How Many Rings Does Uranus Have?

Uranus with its moons and rings. Image credit: Hubble

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Here’s a question, how many rings does Uranus have? Well, as of 2008, the total number of rings circling Uranus is 13.

The rings of Uranus were first discovered in 1977 by astronomers James Elliot, Edward Dunham and Douglas Mink. When he first discovered Uranus 200 years before, William Herschel reported seeing rings around Uranus, but his telescope probably wasn’t powerful enough to reveal them. Additional rings were discovered in 1986 when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft made its flyby, and then two more outer rings were turned up by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2003-2005.

The rings of Uranus are dark and opaque, with a very low albedo. Astronomers believe that they’re made of water ice mixed with organic molecules. Unlike Saturn’s rings, the rings of Uranus are very narrow; just a few kilometers wide.

Uranus’ rings consist of 3 major groups. There are the narrow main rings, the dusty rings, and the newly discovered outer ring system.

Astronomers think that the rings of Uranus are being shepherded by small moons in the ring system. Without these shepherd moons, the rings of Uranus would spread out radially and dissipate into space. It’s also believed that there’s some process that’s replenishing the ice particles in the rings; perhaps collisions between icy objects in the rings.

I mentioned at the beginning of the article that current ring count stands at 13; however, that’s for 2008. With improved technology and telescopes, astronomers could turn up more rings in the future, so stay tuned.

We have written many articles about Uranus for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the discovery of new rings and moons around Uranus, and here’s an image of a blue ring around Uranus.

Here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the rings of Uranus, and here’s NASA’s fact sheet on the rings.

We have also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Uranus. Check it out here.

Solar System Orbits

Take a look at the Solar System from above, and you can see that the planets make nice circular orbits around the Sun. But dwarf planet’s Pluto’s orbit is very different. It’s highly elliptical, traveling around the Sun in a squashed circle. And Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined, traveling at an angle of 17-degrees. This strange orbit gives Pluto some unusual characteristics, sometimes bringing it within the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

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One of the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) requirements for a celestial body to be classified as a planet (or a dwarf planet) is that it orbits the Sun. All of the planets have different orbits, which affect many of the planets’ other characteristics.

Since Pluto became a dwarf planet, Mercury is the planet with the most eccentric orbit. The eccentricity of an orbit is the measurement of how different the orbit is from a circular shape. If an orbit is a perfect circle, its eccentricity is zero. As the orbit becomes more elliptical, the eccentricity increases. Mercury’s orbit ranges from 46 million kilometers from the Sun to 70 million kilometers from the Sun.

Venus, which is right next to Mercury, has the least eccentric orbit of any of the planet in the Solar System. Its orbit ranges between 107 million km and 109 million km from the Sun and has an eccentricity of .007 giving it a nearly perfect circle for its orbit.

Earth also has a relatively circular orbit with an eccentricity of .017. Earth has a perihelion of 147 million kilometers; the perihelion is the closest point to the Sun in an object’s orbit. Our planet has an aphelion of 152 million kilometers. An aphelion is the furthest point from the Sun in an object’s orbit.

Mars has one of the most eccentric orbits in our Solar System at .093. Its perihelion is 207 million kilometers, and it has an aphelion of 249 million kilometers.

Jupiter has a perihelion of 741 million kilometers and an aphelion of 778 million kilometers. Its eccentricity is .048. Jupiter takes 11.86 years to orbit the Sun. Although this seems a long time compared to the time our own planet takes to orbit, it is only a fraction of the time of some of the other planets’ orbits.

Saturn is 1.35 billion kilometers at its perihelion and 1.51 billion kilometers from the Sun at its furthest point. It has an eccentricity of .056. Since it was first discovered in 1610, Saturn has only orbited the Sun 13 times because it takes 29.7 years to orbit once.

Uranus is 2.75 billion miles from the Sun at its closest point and 3 billion miles from the Sun at its aphelion. It has an eccentricity of .047 and takes 84.3 years to orbit the Sun. Uranus has such an extreme axial tilt (97.8°) that rotates on its side. This causes radical changes in seasons.

