227 Stars Given Names By International Astronomical Union

In May of 2016, the IAU Executive Committee approved of the creation of a special task force known as the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN). Composed of an international group of experts in astronomy, astronomical history, and cultural astronomy, the purpose of the WGSN is to formalize the names of stars that have been used colloquially for centuries.

This has involved sorting through the texts and traditions of many of the world’s cultures, seeking out unique names and standardizing their spelling. And after about six months, their labors have led to the creation of a new catalog of IAU star names, the first 227 of which were recently published on the IAU website.

This initiative grew out of the IAU’s Division C – Education, Outreach and Heritage group, which is responsible for engaging the public in all matters of astronomy. Their overall purpose is to establish IAU guidelines for the proposal and adoption of star names, to search historical and cultural literature for them, to adopt unique names that have scientific and historical value, and to publish and disseminate official IAU star name catalogs.

In this respect, the WGSN is breaking with standard astronomical practice. For many years, astronomers have named the stars they have been responsible for studying using an alphanumerical designation. These designations are seen as immensely practical, since star catalogs typically contain thousands, millions or even billions of objects. If there’s one thing the observable Universe has no shortage of, its stars!

However, many of these stars already have traditional names which may have fallen into disuse. The WGSN’s job, therefore, is to find commonly-used, traditional names of stars and determine which ones shall be officially used. In addition to preserving humanity’s astronomical heritage, this process is also intended to make sure that there is standardization in terms of naming and spelling, so as to prevent confusion.

What’s more, with the discovery of exoplanets becoming a regular thing nowadays, the IAU hopes to engage the international astronomical community in naming these planets according to their stars traditional name (if they have one). As Eric Mamajek, the chair and organiser of the WGSN, explained their purpose:

“Since the IAU is already adopting names for exoplanets and their host stars, it has been seen as necessary to catalogue the names for stars in common use from the past, and to clarify which ones will be official from now on.”

Artist's impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of a system of exoplanets orbiting a low mass, red dwarf star. Credit: NASA/JPL

For instance, it can certainly be said that HD 40307 g – an exoplanet candidate that orbits within the habitable zone of its K-type star some 42 light years away – has a pretty clunky name. But what if, upon searching through various historical sources, the WGSN found that this star was traditionally known as “mikiya” (eagle) to the Hausa people of northern Nigeria? Then this super-Earth could be named Mikiya g (or Mikiya Prime). Doesn’t that sound cooler?

And this effort is hardly without precedent. As Mamajek explained, the IAU engaged in a very similar effort decades ago with respect to the constellations:

“A similar effort was conducted early in the history of the IAU, in the 1920s, when the 88 modern constellations were clarified from historical literature, and their boundaries, names, spellings, and abbreviations were delineated for common use in the international astronomical community. Many of these names are used today by astronomers for designations of variable stars, names for new dwarf galaxies and bright X-ray sources, and other astronomical objects.”

Much like the constellations, the new star names are largely rooted in astronomical and cultural traditions of the Ancient Near East and Greece. Their names are rendered in Greek, Latin or Aabic, and have likely undergone little change since the Renaissance, a time where the production of star catalogs, atlases and globes experienced an explosion in growth.

Illustration of the red supergiant Betelgeuse, as seen from a fictional orbiting world. © Digital Drew.
Illustration of the red supergiant Betelgeuse, a traditionally-named star, as seen from a fictional orbiting world. © Digital Drew.

Others, however, are more recent in origin, having been discovered and named in the  19th or 20th centuries. The IAU is looking to locate as many ancient names as possible, then incorporate them into an official IAU-approved database with more modern stars. These databases will be made available for use by astronomers, navigators and the general public.

In accordance with WGSN guildines, shorter, one-word names are preferred, as are those that have their roots in astronomical, cultural or natural world heritage. The 227 names that have been released include 209 recently approved names by the WGSN, plus the 18 stars that the IAU Executive Committee Working Group for Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites approved of in December 2015.

Among those names that were approved are Proxima Centauri (which is orbited by the closest exoplanet to Earth, Proxima b), as well as Rigil Kentaurus (the ancient name for Alpha Centauri), Algieba (Gamma-1 Leonis), Hamal (Alpha Arietis), and Muscida (Omicron Ursae Majoris).

This number is expected to grow, as the WGSN continues to revive ancient stellar names and add new ones that are suggested by the international astronomical community.

Further Reading: IAU

The Cancer Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, we will be dealing with one of the best-known constellations, that crabby asterism known as “Cancer”!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come. One of these constellations is Cancer, which is represented by “the Crab”.

As one of the twelve constellations of the zodiac, this medium-sized constellation is located on the ecliptic plane, where it is bordered by Gemini to the west, Lynx to the north, Leo Minor to the northeast, Leo to the east, Hydra to the south, and Canis Minor to the southwest. Today, it is one of the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

Name and Meaning:

In mythology, Cancer was part of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. While Hercules was busy fighting the multi-headed monster (Hydra), the goddess Hera – who did not like Hercules – sent the Crab to distract him. Cancer grabbed onto the hero’s toe with its claws, but was crushed by Hercule’s mighty foot. Hera, grateful for the little crustacean’s heroic sacrifice, gave it a place in the sky. Given that the crab did not win, the gods didn’t give it any bright stars.

The planets, including Earth, orbit within a relatively flat plane. As we watch them cycle through their orbits, two or more occasionally bunch close together in a conjunction. We see them projected against the
Illustration of the ecliptic of the Solar System, showing the position of the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Credit: Bob King

History of Observation:

The first recorded examples of the Cancer constellation come from the 2nd millennium BCE, where it was known to Akkadian astronomers as the “Sun of the South”. This was most likely due to its position at the summer solstice during ancient antiquity. By classical antiquity, Cancer came to be called the “Gate of Men”, based on the beleif that it was the portal through which souls came and went from the heavens.

Given its relative faintness in the night sky, Cancer was often described as the “Dark Sign” throughout history. For instance, the medieval Italian poet Dante alluded to its faintness and position of Cancer in heavens as follows (in the Paradiso section of The Divine Comedy):

“Then a light among them brightened,
So that, if Cancer one such crystal had,
Winter would have a month of one sole day.”

Cancer’s stature as a constellation of the Zodiac has remained steadfast over the millennia, thought its position has changed. Over two thousand years ago, the sun shone in front of the constellation during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. Today, the Sun resides in front of the constellation Taurus when the summer solstice sun reaches its northernmost point.

ancer’s stature as a constellation of the Zodiac has remained steadfast over the millennia. Over two thousand years ago, the sun shone in front of the constellation Cancer during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. That’s not the case today, however. Today, the sun resides in front of the constellation Taurus when the summer solstice sun reaches its northernmost point for the year on or near June 21. Nonetheless, Cancer still seems to symbolize the height and glory of the summer sun. To this day, we say the sun shines over the Tropic of Cancer – not the “tropic of Taurus” – on the June solstice. That’s in spite of the fact that the sun in our time passes in front of the constellation Cancer from about July 21 until August 10. Dates of sun’s entry into each constellation of the Zodiac Nowadays, the sun doesn’t enter the constellation Cancer until about a month after the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. Credit: US Library of Congress
Cancer as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Credit: US Library of Congress

Notable Features:

Though comparatively faint, the Cancer constellation contains several notable stars. For starters, there is Beta Cancri, which is also known by the Arabic name of Al Tarf (“the eye” or “the glance”). Beta Cancri is the brightest star in Cancer and is about 660 times brighter than our Sun.

