Why Doesn’t Earth Have Rings?

Why Doesn't Earth Have Rings?

Before we really get started on today’s episode, I’d like to share a bunch of really cool pictures created by my friend Kevin Gill. Kevin’s a computer programmer, 3-D animator and works on climate science data for NASA.

And in his spare time, he uses his skills to help him imagine what the Universe could look like. For example, he’s mapped out what a future terraformed Mars might look like based on elevation maps, or rendered moons disturbing Saturn’s rings with their gravity.

Earth’s Rings over San Bernadino. Credit: Kevin Gill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

But one of my favorite sets of images that Kevin did were these. What would it look like if Earth had rings? Kevin and his wife went to a few cool locations, took some landscape pictures, and then Kevin did the calculations for what it would look like if Earth had a set of rings like Saturn.

And let me tell you, Earth would be so much better. At least you’d think so, but actually, it might also suck.

Last time I checked, we don’t have rings like this. In fact, we don’t have any rings at all.

Why not? Considering the fact that Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have rings, don’t we deserve at least something?

Did we ever have rings in the past, or will we in the future? What’s it going to take for us to join the ring club? Short answer, an apocalypse.

Before we get into the inevitable discussion of death and devastation, let’s talk a bit about rings.

A lovely view of Saturn and its rings as seen by the Cassini spacecraft on Aug. 12, 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Saturn is the big showboat, with its fancy rings. They’re made of water ice, with chunks as big as a mountain, or as small as a piece of sand. Astronomers have been arguing about where they came from and how old they are, but the current consensus – sort of – is that the rings are almost as ancient as Saturn itself: billions of years old. And yet, some process is weathering the rings, grinding the particles so they appear much younger.

Jupiter’s rings. Image Credit: University of Maryland

Jupiter’s rings are much fainter, and we didn’t even know about them until 1979, when the Voyager spacecraft made their flybys. The rings seem to be created by dust blown off into space by impacts on the planet’s moons.

Hey, we’ve got a moon, that’s a sign.

Uranus imaged by Voyager 2 in 1986. Credit: NASA

The rings around Uranus are bigger and more complex than Jupiter’s rings, but not as substantial as Saturn’s. They’re much younger, perhaps only 600 million years old, and appear to have been caused by two moons crashing into each other, long ago.

Again, another sign. We still have the potential for stuff to crash around us.

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

The rings around Neptune are far dustier than any of the other ring systems, and much younger than the Solar System. And like the rings around Uranus, they were probably formed when two or more of its moons collided together.

Now what about our own prospects for rings?

The problem with icy rings is that the Earth orbits too closely to the Sun. There’s a specific point in the Solar System known as the “frost line” or “snow line”. This is the point in the Solar System where deposits of ice could have survived for long periods of time. Any closer and the radiation from the Sun sublimates the ice away.

This point is actually located about 5 astronomical units away from the Sun, in the asteroid belt. Mars is much closer, so it’s very dry, while Jupiter is beyond the frost line, and its moons have plenty of water ice.

The Earth is a mere 1 AU from the Sun. That’s the very definition of an astronomical unit, which means it’s well within the frost line. The Earth itself can maintain water because the planet’s magnetosphere acts like a shield against the solar wind. But the Moon is bone dry (except for the permanently shadowed craters at its poles).

And if there was an icy ring system around the Earth, the solar wind would have blasted it away long ago.

Instead, let’s look at another kind of ring we can have. One made of rock and dust, containing death and sorrow, from a pulverized asteroid or moon. In fact, billions of years ago, we definitely had a ring when a Mars-sized planet crashed into the Earth and spewed out a massive ring of debris. This debris collected together into the Moon we know today. That impact turned the Earth’s surface inside out. It was all volcanoes, everywhere, all the time.

Credit: Kevin Gill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s also possible we had a second moon in the ancient past, which collided with our current Moon. That would have generated an all new ring of material for millions of years until it was recaptured by the Moon, kicked out of orbit, or fell down onto the Earth.

It’s that “fell down onto Earth” part that’s apocalyptic. As mountains of ring material entered the Earth’s atmosphere, it would increase the temperature, baking and boiling away any life that couldn’t burrow deep underground.

It’s kind of like the book Seveneves, which you should totally read if you haven’t already. It talks about what we would see if the Moon broke apart into a ring, and the terrible terrible thing that happens next.

Earth’s Rings from New Hampshire. Credit: Kevin Gill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If Earth did get a set of rings, they’d be pretty, but they’d also be a huge pain for astronomers. As you saw in Kevin’s original pictures, the rings take up a huge chunk of the sky for most observers. The farther north or south you go, the more dramatically the rings will ruin your view. Only if you were right at the equator, you’d have a thin line, which would be borderline acceptable.

Furthermore, the rings themselves would be incredibly reflective, and completely ruin the whole concept of dark skies. You know how the Moon sucks for astronomy? Rings would be way way worse.

Finally, rings would interfere with our ability to launch spacecraft and maintain satellites. It depends on how far they extend, but we wouldn’t be able to have any satellites in that region or cross the ring plane. Oh, and that fiery death apocalypse I mentioned earlier.