Neptune is the furthest planet from the Sun with a perihelion of 4.45 billion kilometers and an aphelion of 4.55 billion kilometers. It has an eccentricity of .009, which is almost as low as Venus’ eccentricity. It takes Neptune 164.8 years to orbit the Sun.

Universe Today has articles on orbits of the planets and asteroid orbits.

For more information, check out articles on an overview of the Solar System and new planet orbits backwards.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets including Mercury.

References:
NASA: Transits of Mercury
NASA: Solar System Math
NASA: Mars, You’re So Complicated
NASA Solar System Exploration

Radius of the Planets

Size of the planets compared.

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One way to measure the size of the planets is by radius. Radius is the measurement from the center of an object to the edge of it.

Mercury is the smallest planet with a radius of only 2,440 km at its equator. Mercury is not that much larger than the Moon, and it is actually smaller than some of our Solar System’s larger satellites, such as Titan. Despite Mercury’s small size, it is actually dense with higher gravity than you would expect for its size.

Venus has a radius of 6,052 kilometers, which is only a few hundred kilometers smaller than Earth’s radius. Most planets have a radius that is different at the equator than it is at the poles because the planets spin so fast that they flatten out at the poles. Venus has the same diameter at the poles and at the equator though because it spins so slowly.

Earth is the largest of the four inner planets with a radius of 6,378 kilometers at the equator. This is over two times larger than the radius of Mercury. The radius between the poles is 21.3 km less than the radius at the equator because the planet has flattened slightly since it only takes 24 hours to rotate.

Mars is a surprisingly small planet with a radius of 3,396 kilometers at the equator and 3,376 kilometers at the poles. This means that Mars’ radius is only about half of Earth’s radius.

Jupiter is the largest of all the planets. It has a radius of 71,492 kilometers at the equator and a radius of 66,854 kilometers at the poles. This is a difference of 4,638 kilometers, which is almost twice Mercury’s radius. Jupiter has a radius at the equator 11.2 times Earth’s equatorial radius.

Saturn has an equatorial radius of 60,268 kilometers and a radius of 54,364 kilometers at the poles making it the second largest planet in our Solar System. The difference between its two radiuses is a little more than twice the radius of Mercury.

Uranus has an equatorial radius of 25,559 kilometers and a radius of 24,973 kilometers at the poles. Although this is much smaller than Jupiter’s radius, it is around four times the size of Earth’s radius.

Neptune’s equatorial radius of 24,764 kilometers makes it the smallest of the four outer planets. The planet has a radius of 24,341 kilometers at the poles. Neptune’s radius is almost four times the size of Earth’s radius, but it is only about a third of Jupiter’s radius.

Universe Today has articles on the radius of Neptune and the size of the planets.

If you are looking for more information, check out NASA’s Solar System exploration page, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Simulator.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Venus and more on all the planets.

Volume of the Planets

Planets and other objects in our Solar System. Credit: NASA.

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There are a number of measurements that astronomers use, including mass, surface area, diameter, and radius, to determine the the size of the planets. Volume is one measurement of the size of a planet. It is a measurement of how much three-dimensional space an object occupies. The volumes of the planets, along with other measurements, help astronomers discover the physical composition of the planets in addition to other information about them.

Mercury is the littlest planet in our Solar System with the smallest volume of any planet. It has a volume of 6.083 x 1010 cubic kilometers, which is only 5.4% of Earth’s volume.

Venus is only slightly smaller than Earth with a volume of 9.38 x 1011 km3. That is 86% of the Earth’s volume. This may not seem like Venus is that close in size to our planet,  but Venus is closer in size to Earth than any other planet is.

Earth is the largest of the four inner planets, although it is nothing compared to the gas giants. Earth has a volume of 1.08 x 1012 cubic kilometers.

Mars is actually a rather small planet with a volume of 1.6 x 1011 cubic kilometers. While that is larger than Mercury’s volume and pretty big in general, it is only 15% of Earth’s volume. You could put over six planets the size of Mars inside the Earth.

The largest planet in our Solar System, Jupiter’s size is astounding. Jupiter has a volume of 1.43 x 1015 cubic kilometers. To show what this number means, you could fit 1321 Earths inside of Jupiter. It is hard to imagine how large that actually is.

Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System. It has a volume of 8.27 x 1014 cubic km. Although it is only a fraction of the size of Jupiter, you could fit 764 Earths inside of the gas giant.

Uranus is a large planet with a volume of 6.833 x 1013 cubic kilometers. You could fit a little more than 63 Earths inside of Uranus, but like the other gas giants, it is not very dense. Comprised mostly of gas, the planet is only about 14.5 times more massive than Earth is.

Neptune is the smallest gas giant in our Solar System, but it is still much larger than any of the inner planets. Neptune has a volume of 6.3 x 1013 cubic kilometers, which is equal to about 57 Earths. Even though Neptune’s volume is much greater than the Earth’s is, the gravity on Neptune is only about 14% greater than it is on Earth. This is due to the gas giant’s small mass.

Universe Today has articles on size of the planets and mass of the planets.

Check out an overview of the Solar System and all about the planets.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Jupiter and episodes on all the planets.

Mythology of the Planets

Planets and other objects in our Solar System. Credit: NASA.

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Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations turned to the heavens, marveling at their wonders. These ancient people worshipped various gods and often linked their gods with planets in the sky, which they considered to be “wandering stars.”

Mercury gets its name from the winged messenger of the gods. He was also the god of thievery, commerce, and travel. Most likely, the planet got its name from the rate at which it spins.

Venus was the Roman goddess of love and beauty, so it is a fitting name for this brightly shining planet. The only objects in our Solar System brighter than Venus are the Sun and the Moon. Ancient civilizations thought that Venus was two different objects – the Morning Star and the Evening Star. Other civilizations have also associated the planet with love. The Babylonians called the planet Ishtar after their goddess of womanhood and love.

Earth is the only planet not named after a Roman god or goddess, but it is associated with the goddess Terra Mater (Gaea to the Greeks). In mythology, she was the first goddess on Earth and the mother of Uranus. The name Earth comes from Old English and Germanic. It is derived from “eor(th)e” and “ertha,” which mean “ground.” Other civilizations all over the world also developed terms for our planet.

Mars is named after the Roman god of war. The planet got its name from the fact that it is the color of blood.  Other civilizations also named the planets for its red color.

Jupiter was the Roman king of the gods. Considering that Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System, it makes sense that the planet was named after the most important god.

Saturn was named after the Roman god of agriculture and harvest. While the planet may have gotten its name from its golden color, like a field of wheat, it also had to do with its position in the sky. According to mythology, the god Saturn stole the position of king of the gods from his father Uranus. The throne was then stolen by Jupiter.

Uranus was not discovered until the 1800’s, but the astronomers in that time period continued the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods. In mythology, Uranus was the father of Saturn and was at one time the king of the gods.

While Neptune almost ended up being named after one of the astronomers credited with discovering it – Verrier – that was greatly disputed, so it was named after the god of the sea. The name was probably inspired by its blue color.

Pluto is no longer a planet, but it used to be. The dark, cold, former planet was named after the god of the underworld. The first two letters of Pluto are also the initials of the man who predicted  its existence, Percival Lowell.

Universe Today has articles on names of the planets and all the planets.

For more information on the planets check out all about the planets and mythology of the planets.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets including Saturn.

Surface of the Planets

Planets and other objects in our Solar System. Credit: NASA.

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People have been intrigued for centuries by whether life could exist on other planets. While we now know that it is very unlikely that life as we know it could exist on other planets in our Solar System, many people do not know the surface conditions of these various planets.

Mercury resembles nothing so much as a larger version of the Moon. This planet is so close to the Sun that it is actually difficult to observe. The Hubble Space Telescope cannot look at it because it would permanently damage the lens.

Venus’ atmosphere of thick, toxic clouds hides the planet’s surface from view. Scientists and amateurs alike used to think that the planet was covered with thick forests and flora like tropical rainforests on Earth.  When they were finally able to send probes to the planet, they discovered that Venus’ surface was actually more like a vision of hell with a burning landscape that is dotted with volcanoes.