This K-class orange giant star is about 290 light years away from Earth, and is part of a binary system that includes a 14th magnitude star. This second star is so far away – about 65 times the distance of Pluto from the Sun – that their orbital period is at least 76,000 years!

Then there is Delta Cancri – an orange giant star approximately 180 light-years away. This is the second-brightest star in the Cancer constellation, and also where the famous Beehive Cluster (Messier 44) can be found (see below). It is also known by its Latin name of Asellus Australis, which means “southern donkey colt” (or “southern ass” if you’re feeling comedic!).

A bit further north is Gamma Cancri, an A-type white subgiant located 158 light years from Earth. Its Latin name is Asellus Borealis, which means (you guessed it!) “northern ass”. Both this star and Delta Cancri are significant because of their mythological connection and proximity to Messier 44.

Next up is Alpha Cancri, the fourth brightest star in the constellation, which is also known as Acubens. The star also goes by the names of Al Zubanah or Sertans, which are derived from the Arabic az-zub?nah (which means “claws”), while Sertan is derived from sara??n, which means “the crab.” Located approximately 174 light years from Earth, Alpha Cancris is actually a multiple star system – Alpha Cancri A and B (a white A-type dwarf and an 11th magnitude star, respectively.

Messier 44, otherwise known as the Beehive Cluster. Credit & Copyright: Bob Franke
Messier 44, otherwise known as the Beehive Cluster. Credit & Copyright: Bob Franke

Cancer is also home to many Deep Sky Objects. For instance, there is the aforementioned Beehive Cluster (Messier 44). This open cluster is the nearest of its type relative to our Solar System, and contains a larger star population than most other nearby clusters. Under dark skies the Beehive Cluster looks like a nebulous object to the unaided eye; thus it has been known since ancient times.

The classical astronomer Ptolemy called it “the nebulous mass in the heart of Cancer,” and it was among the first objects that Galileo studied with his telescope. The cluster’s age and proper motion coincide with those of the Hyades stellar association, suggesting that both share a similar origin. Both clusters also contain red giants and white dwarfs, which represent later stages of stellar evolution, along with main sequence stars of spectral classes A, F, G, K, and M.

So far, eleven white dwarfs have been identified, representing the final evolutionary phase of the cluster’s most massive stars, which originally belonged to spectral type B. Brown dwarfs, however, are extremely rare in this cluster, probably because they have been lost by tidal stripping from the halo.

Then there’s M67, which can be viewed due west of Alpha Cancri. M67 is not the oldest known galactic cluster, but there are very few in the Milky Way known to be older. M67 is an important laboratory for studying stellar evolution, since all its stars are at the same distance and age, except for approximately 30 anomalous blue stragglers, whose origins are not fully understood.

The Messier 67 star cluster, one of the oldest known open star clusters. located in the constellation Cancer. Credit & Copyright: Noel Carboni/Greg Parker
The Messier 67 star cluster, one of the oldest known open star clusters. located in the constellation Cancer. Credit & Copyright: Noel Carboni/Greg Parker

M67 has more than 100 stars similar to the Sun and many red giants, though the total star count has been estimated at over 500. The cluster contains no main sequence stars bluer than spectral type F, since the brighter stars of that age have already left the main sequence. In fact, when the stars of the cluster are plotted on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, there is a distinct “turn-off” representing the stars which are just about to leave the main sequence and become red giants.

It appears that M67 does not contain an unbiased sample of stars. One cause of this is mass segregation, the process by which lighter stars (actually, systems) gain speed at the expense of more massive stars during close encounters, which causes the lighter stars to be at a greater average distance from the center of the cluster or to escape altogether.

Then there’s NGC 2775, which is positioned some 60 million light years away. NGC 2775 is a peculiar blend of spiral galaxy with a smooth bulge in the center. The star formation is confined to this ring of tightly wound arms, and the galaxy has been the location of 5 supernovae explosions in the past 30 years!

Next up is DX Cancri, a faint, magnitude 14, cool red dwarf star that has less than 9% the mass of our Sun. It is a flare star that has intermittent changes in brightness by up to a five-fold increase. This star is far too faint to be seen with the naked eye, even though it is the 18th closest star system to the Sun at a distance of 11.82 light years, and is the closest star in the constellation Cancer.

Artist’s impression of the super-Earth 55 Cancri e in front of its parent star. Credit: ESA/NASA
Artist’s impression of the super-Earth 55 Cancri e in front of its parent star. Credit: ESA/NASA

Now set your mark on 55 Cancri (located at RA 8 52 35 Dec +28 19 59). Also known as Rho1 Cancri, this binary star system is located approximately 41 light-years away from Earth and has a whole solar system of its own! The system consists of a yellow dwarf star and a smaller red dwarf star, separated by over 1,000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

As of 2007, five extrasolar planets have been confirmed to be orbiting the primary – 55 Cancri A (the yellow dwarf). The innermost planet is thought to be a terrestrial “super-Earth” planet, with a mass similar to Neptune, while the outermost planets are thought to be Jovian planets with masses similar to Jupiter.

Finding Cancer:

As one of the 12 constellations along the ecliptic, Cancer is relatively easy to find with small telescopes and even binoculars. It lies in the second quadrant of the northern hemisphere (NQ2) and can be seen at latitudes between +90° and -60°. It occupies an area of 506 square degrees, making it the 31st largest constellation in the night sky.

There is only one meteor shower associated with the constellation of Cancer. The peak date for the Delta Cancrids is on or about January 16th. The radiant, or point of origin is just west of Beehive. It is a minor shower and the fall rate averages only about 4 per hour and the meteors are very swift.

The location of the Caner constellation. Credit: IAU
The location of the Caner constellation. Credit: IAU

Like all of the traditional constellations that belong to the Zodiac family, the significance of Cancer has not waned, despite the passage of several thousand years. Best of luck finding it, though you won’t need much!

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Cancer and Constellation Families.

Sources:

Planet 9 Search Turning Up Wealth Of New Objects

In 2014, Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Chadwick Trujillo of Northern Arizona University proposed an interesting idea. Noting the similarities in the orbits of distant Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), they postulated that a massive object was likely influencing them. This was followed in 2016 by Konstantin Batygin and Michael E. Brown of Caltech suggesting that an undiscovered planet was the culprit.

Since that time, the hunt has been on for the infamous “Planet 9” in our Solar System. And while no direct evidence has been produced, astronomers believe they are getting closer to discerning its location. In a paper that was recently accepted by The Astronomical Journal, Sheppard and Trujillo present their latest discoveries, which they claim are further constraining the location of Planet 9.

