. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the solar system showing the inner planets (Mercury to Mars), the outer planets (Jupiter to Neptune) and beyond. Credit: NASA

So, is our Solar System normal? Planets in a stellar system tend to have roughly circular orbits, just like our Solar system. They have a range of larger and smaller planets, just like ours. Most of the known systems are even around G-type stars. Just like ours.….and we are even starting to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of their stars. JUST LIKE OURS!

Not so fast…Other stellar systems don’t seem to have the division of small rocky planets closer to the star and larger gas planets farther away. In fact, large Jupiter-type planets are generally found close to the star. This makes our solar system rather unusual.

Computer simulations of early planetary formation shows that large planets tend to move inward toward their star as they form, due to its interaction with the material of the protoplanetary disk. This would imply that large planets are often close to the star, which is what we observe. Large planets in our own system are unusually distant from the Sun because of a gravitational dance between Jupiter and Saturn that happened when our Solar System was young.

55 Cancri. Image credit: NASA/JPL
55 Cancri. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Although our Solar System is slightly unusual, there are some planetary systems that are downright quirky. There are planetary systems where the orbits are tilted at radically different angles, like Kepler 56, and a sci-fi favorite, the planets that orbit two stars like Kepler 16 and 34. There is even a planet so close to its star that its year lasts only 18 hours, known 55 Cancri e.

And so, the Kepler telescope has presented us with a wealth of exoplanets, that we can compare our beautiful Solar System to. Future telescopes such as Gaia, which was launched in 2013, TESS and PLATO slated for launch in 2017 and 2024 will likely discover even more. Perhaps even discovering the holy grail of exoplanets, a habitable planet with life…

And the who knows, maybe we’ll find another planet… just like ours.

What say you? Where should we go looking for habitable worlds in this big bad universe of ours? Tell us in the comments.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Physicists Reveal the Hidden Interiors of Gas Giants

Looped movie of the hydrogen jet in the sample chamber. Credit: Sven Toleikis/DESY

In astronomy we love focusing on the bigger picture. We’re searching for exoplanets in the vast hope that we may begin to paint a picture of how planetary systems form; We’re using the Hubble Space Telescope to peer into the earliest history of the cosmos; And we’re building gravitational wave detectors in order to better understand the physical laws that dominate our universe.

All the while we continue to learn about our very own neighborhood. Only recently we learned that Europa has geysers, Mars was perhaps once a lush planet, and comets can in fact disintegrate. Discoveries in our solar system alone never cease to amaze.

For the first time researchers are able to probe the hidden interiors of gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn. With very little experimental knowledge about the hydrogen deep within such planets, we have always had to rely on mathematical models. But now, researchers have simulated the lower atmospheric layers of these planets in the lab.

The team of physicists led by Dr. Ulf Zastrau from the University of Jena heated cold liquid hydrogen to resemble the dense liquid hydrogen deep within a gas giant’s atmospheric layers.

The team used an X-ray laser operated by a national research center in Germany, Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), to heat the liquid hydrogen, nearly instantaneously, from -253 to +12,000 degrees Celsius. Initially the X-ray heats only the electrons. But because each electron is bound to a proton, they transfer heat to the proton until a thermal equilibrium is reached. The molecular bonds break during this process, and a plasma of electrons and protons is formed.

In just under a trillionth of a second, physicists are able to create a plasma that’s thought to be radically similar to the plasma deep within the atmospheres of our beloved gas giants.

But first the team had to create cold hydrogen. While it’s abundant throughout the universe, it’s hard to get our hands on the stuff here on Earth. Instead researchers cooled gaseous hydrogen to -253 degrees Celsius using liquid helium. This was a very temperamental process, requiring precise temperature control. If the hydrogen got too cold it would freeze and the researchers would have to use a small heater to re-liquefy it. At the end of the day a jet of cold liquid hydrogen with a diameter no greater than 20 micrometers would flow into a vacuum.

Physicists would then shoot intense pulses of the X-ray laser at the cold hydrogen. They could control the precise timing of the X-ray laser’s “flash” in order to study the properties of liquid hydrogen. The first half of the flash heats up the hydrogen, but the second half of the flash is delayed by varying lengths, which allows the team to understand exactly how thermal equilibrium is established between the electrons and the protons.