Mars has very diverse terrain. One of the planet’s most famous features is its canals, which early astronomers believed were “man”-made and contained water. These huge canyons were most likely formed by the planet’s crust splitting. Mars is also famous for its red color, which is iron oxide (rust) dust that covers the surface of the entire planet. The surface of Mars is covered with craters, volcanoes, and plains. The largest volcanoes of any planet are on Mars.

Jupiter is a gas giant, so it has no solid surface just a core of liquid metals. Astronomers have created a definition for the surface – the point at which the atmosphere’s pressure is one bar. This region is the lower part of the atmosphere where there are clouds of ammonia ice.

Saturn is also a gas giant so it has no solid surface only varying densities of gas. Like Jupiter, almost all of Saturn is composed of hydrogen with some helium and other elements in trace amounts.

Uranus and Neptune are also gas giants, but they belong to the subcategory of ice giants because of the “ices” in their atmospheres. Uranus’ surface gets its blue color from the methane in the atmosphere. Methane absorbs light that is red or similar to red on the color spectrum leaving only the light near the blue end of the spectrum visible.

Neptune is also blue due to the methane in its atmosphere. Its “surface” has the fastest winds of any planet in the Solar System at up to 2,100 kilometers per hour.

Universe Today has a number of articles including surface of Mars and surface of Mercury.

Check out NASA’s Solar System exploration page, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Simulator.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on each planet including Earth.

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.

All the Planets

This is a picture of the sequence of the eight planets and three of the dwarf planets. Image courtesy of IAU.

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Since 2006, due to a controversial decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet, we have had eight planets.

Mercury is a small planet, which can reach extreme temperatures. Since the planet is the closest one to the Sun, it can reach temperatures of 450°C. However, because the planet has almost no atmosphere due to very little gravity, the surface also drops to low temperatures of -170°C.

Venus is farther from the Sun than Mercury is, but it stays hotter due to its thick, toxic atmosphere. The main compound in Venus’ atmosphere is carbon dioxide, which creates the strongest greenhouse effect of any planet.

Undoubtedly, you already know a lot about Earth, but you may not know that our planet is the only one in our Solar System that has plate tectonics. The Earth’s outer crust is broken up into various sections called plates, which can move. These plates also take carbon out of the atmosphere and recycle it. This prevents a greenhouse effect like Venus’ and keeps the Earth from getting too hot. This is just one feature of our unique planet that helps support life.

Mars is the only inner planet, except for Earth, that has moons. Its two moons are called Phobos and Deimos. In Greek mythology, Phobos is a son of Ares (the equivalent of Mars) and Deimos is a figure that represents dread.

Jupiter is the model for gas giants as well as being the largest planet in our Solar System. It was named after the Roman king of the gods who was also the god of the sky and of thunder, which is fitting considering its size. Jupiter has 63 moons – more than any other planet in our Solar System.

Saturn is the only planet in our Solar System that has an average density less than water. Its core is actually denser than water, but its gas atmosphere balances the heavier core. You may consider floating Saturn in water, but even if you found a planet with a large enough body of water, the gases that make up Saturn’s atmosphere would simply merge with the other planet’s atmosphere.

 Uranus and Neptune both belong to a class of gas giants called ice giants because they contain higher amounts of “ices” in their atmosphere. These ices include water, ammonia, and methane.

Neptune is an ice giant with the fastest winds of any planets. These winds can reach speeds of 2,100 kilometers per hour. The planet was discovered with mathematical predictions when astronomers noticed discrepancies in Uranus’ orbit.

Universe Today has many articles on the planets including order of the planets and planets in the Solar System.

If you are looking for more information, try all about the planets and an overview of the planets.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets including Jupiter.

Symbols of the Planets

The symbols of the eight planets, and Pluto, Credit: insightastrology.net

In our long history of staring up at the stars, human beings have assigned various qualities, names, and symbols for all the objects they have found there. Determined to find patterns in the heavens that might shed light on life here on Earth, many of these designations ascribed behavior to the celestial bodies.

When it comes to assigning signs to the planets, astrologists and astronomers – which were entwined disciplines in the past -made sure that these particular symbols were linked to the planets’ names or their history in some way.