For the sake of their study, Sheppard and Trujillo relied on information obtained by the Dark Energy Camera on the Victor Blanco 4-meter telescope in Chile and the Japanese Hyper Suprime-Camera on the 8-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. With the help of David Tholen from the University of Hawaii, they have been conducting the largest deep-sky survey for objects beyond Neptune and the Kuiper Belt.

An illustration of the orbits of the new and previously known extremely distant Solar System objects. The clustering of most of their orbits indicates that they are likely be influenced by something massive and very distant, the proposed Planet X. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Science
An illustration of the orbits of the new and previously known extremely distant Solar System objects – showing the clustering in orbits that indicates that possible presence of Planet X. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Science

This survey is intended to find more objects that show the same clustering in their orbits, thus offering greater evidence that a massive planet exists in the outer Solar System. As Sheppard explained in a recent Carnegie press release:

“Objects found far beyond Neptune hold the key to unlocking our Solar System’s origins and evolution. Though we believe there are thousands of these small objects, we haven’t found very many of them yet, because they are so far away. The smaller objects can lead us to the much bigger planet we think exists out there. The more we discover, the better we will be able to understand what is going on in the outer Solar System.”

Their most recent discovery was a small collection of more extreme objects who’s peculiar orbits differ from the extreme and inner Oort cloud objects, in terms of both their eccentricities and semi-major axes. As with discoveries made using other instruments, these appear to indicate the presence of something massive effecting their orbits.

All of these objects have been submitted to the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Minor Planet Center for designation. They include 2014 SR349, an extreme TNO that has similar orbital characteristics as the previously-discovered extreme bodies that led Sheppard and Trujillo to infer the existence of a massive object in the region.

Another is 2014 FE72, an object who’s orbit is so extreme that it reaches about 3000 AUs from the Sun in a massively-elongated ellipse – something which can only be explained by the influence of a strong gravitational force beyond our Solar System. And in addition to being the first object observed at such a large distance, it is also the first distant Oort Cloud object found to orbit entirely beyond Neptune.

Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown.
Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

And then there’s  2013 FT28, which is similar but also different from the other extreme objects. For instance, 2013 FT28 shows similar clustering in terms of its semi-major axis, eccentricity, inclination, and argument of perihelion angle, but is different when it comes to its longitude of perihelion. This would seem to indicates that this particular clustering trend is less strong among the extreme TNOs.

Beyond the work of Sheppard and Trujillo, nearly 10 percent of the sky has now been explored by astronomers. Relying on the most advanced telescopes, they have revealed that there are several never-before-seen objects that orbit the Sun at extreme distances.

And as more distant objects with unexplained orbital parameters emerge, their interactions seem to fit with the idea of a massive distant planet that could pay a key role in the mechanics of the outer Solar System. However, as Sheppard has indicated, there really isn’t enough evidence yet to draw any conclusions.

“Right now we are dealing with very low-number statistics, so we don’t really understand what is happening in the outer Solar System,” he said. “Greater numbers of extreme trans-Neptunian objects must be found to fully determine the structure of our outer Solar System.”

Alas, we don’t yet know if Planet 9 is out there, and it will probably be many more years before confirmation can be made. But by looking to the visible objects that present a possible sign of its path, we are slowly getting closer to it. With all the news in exoplanet hunting of late, it is interesting to see that we can still go hunting in our own backyard!

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal Letters

What are the Planets of the Solar System?

At one time, humans believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe; that the Sun, Moon, planets and stars all revolved around us. It was only after centuries of ongoing observations and improved instrumentation that astronomers came to understand that we are in fact part a larger system of planets that revolve around the Sun. And it has only been within the last century that we’ve come to understand just how big our Solar System is.

And even now, we are still learning. In the past few decades, the total number of celestial bodies and moons that are known to orbit the Sun has expanded. We have also come to debate the definition of “planet” (a controversial topic indeed!) and introduced additional classifications – like dwarf planet, minor planet, plutoid, etc. – to account for new finds. So just how many planets are there and what is special about them? Let’s run through them one by one, shall we?

Mercury:

As you travel outward from the Sun, Mercury is the closest planet. It orbits the Sun at an average distance of 58 million km (36 million mi). Mercury is airless, and so without any significant atmosphere to hold in the heat, it has dramatic temperature differences. The side that faces the Sun experiences temperatures as high as 420 °C (788 °F), and then the side in shadow goes down to -173 °C (-279.4 °F).

MESSENGER image of Mercury from its third flyby (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
MESSENGER image of Mercury from its third flyby. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Like Venus, Earth and Mars, Mercury is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed largely of refractory minerals such as the silicates and metals such as iron and nickel. These elements are also differentiated between a metallic core and a silicate mantle and crust, with Mercury possessing a larger-than-average core. Multiple theories have been proposed to explain this, the most widely accepted being that the impact from a planetesimal in the past blew off much of its mantle material.

Mercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System, measuring just 4879 km across at its equator. However, it is second densest planet in the Solar System, with a density of 5.427 g/cm3 – which is the second only to Earth. Because of this, Mercury experiences a gravitational pull that is roughly 38% that of Earth’s (0.38 g).

Mercury also has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System (0.205), which means its distance from the Sun ranges from 46 to 70 million km (29-43 million mi). The planet also takes 87.969 Earth days to complete an orbit. But with an average orbital speed of 47.362 km/s, Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation.

Combined with its eccentric orbit, this means that it takes 176 Earth days for the Sun to return to the same place in the sky (i.e. a solar day) on Mercury, which is twice as long as a single Hermian year. Mercury also has the lowest axial tilt of any planet in the Solar System – approximately 0.027 degrees – compared to Jupiter’s 3.1 degrees, which is the second smallest.

The MESSENGER spacecraft has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011 – but its days are numbered. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington
The MESSENGER spacecraft has been in orbit around Mercury since March 2011 – but its days are numbered. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury has only been visited two times by spacecraft, the first being the Mariner 10 probe, which conducted a flyby of the planet back in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t until 2008 that another spacecraft from Earth made a close flyby of Mercury (the MESSENGER probe) which took new images of its surface, shed light on its geological history, and confirmed the presence of water ice and organic molecules in its northern polar region.

In summary, Mercury is made special by the fact it is small, eccentric, and varies between extremes of hot and cold. It’s also very mineral rich, and quite dense!

Venus:

Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and is Earth’s virtual twin in terms of size and mass. With a mass of 4.8676×1024 kg and a mean radius of about 6,052 km, it is approximately 81.5% as massive as Earth and 95% as large. Like Earth (and Mercury and Mars), it is a terrestrial planet, composed of rocks and minerals that are differentiated.

But apart from these similarities, Venus is very different from Earth. Its atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide (96%), along with nitrogen and a few other gases. This dense cloud cloaks the planet, making surface observation very difficult, and helps heat it up to 460 °C (860 °F). The atmospheric pressure is also 92 times that of Earth’s atmosphere, and poisonous clouds of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid rain are commonplace.