The experimental results provide information on the liquid hydrogen’s thermal conductivity and its internal energy exchange, which are both crucial to better understanding gas giants. The experiments will have to be repeated at other temperatures and pressures in order to create a detailed picture of the entire planetary atmosphere.

“Hopefully the results will provide us among others with an experimentally based answer to the question, why the planets discovered outside our solar system do not exist in all imaginable combinations of properties as age, mass, size or elemental composition, but may be allocated to certain groups,” said Dr. Thomas Tschentscher, scientific director of the European XFEL X-ray laser in a press release.

The paper has been accepted in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters and is available for download here.

Solar Powered Jupiter bound JUNO lands at Kennedy Space Center for blastoff

The Juno spacecraft passes in front of Jupiter in this artist's depiction. Juno, the second mission in NASA's New Frontiers program, will improve our understanding of the solar system by advancing studies of the origin and evolution of Jupiter. The spacecraft will carry eight instruments to investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Juno, NASA’s next big mission bound for the outer planets, has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center to kick off the final leg of launch preparations in anticipation of blastoff for Jupiter this summer.

The huge solar-powered Juno spacecraft will skim to within 4800 kilometers (3000 miles) of the cloud tops of Jupiter to study the origin and evolution of our solar system’s largest planet. Understanding the mechanism of how Jupiter formed will lead to a better understanding of the origin of planetary systems around other stars throughout our galaxy.

Juno will be spinning like a windmill as it fly’s in a highly elliptical polar orbit and investigates the gas giant’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere with a suite of nine science instruments.

Technicians at Astrotech's payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. secure NASA's Juno spacecraft to the rotation stand for testing. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

During the five year cruise to Jupiter, the 3,600 kilogram probe will fly by Earth once in 2013 to pick up speed and accelerate Juno past the asteroid belt on its long journey to the Jovian system where it arrives in July 2016.

Juno will orbit Jupiter 33 times and search for the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.

The mission will provide the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter’s poles and is set to last approximately one year. The elliptical orbit will allow Juno to avoid most of Jupiter’s harsh radiation regions that can severely damage the spacecraft systems.

Juno was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, and air shipped in a protective shipping container inside the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jet to the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla.

Juno undergoes acoustics testing at Lockheed Martin in Denver where the spacecraft was built. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

This week the spacecraft begins about four months of final functional testing and integration inside the climate controlled clean room and undergoes a thorough verification that all its systems are healthy. Other processing work before launch includes attachment of the long magnetometer boom and solar arrays which arrived earlier.

Juno is the first solar powered probe to be launched to the outer planets and operate at such a great distance from the sun. Since Jupiter receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth, Juno will carry three giant solar panels, each spanning more than 20 meters (66 feet) in length. They will remain continuously in sunlight from the time they are unfurled after launch through the end of the mission.

“The Juno spacecraft and the team have come a long way since this project was first conceived in 2003,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement. “We’re only a few months away from a mission of discovery that could very well rewrite the books on not only how Jupiter was born, but how our solar system came into being.”

Juno is slated to launch aboard the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket – augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters – from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on August 5. The launch window extends through August 26. Juno is the second mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover will follow Juno to the Atlas launch pad, and is scheduled to liftoff in late November 2011. Read my stories about Curiosity here and here.

Because of cuts to NASA’s budget by politicians in Washington, the long hoped for mission to investigate the Jovian moon Europa may be axed, along with other high priority science missions. Europa may harbor subsurface oceans of liquid water and is a prime target in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.