Consider the planet Mercury, named after the Roman god who was himself the messenger of the gods, noted for his speed and swiftness. The name was assigned to this body largely because it is the planet closest to the Sun, and which therefore has the fastest rotation period. Hence, the symbol is meant to represent Mercury’s helmet and caduceus – a herald’s staff with snakes and wings intertwined.

Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury, as imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft, which was named after the messenger of the gods because it has the fastest orbit around the Sun. Image Credit: NASA/JHU/Carnegie Institution.

Venus:
Venus’ symbol has more than one meaning. Not only is it the sign for “female”, but it also represents the goddess Venus’ hand mirror. This representation of femininity makes sense considering Venus was the goddess of love and beauty. The symbol is also the chemical sign for copper; since copper was used to make mirrors in ancient times.

Earth:
Earth’s sign also has a variety of meanings, although it does not refer to a mythological god. The most popular view is that the circle with a cross in the middle represents the four main compass points.  It has also been interpreted as the Globus Cruciger, an old Christian symbol for Christ’s reign on Earth.

This symbol is not just limited to Christianity though, and has been used in various culture around the world. These include, but are not limited to,  Norse mythology (where it appears as the Solar or Odin’s Cross), Native American cultures (where it typically represented the four spirits of direction and the four sacred elements), the Celtic Cross, the Greek Cross, and the Egyptian Ankh.

In fact, perhaps owing to the simplicity of the design, cross-shaped incisions have made appearances as petroglyphs in European cult caves dating all the way back to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, and throughout prehistory to the Iron Age.

Mars, as photographed with the Mars Global Surveyor, is identified with the Roman god of war. Credit: NASA
Mars, as photographed with the Mars Global Surveyor, is identified with the Roman god of war. Credit: NASA

Mars:
Mars is named after the Roman god of war, owing perhaps to the planet’s reddish hue, which gives it the color of blood. For this reason, the symbol associated with Mars represents the god of wars’ shield and spear. Additionally, it is the same sign as the one used to represent “male”, and hence is associated with self-assertion, aggression, sexuality, energy, strength, ambition and impulsiveness.

Jupiter:
Jupiter’s sign, which looks like an ornate, oddly shaped “four,” also stands for a number of symbols. It has been said to represent an eagle, which is Jupiter’s bird. Additionally, the symbol can stand for a “Z,” which is the first letter of Zeus  – who was Jupiter’s Greek counterpart.

The line through the symbol is consistent with this, since it would indicate that it was an abbreviation for Zeus’ name. And last, but not least, there is the addition of the swirled line which is believed to represent a lighting bolt – which just happens to  Jupiter’s (and Zeus’) weapon of choice.

Saturn:
Like Jupiter, Saturn resembles another recognizable character – this time, it’s an “h.” However, this symbol is actually supposed to represent Saturn’s scythe or sickle, because Saturn is named after the Roman god of agriculture.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot and Ganymede's Shadow. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)
Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System, is appropriately named after the Roman father of the gods. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

Uranus:
The sign for Uranus is a combination of two other signs – Mars’ sign and the symbol of the Sun – because the planet is connected to these two in mythology. Uranus represented heaven in Roman mythology, and this ancient civilization believed that the Sun’s light and Mars’ power ruled the heavens.

Neptune:
Neptune’s sign is linked to the sea god Neptune, who the planet was named after. Appropriately, the symbol represents this planet is in the shape of the sea god’s trident.

Pluto:
Although Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet, it still has a symbol. Pluto’s sign is a combination of a “P” and a “L,” which are the first two letters in Pluto as well as the initials of Percival Lowell, the astronomer who discovered the planet.

Other Objects:
The Moon is represented by a crescent shape, which is a clear allusion to how the Moon appears in the night sky more often than not. Since the Moon is also tied to people’s perceptions, moods, and emotional make-up, the symbol has also come to represents the mind’s receptivity.

A full moon captured July 18, 2008. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
A full moon captured July 18, 2008. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

And then there’s the sun, which is represented by a circle with a dot in the middle. In the case of the Sun, this symbol represents the divine spirit (circle) surrounding the seed of potential, which is a direct association with ancient Sun worship and the central role Sun god’s played in ancient pantheons.