At a closest average distance of 41 million km (25,476,219 mi), Venus is the closest planet to Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL/Magellan
Venus’ similarity in size and mass has led to it being called “Earth’s sister planet’. Credit: NASA/JPL/Magellan

Venus orbits the Sun at an average distance of about 0.72 AU (108 million km; 67 million mi) with almost no eccentricity. In fact, with its farthest orbit (aphelion) of 0.728 AU (108,939,000 km) and closest orbit (perihelion) of 0.718 AU (107,477,000 km), it has the most circular orbit of any planet in the Solar System. The planet completes an orbit around the Sun every 224.65 days, meaning that a year on Venus is 61.5% as long as a year on Earth.

When Venus lies between Earth and the Sun, a position known as inferior conjunction, it makes the closest approach to Earth of any planet, at an average distance of 41 million km. This takes place, on average, once every 584 days, and is the reason why Venus is the closest planet to Earth. The planet completes an orbit around the Sun every 224.65 days, meaning that a year on Venus is 61.5% as long as a year on Earth.

Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in an counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (called “retrograde” rotation). It also rotates very slowly, taking 243 Earth days to complete a single rotation. This is not only the slowest rotation period of any planet, it also means that a single day on Venus lasts longer than a Venusian year.

Venus’ atmosphere is also known to experience lightning storms. Since Venus does not experience rainfall (except in the form of sulfuric acid), it has been theorized that the lightning is being caused by volcanic eruptions. Several spacecraft have visited Venus, and a few landers have even made it to the surface to send back images of its hellish landscape. Even though there were made of metal, these landers only survived a few hours at best.

Venus is made special by the fact that it is very much like Earth, but also radically different. It’s thick atmosphere could crush a living being, its heat could melt lead, and its acid rain could dissolve flesh, bone and metal alike! It also rotates very slowly, and backwards relative to the other plants.

Earth:

Earth is our home, and the third planet from the Sun. With a mean radius of 6371 km and a mass of 5.97×1024 kg, it is the fifth largest and fifth most-massive planet in the Solar System. And with a mean density of 5.514 g/cm³, it is the densest planet in the Solar System. Like Mercury, Venus and Mars, Earth is a terrestrial planet.

But unlike these other planets, Earth’s core is differentiated between a solid inner core and liquid outer core. The outer core also spins in the opposite direction as the planet, which is believed to create a dynamo effect that gives Earth its protective magnetosphere. Combined with a atmosphere that is neither too thin nor too thick, Earth is the only planet in the Solar System known to support life.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

In terms of its orbit, Earth has a very minor eccentricity (approx. 0.0167) and ranges in its distance from the Sun between 147,095,000 km (0.983 AU) at perihelion to 151,930,000 km (1.015 AU) at aphelion. This works out to an average distance (aka. semi-major axis) of 149,598,261 km, which is the basis of a single Astronomical Unit (AU)

The Earth has an orbital period of 365.25 days, which is the equivalent of 1.000017 Julian years. This means that every four years (in what is known as a Leap Year), the Earth calendar must include an extra day. Though a single solar day on Earth is considered to be 24 hours long, our planet takes precisely 23h 56m and 4 s to complete a single sidereal rotation (0.997 Earth days).

Earth’s axis is also tilted 23.439281° away from the perpendicular of its orbital plane, which is responsible for producing seasonal variations on the planet’s surface with a period of one tropical year (365.24 solar days). In addition to producing variations in terms of temperature, this also results in variations in the amount of sunlight a hemisphere receives during the course of a year.

Earth has only a single moon: the Moon. Thanks to examinations of Moon rocks that were brought back to Earth by the Apollo missions, the predominant theory states that the Moon was created roughly 4.5 billion years ago from a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized object (known as Theia). This collision created a massive cloud of debris that began circling our planet, which eventually coalesced to form the Moon we see today.

A picture of Earth taken by Apollo 11 astronauts. Credit: NASA
A picture of Earth taken by Apollo 11 astronauts. Credit: NASA

What makes Earth special, you know, aside from the fact that it is our home and where we originated? It is the only planet in the Solar System where liquid, flowing water exists in abundance on its surface, has a viable atmosphere, and a protective magnetosphere. In other words, it is the only planet (or Solar body) that we know of where life can exist on the surface.

In addition, no planet in the Solar System has been studied as well as Earth, whether it be from the surface or from space. Thousands of spacecraft have been launched to study the planet, measuring its atmosphere, land masses, vegetation, water, and human impact. Our understanding of what makes our planet unique in our Solar System has helped in the search for Earth-like planets in other systems.

Mars:

The fourth planet from the Sun is Mars, which is also the second smallest planet in the Solar System. It has a radius of approximately 3,396 km at its equator, and 3,376 km at its polar regions – which is the equivalent of roughly 0.53 Earths. While it is roughly half the size of Earth, it’s mass – 6.4185 x 10²³ kg – is only 0.151 that of Earth’s. It’s density is also lower than Earths, which leads to it experiencing about 1/3rd Earth’s gravity (0.376 g).

It’s axial tilt is very similar to Earth’s, being inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (Earth’s axial tilt is just over 23°), which means Mars also experiences seasons. Mars has almost no atmosphere to help trap heat from the Sun, and so temperatures can plunge to a low of -140 °C (-220 °F) in the Martian winter. However, at the height of summer, temperatures can get up to 20 °C (68 °F) during midday at the equator.

However, recent data obtained by the Curiosity rover and numerous orbiters have concluded that Mars once had a denser atmosphere. Its loss, according to data obtained by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), the atmosphere was stripped away by solar wind over the course of a 500 million year period, beginning 4.2 billion years ago.

At its greatest distance from the Sun (aphelion), Mars orbits at a distance of 1.666 AUs, or 249.2 million km. At perihelion, when it is closest to the Sun, it orbits at a distance of 1.3814 AUs, or 206.7 million km. At this distance, Mars takes 686.971 Earth days, the equivalent of 1.88 Earth years, to complete a rotation of the Sun. In Martian days (aka. Sols, which are equal to one day and 40 Earth minutes), a Martian year is 668.5991 Sols.

Like Mercury, Venus, and Earth, Mars is a terrestrial planet, composed mainly of silicate rock and metals that are differentiated between a core, mantle and crust. The red-orange appearance of the Martian surface is caused by iron oxide, more commonly known as hematite (or rust). The presence of other minerals in the surface dust allow for other common surface colors, including golden, brown, tan, green, and others.

Although liquid water cannot exist on Mars’ surface, owing to its thin atmosphere, large concentrations of ice water exist within the polar ice caps – Planum Boreum and Planum Australe. In addition, a permafrost mantle stretches from the pole to latitudes of about 60°, meaning that water exists beneath much of the Martian surface in the form of ice water. Radar data and soil samples have confirmed the presence of shallow subsurface water at the middle latitudes as well.

MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech
MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

Mars has two tiny asteroid-sized moons: Phobos and Deimos. Because of their size and shape, the predominant theory is that Mars acquired these two moons after they were kicked out of the Asteroid Belt by Jupiter’s gravity.

Mars has been heavily studied by spacecraft. There are multiple rovers and landers currently on the surface and a small fleet of orbiters flying overhead. Recent missions include the Curiosity Rover, which gathered ample evidence on Mars’ water past, and the groundbreaking discovery of finding  organic molecules on the surface. Upcoming missions include NASA’s InSight lander and the Exomars rover.

Hence, Mars’ special nature lies in the fact that it also is terrestrial and lies within the outer edge of the Sun’s habitable zone. And whereas it is a cold, dry place today, it once had an thicker atmosphere and plentiful water on its surface.

Jupiter:

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

Jupiter has spectacular aurora, such as this view captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Auroras are formed when charged particles in the space surrounding the planet are accelerated to high energies along the planet's magnetic field. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)
Jupiter has spectacular aurora, such as this view captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)

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

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

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

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

The Juno spacecraft isn't the first one to visit Jupiter. Galileo went there in the mid 90's, and Voyager 1 snapped a nice picture of the clouds on its mission. Image: NASA
The Juno spacecraft isn’t the first one to visit Jupiter. Galileo went there in the mid 90’s, and Voyager 1 snapped a nice picture of the clouds on its mission. Credit: NASA

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

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

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

Jupiter has been visited by several spacecraft, including NASA’s Pioneer 10 and Voyager spacecraft in 1973 and 1980, respectively; and by the Cassini and New Horizons spacecraft more recently. Until the recent arrival of Juno, only the Galileo spacecraft has ever gone into orbit around Jupiter, and it was crashed into the planet in 2003 to prevent it from contaminating one of Jupiter’s icy moons.

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

In short, Jupiter is massive and has massive storms. But compared to the planets of the inner Solar System, is it significantly less dense. Jupiter also has the most moons in the Solar System, with 67 confirmed and named moons orbiting it. But it is estimated that as many as 200 natural satellites may exist around the planet. Little wonder why this planet is named after the king of the gods.

Saturn:

Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System. With a mean radius of 58232±6 km, it is approximately 9.13 times the size of Earth. And at 5.6846×1026 kg, it is roughly 95.15 as massive. However, since it is a gas giant, it has significantly greater volume – 8.2713×1014 km3, which is equivalent to 763.59 Earths.

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

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

This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10th, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

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

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

As a gas giant, the outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. Like Jupiter, it also has a banded appearance, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator.

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

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

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

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

Of course, the most amazing feature of Saturn is its rings. These are made of particles of ice ranging in size from a grains of sand to the size of a car. Some scientists think the rings are only a few hundred million years old, while others think they could be as old as the Solar System itself.

Saturn has been visited by spacecraft 4 times: Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2 were just flybys, but Cassini has actually gone into orbit around Saturn and has captured thousands of images of the planet and its moons. And speaking of moons, Saturn has a total of 62 moons discovered (so far), though estimates indicate that it might have as many as 150.

A collage of Saturn (bottom left) and some of its moons: Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Rhea and Helene. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
A collage of Saturn (bottom left) and some of its moons: Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Rhea and Helene. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

So like Jupiter, Saturn is a massive gas giant that experiences some very interesting weather patterns. It also has lots of moons and has a very low density. But what really makes Saturn stand out is its impressive ring system. Whereas every gas and ice giant has one, Saturn’s is visible to the naked eye and very beautiful to behold!

Uranus:

Next comes Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun. With a mean radius of approximately 25,360 km and a mass of 8.68 × 1025 kg, Uranus is approximately 4 times the sizes of Earth and 63 times its volume. However, as a gas giant, its density (1.27 g/cm3) is significantly lower; hence, it is only 14.5 as massive as Earth.

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

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

Uranus as seen through the automated eyes of Voyager 2 in 1986. (Credit: NASA/JPL).
Uranus as seen through the automated eyes of Voyager 2 in 1986. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

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

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

The rotational period of the interior of Uranus is 17 hours, 14 minutes. As with all giant planets, its upper atmosphere experiences strong winds in the direction of rotation. Hence its weather systems are also broken up into bands that rotate around the planet, which are driven by internal heat rising to the upper atmosphere.

As a result, winds on Uranus can reach up to 900 km/h (560 mph), creating massive storms like the one spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this “Dark Spot” was a giant cloud vortex that measured 1,700 kilometers by 3,000 kilometers (1,100 miles by 1,900 miles).

Huge storms on Uranus were spotted by the Keck Observatory on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6, 2014. Credit: Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley), Pat Fry (University of Wisconsin), Keck Observatory
Huge storms on Uranus were spotted by the Keck Observatory on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6, 2014. Credit: Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley), Pat Fry (University of Wisconsin), Keck Observatory

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

Uranus was the first planet to be discovered with a telescope; it was first recognized as a planet in 1781 by William Herschel. Beyond Earth-based observations, only one spacecraft (Voyager 2) has ever studied Uranus up close. It passed by the planet in 1986, and captured the first close images. Uranus has 27 known moons.

Uranus’ special nature comes through in its natural beauty, its intense weather, its ring system and its impressive array of moons. And it’s compositions, being an “ice” giant, is what gives its aquamarine color. But perhaps mist interesting is its sideways rotation, which is unique among the Solar planets.

Neptune:

Neptune is the 8th and final planet in the Solar System, orbiting 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. 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.

Neptune's system of moons and rings visualized. Credit: SETI
Neptune’s system of moons and rings visualized. Credit: SETI

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).

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.

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.

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

Just like Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune has bands of storms that circle the planet. Astronomers have clocked winds on Neptune traveling at 2,100 km/hour, which is believed to be due to Neptune’s cold temperatures – which may decrease the friction in the system, During its 1989 flyby, NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft discovered the Great Dark Spot on Neptune.

Similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, this is an anti-cyclonic storm measuring 13,000 km x 6,600 km across. A few years later, however, the Hubble Space Telescope failed to see the Great Dark Spot, but it did see different storms. This might mean that storms on Neptune don’t last as long as they do on Jupiter or even Saturn.

The more active weather on Neptune might be due, in part, to its higher internal heat. Although Neptune is much more distant than Uranus from the Sun, receiving 40% less sunlight, temperatures on the surface of the two planets are roughly similar. In fact, Neptune radiates 2.61 times as much energy as it receives from the Sun. This is enough heat to help drive the fastest winds in the Solar System.

Neptune is the second planet discovered in modern times. It was discovered at the same time by both Urbain Le Verrier and John Couch Adams. Neptune has only ever been visited by one spacecraft, Voyager 2, which made a fly by in August, 1989. Neptune has 13 known moons. Th largest and most famous of these is Triton, which is believed to be a former KBO that was captured by Neptune’s gravity.

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

So much like Uranus, Neptune has a ring system, some intense weather patterns, and an impressive array of moons. Also like Uranus, Neptune’s composition allows for its aquamarine color; except that in Neptune’s case, this color is more intense and vivid. In addition, Neptune experiences some temperature anomalies that are yet to be explained. And let’s not forgt the raining diamonds!