We know that the Moon is drifting away from the Earth right now thanks to the conservation of angular momentum. But in the distant future, billions of years from now, there might be a scenario that turns everything around.

The Sun’s habitable zone in its red giant phase. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

As you know, when it runs out of fuel in its core, the Sun is going to bloat up as a red giant, consuming Mercury and Venus. Scientists are on the fence about Earth. Some think that Earth will be fine. The Sun will blast off its outer layers, but not actually envelop Earth. Others think that at the Sun’s largest point, we’ll be orbiting within the outer atmosphere of the Sun. Ouch, that’s hot.

The orbiting Moon will experience drag as it goes around the Earth, slowing down its orbital velocity, and causing it to spiral inward. Once it reaches the Roche Limit of the Earth, about 9,500 km, our planet’s gravity will tear the Moon apart into a ring. The chunks in the ring will also experience drag in the solar atmosphere and continue to spiral inward until they crash into the planet.

The Moon tearing apart to become a ring around Earth. Credit: Universe Sandbox ²

That would be considered a very bad day, if it wasn’t for the fact that we were already living inside the atmosphere of the Sun. No amount of terraforming will fix that.

Sadly, the Earth doesn’t have rings like Saturn, and it probably never did. It might have had rings of rock and dust for periods, but they weren’t that majestic to look at. In fact, seeing rings around the planet would mean we’d lost a moon, and our planet was about go through a period of bombardment. I’ll pass.

What is Uranus Named After?

The period known as the Scientific Revolution (ca. 16th to the 18th century) was a time of major scientific upheaval. In addition to advances made in mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences, several major discoveries were made in the field of astronomy. Because of this, our understanding of the size and structure of the Solar System was forever revolutionized.

Consider the discovery of Uranus. While this planet had been viewed on many occasions by astronomers in the past, it was only with the birth of modern astronomy that its true nature came to be understood. And with William Herschel‘s discovery in the 18th century, the planet would come to be officially named and added to the list of known Solar Planets.

Past Observations:

The first recorded instance of Uranus being spotted in the night sky is believed to date back to the 2nd century BCE. At this time, Hipparchos – the Greek astronomer, mathematician and founder of trigonometry – apparently recorded the planet as a star in his star catalogue (completed in 129 BCE).

Large floor mosaic from a Roman villa in Sassoferrato, Italy (ca. 200–250 CE). Aion (Uranus), the god of eternity, stands above Tellus (Gaia) and her four children (the seasons). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Bibi Saint-Poi

This catalog was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest, which became the definitive source for Islamic astronomers and for scholars in Medieval Europe for over one-thousand years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, multiple recorded sightings were made by astronomers who catalogued it as being a star.

This included English astronomer John Flamsteed, who in 1690 observed the star on six occasions and catalogued it as a star in the Taurus constellation (34 Tauri). During the mid-18th century, French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier made twelve recorded sightings, and also recorded it as being a star. It was not until March 13th, 1781, when William Herschel observed it from his garden house in Bath, that Uranus’ true nature began to be revealed.

Discovery:

Herschel’s first report on the object was recorded on April 26th, 1781. Initially, he described it as being a “Nebulous star or perhaps a comet”, but later settled on it being a comet since it appeared to have changed its position in the sky. When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he maintained this theory, but also likened it to a planet.

Replica of Herschel’s Seven-foot Reflecting Telescope, located at the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Credit: herschelmuseum.org.uk

As was recorded in the Journal of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society on the occasion of his presentation:

“The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.”

While Herschel would continue to maintain that what he observed was a comet, his “discovery” stimulated debate in the astronomical community about what Uranus was. In time, astronomers like Johann Elert Bode would conclude that it was a planet, based on its nearly-circular orbit. By 1783, Herschel himself acknowledged that it was a planet to the Royal Society.

Name and Meaning:

As he lived in England, Herschel originally wanted to name Uranus after his patron, King George III. Specifically, he wanted to call it Georgium Sidus (Latin for “George’s Star”), or the Georgian Planet. Although this was a popular name in Britain, the international astronomy community didn’t think much of it, and wanted to follow the historical precedent of naming the planets after ancient Greek and Roman gods.

These two pictures of Uranus — one in true color (left) and the other in false color — were compiled from images returned Jan. 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL

Consistent with this, Bode proposed the name Uranus in a 1782 treatise. The Latin form of Ouranos, Uranus was the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon), the father of Cronos (Saturn), and the king of the Titans in Greek mythology. As it was discovered beyond the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, the name seemed highly appropriate. As he would later write in his 1784 book, “From the Newly Discovered Planet“:

“Already in the pre-read at the local Natural History Society on 12th March 1782 treatise, I have the father’s name from Saturn, namely Uranus, or as it is usually with the Latin suffix, proposed Uranus, and have since had the pleasure that various astronomers and mathematicians, cited in their writings or letters to me approving this designation. In my view, it is necessary to follow the mythology in this election, which had been borrowed from the ancient name of the other planets; because in the series of previously known, perceived by a strange person or event of modern times name of a planet would very noticeable. Diodorus of Cilicia tells the story of Atlas, an ancient people that inhabited one of the most fertile areas in Africa, and looked at the sea shores of his country as the homeland of the gods. Uranus was her first king, founder of their civilized life and inventor of many useful arts. At the same time he is also described as a diligent and skilful astronomers of antiquity … even more: Uranus was the father of Saturn and the Atlas, as the former is the father of Jupiter.”