The planets have played an important role in the culture and astrological systems of every human culture. Because of this, the symbols, names, and terms that denote them continue to hold special significance in our hearts and minds.

We have many interesting articles on the planets here at Universe Today. For example, here is other articles including symbols of the planets and symbols of the Sun and Moon.

If you are looking for more information try signs of the planets and symbols of the minor planets.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on each planet including Saturn.

Universe Today has articles you will want to check out on symbols for the Sun and Moon and symbol for Earth.

If you are looking for more information, take a look at this website from NASA on the astronomical symbols or on the symbol for Pluto.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on each planet, so listen to all of them in order starting with Mercury.

Orbits of the Planets

Take a look at the Solar System from above, and you can see that the planets make nice circular orbits around the Sun. But dwarf planet’s Pluto’s orbit is very different. It’s highly elliptical, traveling around the Sun in a squashed circle. And Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined, traveling at an angle of 17-degrees. This strange orbit gives Pluto some unusual characteristics, sometimes bringing it within the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

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Centuries ago, people believed that the Earth was the center of the Solar System. Slowly, that view was replaced with the heliocentric view. With that change came the realization that the planets orbit the Sun.

When Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet, Mercury became the planet with the most eccentric orbit. The eccentricity of an orbit is a measurement of how much the orbit deviates from a circular shape. If an orbit is a perfect circle, it has an eccentricity of zero, and that number increases with an increase in eccentricity. Mercury has an eccentricity of .21. Its orbit ranges from 46 million kilometers at the closest point to the Sun to 70 million kilometers at the farthest point. The closest point to the Sun in an orbit is called the perihelion, and the farthest point is the aphelion. Mercury is the fastest planet to orbit the Sun at approximately Earth 88 days.

Venus has the least eccentricity of any planet in our Solar System – eccentricity of .007 – with a nearly perfect circular orbit. Venus’ orbit ranges from 107 million kilometers at the perihelion to 109 million kilometers from the Sun. It takes 224.7 of our days to orbit the Sun. A day on Venus is actually longer than a year because the planet rotates so slowly. Seen from the Sun’s north pole, all of the planets rotate counter-clockwise, but Venus actually rotates clockwise; it is the only planet to do that.

Earth also has a very low eccentricity of .017. On average, the planet is about 150 million kilometers from the Sun, but it can range from 147 million kilometers to 152 million kilometers. It takes our planet roughly 365.256 days to orbit the Sun, which is the reason for leap years.

Mars has an eccentricity of .093 making it one of the most eccentric orbits in our Solar System. Mars perihelion is 207 million kilometers and its aphelion is 249 million kilometers from the Sun. Over time, Mars’ orbit has become more eccentric. It takes 687 Earth days to orbit the Sun.

Jupiter has an eccentricity of .048 with a perihelion of 741 million kilometers and an aphelion of 778 million kilometers. It takes 4331 Earth days – 11.86 of our years – for Jupiter to orbit the Sun.

Saturn has an eccentricity of .056. At its closest point, Saturn is 1.35 billion kilometers from the Sun, and 1.51 billion kilometers away at its farthest point. Depending on what position it is in its orbit, Saturn’s rings are fully visible or almost invisible. The planet takes 29.7 years to orbit the Sun. In fact, since it was discovered in 1610, Saturn has only orbited approximately 13 times. Earth has orbited the Sun almost 400 times since then.

Uranus has a perihelion of 2.75 billion kilometers and an aphelion of 3 billion kilometers from the Sun. Its eccentricity is .047. It takes Uranus 84.3 Earth years to orbit the Sun. Uranus is unique because it actually rotates on its side with an axial tilt of almost 99°.

Neptune’s eccentricity is .009, almost as low as Venus’. The planet has a perihelion of 4.45 billion kilometers and an aphelion of 4.55 billion kilometers. Since Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet, Neptune is the planet with an orbit farthest from the Sun.

Universe Today has articles on orbits of all the planets including Mercury and Mars.

There are a number of other sites, including one with animations of the orbits and what an orbit is.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the orbit of the planets.