And those are the planets in the Solar System thank you for joining the tour! Unfortunately, Pluto isn’t a planet any more, hence why it was not listed. We know, we know, take it up with the IAU!

We have written many interesting articles about the Solar System here at Universe Today. Here’s the Solar System GuideWhat is the Solar System?, Interesting Facts About the Solar System, What Was Here Before the Solar System?, How Big is the Solar System?, and Is the Solar System Really a Vortex?

If you’d like more information on the Solar System, visit the Nine Planets, and Solar Views.

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

Sources:

What is the Coldest Planet of Our Solar System?

Neptune photographed by Voyage. Image credit: NASA/JPL

The Solar System is pretty huge place, extending from our Sun at the center all the way out to the Kuiper Cliff – a boundary within the Kuiper Belt that is located 50 AU from the Sun. As a rule, the farther one ventures from the Sun, the colder and more mysterious things get. Whereas temperatures in the inner Solar System are enough to burn you alive or melt lead, beyond the “Frost Line“, they get cold enough to freeze volatiles like ammonia and methane.

So what is the coldest planet of our Solar System? In the past, the title for “most frigid body” went to Pluto, as it was the farthest then-designated planet from the Sun. However, due to the IAU’s decision in 2006 to reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet”, the title has since passed to Neptune. As the eight planet from our Sun, it is now the outermost planet in the Solar System, and hence the coldest.

Orbit and Distance:

With an average distance (semi-major axis) of 4,504,450,000 km (2,798,935,466.87 mi or 30.11 AU), Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun. The planet has a very minor eccentricity of 0.0086, which means that its orbit around the Sun varies from a distance of 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion to 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion.

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

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 is on Earth.

Average Temperature:

When it comes to ascertaining the average temperature of a planet, scientists rely on temperature variations measured from the surface. As a gas/ice giant, Neptune has no surface, per se. As a result, scientists rely on temperature readings from where the atmospheric pressure is equal to 1 bar (100 kPa), the equivalent to atmospheric pressure at sea level here on Earth.

On Neptune, this area of the atmosphere is just below the upper level clouds. Pressures in this region range between 1 and 5 bars (100 – 500 kPa), and temperature reach a high of 72 K (-201.15 °C; -330 °F). At this temperature, conditions are suitable for methane to condense, and clouds of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are thought to form (which is what gives Neptune its characteristically dark cyan coloring).

Farther into space, where pressures drop to about 0.1 bars (10 kPa), temperatures decrease to their low of around 55 K (-218 °C; -360 °F). Further into the planet, pressures increase dramatically, which also leads to a dramatic increase in temperature. At its core, Neptune reaches temperatures of up to 7273 K (7000 °C; 12632 °F), which is comparable to the surface of the Sun.

Neptune Great Dark Spot in High Resolution
Neptune Great Dark Spot in High Resolution. Credit: NASA/JPL

The huge temperature differences between Neptune’s center and its surface (along with its differential rotation) create huge wind storms, which can reach as high as 2,100 km/hour, making them the fastest in the Solar System. 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 lifespan than Jupiter’s. 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.

Temperature Anomalies:

Despite being 50% further from the Sun than Uranus – which orbits the Sun at an average distance of 2,875,040,000 km (1,786,467,032.5 mi or 19.2184 AU) – Neptune receives only 40% of the solar radiation that Uranus does. In spite of that, the two planets’ surface temperatures are surprisingly close, with Uranus experiencing an average “surface” temperature of 76 K (-197.2 °C)

Four images of Neptune taken a few hours apart by the Hubble Space Telescope on June 25-26, 2011. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Four images of Neptune taken a few hours apart by the Hubble Space Telescope on June 25-26, 2011. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

And while temperatures similarly increase the further one ventures into the core, the discrepancy is larger. Uranus only radiates 1.1 times as much energy as it receives from the Sun, whereas Neptune radiates about 2.61 times as much. Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun, yet its internal energy is sufficient to drive the fastest planetary winds seen in the Solar System.

One would expect Neptune to be much colder than Uranus, and the mechanism for this remains unknown. However, astronomers have theorized that  Neptune’s higher internal temperature (and the exchange of heat between the core and outer layers) might be the reason for why Neptune isn’t significantly colder than Uranus.

As already noted, Pluto’s surface temperatures do get to being lower than Neptune’s. Between its greater distance from the Sun, and the fact that it is not a gas/ice giant (so therefore doesn’t have extreme temperatures at its core) means that it experiences temperatures between a high of 55 K (-218 °C; -360 °F)and a low of 33 K (-240 °C; -400 °F). However, since it is no longer classified as a planet (but a dwarf planet, TNO, KBO, plutoid, etc.) it is no longer in the running. Sorry, Pluto!

We’ve written many articles about Neptune here at Universe Today. Here’s Who Discovered Neptune?, What is the Surface Temperature of Neptune?, What is the Surface of Neptune Like?, 10 Interesting Facts about Neptune, The Rings of Neptune, How Many Moons Does Neptune Have?

If you’d like more information on Neptune, take a look at Hubblesite’s News Releases about Neptune, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide to Neptune.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Neptune. Listen here, Episode 63: Neptune.

Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink

Pluto can’t seem to catch a break lately. After being reclassified in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union, it seemed that what had been the 9th planet of the Solar System was now relegated to the status of “dwarf planet” with the likes of Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. Then came the recent announcements that the title of “Planet 9” may belong to an object ten times the mass of Earth located 700 AU from our Sun.

And now, new research has been produced that indicates that Pluto may need to be reclassified again. Using data provided by the New Horizons mission, researchers have shown that Pluto’s interaction with the Sun’s solar wind is unlike anything observed in the Solar System thus far. As a result, it would seem that the debate over how to classify Pluto, and indeed all astronomical bodies, is not yet over.

Continue reading “Thanks, Comet Pluto. Solar System Nomenclature Needs A Major Rethink”

The Constellation Aries

Welcome back to constellation Friday! Today, in honor of our dear friend and contributor, Tammy Plotner, we examine the Aries constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would serve as the authoritative source of astronomy for over a thousand years to come. Since the development of modern telescopes and astronomy, this list has come to be expanded to include the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

Of these constellations, Aries – named in honor of the Ram from classical Greek mythology – is featured rather prominently. This faint constellation has deep roots, and is believed to date all the way back to the astrological systems of the ancient Babylonians. Positioned on the ecliptic plane, it is bordered by constellations of Perseus, Triangulum, Pisces, Cetus and Taurus, and is also the traditional home of the vernal equinox.

Continue reading “The Constellation Aries”

The Aquarius Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, we will be dealing with one of the best-known constellations, that “watery” asterism and section of the sky known as Aquarius. Cue the soundtrack from Hair!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the-then known constellations. This work (known as the Almagest) would remain the definitive guide to astronomy and astrology for over a thousand years. Among the 48 constellations listed in this book was Aquarius, a constellation of the zodiac that stretches from the celestial equator to the southern hemisphere.