Technicians inside the clean room at Astrotech in Titusville, Fla. guide NASA's Juno spacecraft, as it is lowered by overhead crane, onto the rotation stand for testing. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller
Technicians at Astrotech unfurl solar array No. 1 with a magnetometer boom that will help power NASA's Juno spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter. Credit: NASA
Juno's interplanetary trajectory to Jupiter. Juno will launch in August 2011 and fly by Earth once in October 2013 during its 5 year cruise to Jupiter. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL

Giant Planets

Jupiter, seen by Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL

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While the inner four planets seem large, they are nothing compared to the four outer planets, which are also known as gas giants or Jovian planets. The four giant planets in our Solar System are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System, and it truly is a giant planet. Jupiter is so large that you could fit 1321 Earths inside the planet. It is a gas giant, which means that it is comprised almost entirely of gas with a liquid core of heavy metals. Since none of the gas giants has a solid surface, you cannot stand on any of these planets, nor can spacecraft land on them. Another common characteristic of the giant planets is that they all have dozens of moons. In fact, Jupiter has 63 moons that have been discovered so far.  

All of the giant planets in our Solar System have rings, but Saturn’s rings are by far the most famous of any. This planet’s ring system is composed of rock, dust, and other particles. The other planetary ring systems are made of similar elements.

Uranus and Neptune are also gas giants, but instead of just helium and hydrogen, they also have significant amounts of ices in their atmospheres. These ices include water, methane, and ammonia. It is the methane in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune that give the planets their blue color. Uranus and Neptune are also known as ice giants because of the proportion of ices in their atmospheres.

Giant planets are not limited to our Solar System either. In fact, astronomers have discovered many Jupiter-like planets in other solar systems. For example, in 2007, a group of British astronomers discovered three gas giants that are heavier than Jupiter is. These gas giants are much closer to their star than our Solar System’s gas giants are to the Sun. Scientists think that this may be one reason why these extrasolar planets are heavier, suggesting that only heavier planets can survive closer to a star. Because these planets are so much closer to their sun, they are much hotter than Jupiter and our Solar System’s other gas giants are.

These are just a handful of the gas giants discovered in different solar systems. Astronomers have discovered other extrasolar planets much bigger than Jupiter. Since all of the first extrasolar planets found were gas giants similar to Jupiter, astronomers began to despair of ever finding Earth-like planets that could support life. Recently though, astronomers have discovered different types of extrasolar planets, raising their hopes of finding life on other planets.

Universe Today has a number of articles to check out on gas giants and how big planets get.

You should also take a look at these articles on gas giants and British scientists discover giant planets hotter and heavier than Jupiter.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on extrasolar planets, hot Jupiters, and pulsar planets you should not miss.

How Big Do Planets Get?

Artist's impression of Gliese 436 c

Question: How Big Can Planets Get?

Answer: Here in the Solar System, we have three kinds of planets: the inner terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the ice planets. Sadly, Pluto is no longer a planet, so we won’t deal with that here. We know how big our planets are, but how big can planets actually get in other Solar Systems. What are the biggest possible planets?

Let’s start with terrestrial planets, like our Earth. We’ll set the size of the Earth and 1 Earth radius, and the mass as 1 Earth mass. We’ve seen that terrestrial planets can get smaller, with Mars and Mercury, and astronomers have detected larger terrestrial planets orbiting other stars.

The largest known rocky planet is thought to be Gliese 436 c. This is probably a rocky world with about 5 Earth masses and 1.5 times our planet’s radius. Amazingly, this planet is thought to be within its star’s habitable zone.

What’s the largest possible rocky planet? For this I put in an email to Dr. Sean Raymond, a post doctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) at the University of Colorado. Here’s what he had to say:

“The largest “terrestrial” planet is generally considered the one before you get too thick of an atmosphere, which happens at about 5-10 Earth masses (something like 2 Earth radii). Those planets are more Earth-like than Neptune-like.”

Gas giants, of course, can come much larger. Jupiter is 317 times more massive than Earth, and 11 times larger. You could fit 1,400 Earths inside Jupiter.

Thebiggest planet in the Universe (at the time of this writing) is TrES-4, which is located 1,400 light years away in the constellation Hercules. The planet has been measured to be 1.4 times the size of Jupiter, but it only has 0.84 times Jupiter’s mass. With such a low density, the media was calling TrES-4 the puffy planet.

And once again, how large can they get? Again, here’s Dr. Raymond:

“In terms of gaseous planets, once they reach 15 Jupiter masses or so there is enough pressure in the core to ignite deuterium fusion, so those are considered “brown dwarfs” rather than planets.”

What is the biggest planet in the Solar System?