Mercury is the speed champion in our Solar System. It orbits the Sun every 88 days, and its average speed is 47 km/s. Its average distance from the Sun is 58 million km (36 million mi), and it’s so fast it’s named after Mercury, the wing-footed God.
But what if instead of Mercury, Jupiter was closest to the Sun? And what if Jupiter was even closer to the Sun than Mercury and far hotter?
If we had to rely solely on spacecraft to learn about the outer planets, we wouldn’t be making great progress. It takes a massive effort to get a spacecraft to the outer Solar System. But thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we can keep tabs on the gas giants without leaving Earth’s orbit.
Next time you want to be the life of the party—if you’re hanging out with cool nerds that is—just drop that phrase into the conversation. And when they look at you quizzically, just say that’s the eventual fate of the Solar System.
If a solar system is a family, then some planets leave home early. Whether they want to or not. Once they’ve left the gravitational embrace of their family, they’re pretty much destined to drift through interstellar space forever, unbound to any star.
Astronomers like to call these drifters “rogue planets,” and they’re getting better at finding them. A team of astronomers have found one of these drifting rogues that’s about the same mass as Mars or Earth.
Everything in space is moving. Galaxies collide and merge, massive clouds of gas migrate, and asteroids, comets, and rogue planets zip around and between it all. And in our own Solar System, the planets follow their ancient orbits.
Now a new data visualization shows us just how much our view from Earth changes in two years, as the orbits of the planets change the distance between us and our neighbours.
Scientists have learned a lot about the atmospheres on various worlds in our Solar System simply from planetary sunrises or sunsets. Sunlight streaming through the haze of an atmosphere can be separated into its component colors to create spectra, just as prisms do with sunlight. From the spectra, astronomers can interpret the measurements of light to reveal the chemical makeup of an atmosphere.
Whatever we grow up with, we think of as normal. Our single solitary yellow star seems normal to us, with planets orbiting on the same, aligned ecliptic. But most stars aren’t alone; most are in binary relationships. And some are in triple-star systems.
And the planet-forming disks around those three-star systems can exhibit some misshapen orbits.
Astronomers like observing distant young stars as they form. Stars are born out of a molecular cloud, and once enough of the matter in that cloud clumps together, fusion ignites and a star begins its life. The leftover material from the formation of the star is called a circumstellar disk.
As the material in the circumstellar disk swirls around the now-rotating star, it clumps up into individual planets. As planets form in it, they leave gaps in that disk. Or so we think.
Today we push our aging curiosity out into the Solar System to ask that simple question: how old is it and how do we know? What techniques do astronomers use to age various objects and regions in the Solar System?
The Solar System is a beautiful thing to behold. Between its four terrestrial planets, four gas giants, multiple minor planets composed of ice and rock, and countless moons and smaller objects, there is simply no shortage of things to study and be captivated by. Add to that our Sun, an Asteroid Belt, the Kuiper Belt, and many comets, and you’ve got enough to keep your busy for the rest of your life.
But why exactly is it that the larger bodies in the Solar System are round? Whether we are talking about moon like Titan, or the largest planet in the Solar System (Jupiter), large astronomical bodies seem to favor the shape of a sphere (though not a perfect one). The answer to this question has to do with how gravity works, not to mention how the Solar System came to be.
According to the most widely-accepted model of star and planet formation – aka. Nebular Hypothesis – our Solar System began as a cloud of swirling dust and gas (i.e. a nebula). According to this theory, about 4.57 billion years ago, something happened that caused the cloud to collapse. This could have been the result of a passing star, or shock waves from a supernova, but the end result was a gravitational collapse at the center of the cloud.
Due to this collapse, pockets of dust and gas began to collect into denser regions. As the denser regions pulled in more matter, conservation of momentum caused them to begin rotating while increasing pressure caused them to heat up. Most of the material ended up in a ball at the center to form the Sun while the rest of the matter flattened out into disk that circled around it – i.e. a protoplanetary disc.
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.
The leftover debris that never became planets congregated in regions such as the Asteroid Belt, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud. So this is how and why the Solar System formed in the first place. Why is it that the larger objects formed as spheres instead of say, squares? The answer to this has to do with a concept known as hydrostatic equilibrium.
In astrophysical terms, hydrostatic equilibrium refers to the state where there is a balance between the outward thermal pressure from inside a planet and the weight of the material pressing inward. This state occurs once an object (a star, planet, or planetoid) becomes so massive that the force of gravity they exert causes them to collapse into the most efficient shape – a sphere.
Typically, objects reach this point once they exceed a diameter of 1,000 km (621 mi), though this depends on their density as well. This concept has also become an important factor in determining whether an astronomical object will be designated as a planet. This was based on the resolution adopted in 2006 by the 26th General Assembly for the International Astronomical Union.
In accordance with Resolution 5A, the definition of a planet is:
A “planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.
A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape , (c) has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.
All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar-System Bodies”.
So why are planets round? Well, part of it is because when objects get particularly massive, nature favors that they assume the most efficient shape. On the other hand, we could say that planets are round because that is how we choose to define the word “planet”. But then again, “a rose by any other name”, right?