Also known as the “Water Carrier”, Aquarius is bordered by Pegasus, Equuleus and Delphinus at the north, Aquila to the west, Capricornus to the south-west, Piscis Austrinus and Sculptor to the south, Cetus to the east and Pisces to the north-east. Today, it is one of the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and is perhaps the most referenced and recognized of all the constellation.

Continue reading “The Aquarius Constellation”

The Apus Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, we will be dealing with the beautiful bird-of-paradise itself, the Apus constellation!

The Southern Hemisphere is replete with beautiful stars and constellations, enough to keep a stargazing enthusiast busy for a lifetime. For countless centuries, the indigenous peoples of South America, South Africa, Australia and the South Pacific have looked up at these stars and drawn inspiration. However, to European astronomers, they remained uncharted and unknown until the 16th century.

It was during this time that Flemish astronomer Petrus Plancius designated twelve constellations, using asterisms found in the southern skies. One such constellation was Apus, a faint constellation in the southern sky that is named for the bird-of-paradise – a beautiful bird that is indigenous to the South Pacific. Today, it is one of the 88 constellations defined by the International Astronomic Union (IAU).

Name and Meaning:

The name Apus is derived from Greek word apous, which literally means “no feet”. The name applies to a species of bird that is indigenous to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Eastern Australia (which was believed at one time to have no feet). Its original name on Plancius’ charts was “Apis Indica” – the Latin term for “Indian Bee” (presumably an error for “avis”, which means bird).

Because of this error, the bordering constellation of Musca was later separated and renamed. The neighboring constellations to Apus are Ara, Chamaeleon, Circinus, Musca, Octans, Pavo, and Triangulum Australe.

The Constellation Apus. Credit: iau.org
The Constellation Apus. Credit: iau.org

History of Observation:

This faint southern constellation of Apus was one of the original twelve created by Plancius, based on observations provided by Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman – two Dutch explorers/navigators who mapped the southern sky around Australia between 1595 and 1597.

It was included on a celestial globe published in 1597 or 1598 in Amsterdam by Plancius and his associate, Flemish cartographer and engraver Jodocus Hondius. After it’s introduction on Plancius’ globe, it also appeared in Uranometria, a star atlas published by Johann Bayer – a German celestial catrographer – in 1603.

Here, it appeared under the name “Apis Indica”. It also grouped with the other members of the “Johann Bayer family” of constellations, all of which appeared in Uranometria. These include Chamaeleon, Dorado, Grus, Hydrus, Indus, Musca, Pavo, Phoenix, Tucana, and Volans. The constellation also appears as part of the Chinese constellations, where it is known as the “Little Wonder Bird”.

In the 17th century, Ming Dynasty astronomer Xu Guangqi adapted the European southern hemisphere constellations when producing The Southern Asterisms. Combining Apus with some of the stars in Octans, he designated the stars in this area of the night sky into the constellation known as Yìquè (“Exotic Bird”). In 1922, Apus was included by the International Astronomical Union in the list of 88 constellations.

The southern constellation Apus and neighboring Deep Sky Objects. Credit: absoluteaxarquia.com
The southern constellation Apus and neighboring Deep Sky Objects. Credit: absoluteaxarquia.com

Notable Features:

Within the Apus constellation, there are 39 stars that are brighter than or equal to apparent magnitude 6.5. The most notable of these is Alpha Apodis. an orange giant star with a magnitude of 3.8, located roughly 411 light years away from Earth. Beta Apodis is also an orange giant, with a magnitude of 4.2. and located 158 light years from Earth. And Gamma Apodis , another orange giant, has a magnitude of 3.9 and is located 160 light years away.

Delta Apodis is a binary star system consisting of a red giant and an orange giant. Delta¹ has a magnitude of 4.7 and is located 765 light years away, while Delta² has a magnitude of 5.3 and is located 663 light years away. Then there is Theta Apodis, a variable red giant star with a maximum magnitude of 4.8 and a minimum of 6.1 that is located 328 light years away.

NO Apodis is a red giant that varies between magnitudes 5.71 and 5.95 and is located around 883 light-years away from Earth. This star shines with a luminosity that is approximately 2059 times greater than our Sun’s and has a surface temperature of 3568 K.

Apus is also home to a few Deep Sky Objects. These include the IC 4499 loose globular cluster (shown below), which is located in the medium-far galactic halo and has an apparent magnitude of 10.6. This object is rather unique in that its metallicity readings indicate that it is younger than most other globular clusters in the region.

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the globular cluster IC 4499. Globular clusters are big balls of old stars that orbit around their host galaxy. It has long been believed that all the stars within a globular cluster form at the about same time, a property which can be used to determine the cluster's age. For more massive globulars however, detailed observations have shown that this is not entirely true — there is evidence that they instead consist of multiple populations of stars born at different times. One of the driving forces behind this behaviour is thought to be gravity: more massive globulars manage to grab more gas and dust, which can then be transformed into new stars. IC 4499 is a somewhat special case. Its mass lies somewhere between low-mass globulars, which show a single generation build-up, and the more complex and massive globulars which can contain more than one generation of stars. By studying objects like IC 4499 astronomers can therefore explore how mass affects a cluster's contents. Astronomers found no sign of multiple generations of stars in IC 4499 — supporting the idea that less massive clusters in general only consist of a single stellar generation. Hubble observations of IC 4499 have also helped to pinpoint the cluster's age: observations of this cluster from the 1990s suggested a puzzlingly young age when compared to other globular clusters within the Milky Way. However, since those first estimates new Hubble data been obtained, and it has been found to be much more likely that IC 4499 is actually roughly the same age as other Milky Way clusters at approximately 12 billion years old. Credit: ESA/NASA/HST
NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the globular cluster IC 4499, located in the Apus constellation. Credit: ESA/NASA/HST

Then there’s NGC 6101, a 14th mangitude globular cluster located seven degree north of Gamma Apodis. Last, there is the spiral galaxy IC 4633, which is very faint due to its location well within the Milky Way’s nebulous disc.

Finding Apus:

For binoculars, take a look at Alpha Apodis. This 3.8 magnitude star is located 411 light years away from Earth. Now move on to Delta. It is a wide double star which is two orange 5th-magnitude members separated by 103 arc seconds and an easy split. Or try observing Theta – its a variable star whose brightness ranges from magnitude 4.8 to 6.1 in a period of 109 days.

For telescopes, take a look at more difficult binary star Kappa-1 Apodis. The brightest component of this disparate pair has a magnitude of 5.4 and the companion is 12th magnitude, 27 arcseconds away. Need more? Then turn your gaze towards Kappa-2 only 0.63 degrees from Kappa-1. Kappa-1 Apodis is a binary star approximately 1020 light years from Earth. The primary component, Kappa-1 Apodis A, is a blue-white B-type subgiant with a mean apparent magnitude of +5.40. It is classified as a Gamma Cassiopeiae type variable star and its brightness varies from magnitude +5.43 to +5.61. The companion star, Kappa-1 Apodis B, is a 12th magnitude orange K-type subgiant. It is 27 arc seconds from the primary.

For larger telescopes, wander off and look at NGC 6101 located about seven degrees north of Gamma. Here we have a small, 14th magnitude globular cluster! If you’re really good you can try for spiral galaxy IC 4633. It’s so faint it doesn’t even have a magnitude listing!

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?, Triangulum Australe, What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations. and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Apus and Constellation Families.

What Are The Constellations?

milky way constellations

What comes to mind when you look up at the night sky and spot the constellations? Is it a grand desire to explore deep into space? Is it the feeling of awe and wonder, that perhaps these shapes in the sky represent something? Or is the sense that, like countless generations of human beings who have come before you, you are staring into the heavens and seeing patterns? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then you are in good company!

While most people can name at least one constellation, very few know the story of where they came from. Who were the first people to spot them? Where do their names come from? And just how many constellations are there in the sky? Here are a few of the answers, followed by a list of every known constellation, and all the relevant information pertaining to them.

Definition:

A constellation is essentially a specific area of the celestial sphere, though the term is more often associated with a chance grouping of stars in the night sky. Technically, star groupings are known as asterisms, and the practice of locating and assigning names to them is known as asterism. This practice goes back thousands of years, possibly even to the Upper Paleolithic. In fact, archaeological studies have identified markings in the famous cave paintings at Lascaux in southern France (ca. 17,300 years old) that could be depictions of the Pleiades cluster and Orion’s Belt.

There are currently 88 officially recognized constellations in total, which together cover the entire sky. Hence, any given point in a celestial coordinate system can unambiguously be assigned to a constellation. It is also a common practice in modern astronomy, when locating objects in the sky, to indicate which constellation their coordinates place them in proximity to, thus conveying a rough idea of where they can be found.

Closeup of one section of the cave painting at the Lascaux cave complex, showing what could be Pleiades and Orion's Belt. Credit: ancient-wisdom.com
Closeup of the Lascaux cave paintings, showing a bull and what could be the Pleiades Cluster (over the right shoulder) and Orion’s Belt (far left). Credit: ancient-wisdom.com

The word constellation has its roots in the Late Latin term constellatio, which can be translated as “set of stars”. A more functional definition would be a recognizable pattern of stars whose appearance is associated with mythical characters, creatures, or certain characteristics. It’s also important to note that colloquial usage of the word “constellation” does not generally differentiate between an asterism and the area surrounding one.

Typically, stars in a constellation have only one thing in common – they appear near each other in the sky when viewed from Earth. In reality, these stars are often very distant from each other and only appear to line up based on their immense distance from Earth. Since stars also travel on their own orbits through the Milky Way, the star patterns of the constellations change slowly over time.

History of Observation:

It is believed that since the earliest humans walked the Earth, the tradition of looking up at the night sky and assigning names and characters to them existed. However, the earliest recorded evidence of asterism and constellation-naming comes to us from ancient Mesopotamia, and in the form of etchings on clay tablets that are dated to around ca. 3000 BCE.

However, the ancient Babylonians were the first to recognize that astronomical phenomena are periodic and can be calculated mathematically. It was during the middle Bronze Age (ca. 2100 – 1500 BCE) that the oldest Babylonian star catalogs were created, which would later come to be consulted by Greek, Roman and Hebrew scholars to create their own astronomical and astrological systems.

Star map showing the celestial globe of Su Song (1020-1101), a Chinese scientist and mechanical engineer of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Star map showing the celestial globe of Su Song (1020-1101), a Chinese scientist and mechanical engineer of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In ancient China, astronomical traditions can be traced back to the middle Shang Dynasty (ca. 13th century BCE), where oracle bones unearthed at Anyang were inscribed with the names of star. The parallels between these and earlier Sumerian star catalogs suggest they did no arise independently. Astronomical observations conducted in the Zhanguo period (5th century BCE) were later recorded by astronomers in the Han period (206 BCE – 220 CE), giving rise to the single system of classic Chinese astronomy.

In India, the earliest indications of an astronomical system being developed are attributed to the Indus Valley Civilization (3300–1300 BCE). However, the oldest recorded example of astronomy and astrology is the Vedanga Jyotisha, a study which is part of the wider Vedic literature (i.e. religious) of the time, and which is dated to 1400-1200 BCE.

By the 4th century BCE, the Greeks adopted the Babylonian system and added several more constellations to the mix. By the 2nd century CE, Claudius Ptolemaus (aka. Ptolemy) combined all 48 known constellations into a single system. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come.

Between the 8th and 15th centuries, the Islamic world experienced a burst of scientific development, reaching from the Al-Andus region (modern-day Spain and Portugal) to Central Asia and India. Advancements in astronomy and astrology closely paralleled those made in other fields, where ancient and classical knowledge was assimilated and expanded on.

The Northern Constellations. Credit: Bodel Nijenhuis Collection/Leiden University Library
The Northern Constellations. Credit: Bodel Nijenhuis Collection/Leiden University Library

In turn, Islamic astronomy later had a significant influence on Byzantine and European astronomy, as well as Chinese and West African astronomy (particularly in the Mali Empire). A significant number of stars in the sky, such as Aldebaran and Altair, and astronomical terms such as alidade, azimuth, and almucantar, are still referred to by their Arabic names.

From the end of the 16th century onward, the age of exploration gave rise to circumpolar navigation, which in turn led European astronomers to witness the constellations in the South Celestial Pole for the first time. Combined with expeditions that traveled to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and all other previously unexplored regions of the planet, modern star catalogs began to emerge.

IAU Constellations:

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) currently has a list of 88 accepted constellations. This is largely due to the work of Henry Norris Russell, who in 1922, aided the IAU in dividing the celestial sphere into 88 official sectors. In 1930, the boundaries between these constellations were devised by Eugène Delporte, along vertical and horizontal lines of right ascension and declination.

The IAU list is also based on the 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy in his Almagest, with early modern modifications and additions by subsequent astronomers – such as Petrus Plancius (1552 – 1622), Johannes Hevelius (1611 – 1687), and Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1713 – 1762).

The modern constellations. color-coded by family, with a dotted line denoting the ecliptic. Credit: NASA/Scientific Visualization Studio
The modern constellations, color-coded by family, with a dotted line denoting the ecliptic. Credit: NASA/Scientific Visualization Studio

However, the data Delporte used was dated to the late 19th century, back when the suggestion was first made to designate boundaries in the celestial sphere. As a consequence, the precession of the equinoxes has already led the borders of the modern star map to become somewhat skewed, to the point that they are no longer vertical or horizontal. This effect will increase over the centuries and will require revision.

Not a single new constellation or constellation name has been postulated in centuries. When new stars are discovered, astronomers simply add them to the constellation they are closest to. So consider the information below, which lists all 88 constellations and provides information about each, to be up-to-date! We even threw in a few links about the zodiac, its meanings, and dates.

Enjoy your reading!