There were some holdouts to this new name, largely in Britain, where the name Georgium Sidus remained popular. Nevertheless, Herschel’s proposal would become universally accepted by 1850. Uranus was the only planet in the Solar System named after a god from Greek mythology, rather than using the Roman counterpart’s name. 

Other Names:

While Uranus remains the widely-recognized name for the Solar System’s seventh planet (and third gas giant), other cultures have recognized it by various other names. For example in traditional Chinese astronomy, it is known as Tianwángxing, which means literally “Sky King Star”.

Uranus. Image credit: Hubble
Uranus, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Hubble

The same name is recognized in the Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese astronomical traditions. To the Aztecs (and other Nahuatl-speaking peoples), Uranus was known as “Ilhuicateocitlalli” – named after the word for “sky” (“ilhuicatl”) – and also as “Xiuhteuccitlalli”, the Aztec god of fire, day, and heat. Many other cultures recognized Uranus in their mythological traditions and assigned various names.

The discovery of Uranus was one of several that would follow from the 18th century onward. In time, Neptune, the Asteroid Belt, Ceres, Vesta, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt would be added to the mix, thus creating a model of the Solar System that would endure until the early 21st century – when new bodies were discovered beyond the orbit that Neptune that would lead to the nomenclature debate.

We have written many interesting articles on Uranus here at Universe Today. Here’s The Planet Uranus, Ten Interesting Facts About Uranus, Why is Uranus on its Side?, Tilt of Saturn, and Who Discovered Uranus?

For more information, here’s an article from the Hubble educational site about the discovery of Uranus, and here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Uranus.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast just about Uranus. You can access it here: Episode 62: Uranus.

Sources:

Colonizing the Outer Solar System

Colonizing The Outer Solar System


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Planetary Rings Are Dead Dwarf Planets! Dead Dwarf Planets!!!

In 1655, astronomer Christiaan Huygens became the first person to observe the beautiful ring system that surrounds Saturn. And while they are certainly the most spectacular, astronomers have since discovered that all the gas and ice giants of the Solar System (i.e. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) have their own system of rings.

These systems have remained a source of fascination for astronomers, largely because their origins are still something of a mystery. But thanks to a recent study by researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kobe University, the origins of these rings may be solved. According to their study, the rings are pieces of Dwarf Planets that got torn off in passing, which were then ripped to pieces!

This research could help to resolve many of the burning questions about the ring systems around our system’s giant planets, as well as details about the Solar Systems past. For the sake of their study – titled “Ring Formation around Giant Planets by Tidal Disruption of a Single Passing Large Kuiper Belt Object” – the Japanese team of researchers considered a number of factors.

The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. The first Kuiper Belt object was discovered in 1992. We now know of more than a thousand objects there, and it's estimated it's home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL
The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. Credit: JHUAPL

First, they considered the diversity of the various ring systems in our Solar System. For instance, Saturn’s rings are massive (about 100,000 trillion kg!) and composed overwhelmingly (90-95%) of water ice. In contrast, the much less massive rings of Uranus and Neptune are composed of darker material, and are believed to have higher percentages of rocky material in them.

To shed some light on this, the team looked to the Nice Model – a theory of Solar System formation that states that the gas giant migrated to their present location during the Late Heavy Bombardment. This period took place between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago, and was characterized by a disproportionately high number of asteroids from Trans-Neptunian space striking planets in the Inner Solar System.

They then considered other recent models of Solar System formation which postulate that the giant planets experienced close encounters with Pluto-sized objects during this time. From this, they developed the theory that the rings could be the result of some of these objects getting trapped and ripped apart by the gas giants’ gravity. To test this theory, they performed a number of computer simulations to see what would happen in these instances.

As Ryuki Hyodo – a researcher at the Department of Planetology, Kobe University, and the lead author on the paper – told Universe Today via email:

“We performed two simulations. First, using SPH (Smoothed-particle hydrodynamics) simulations, we investigated tidal disruption of Pluto-sized objects during the close encounters with giant planets and calculated the amount of fragments that are captured around giant planets. We found enough mass/fragments to explain current rings is captured. Then, we performed the longer-term evolution of the captured mass/fragments by using N-body simulations. We found that the captured fragments can collide each other with destruction and form thin equatorial circular rings around giant planets.”

A composite image of Uranus in two infrared bands, showing the planet and its ring system. Picture taken by the Keck II telescope and released in 2007. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory (Marcos van Dam)
A composite image of Uranus in two infrared bands, showing the planet and its ring system. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory (Marcos van Dam)

The results of these simulation were  consistent with the mass of the ring systems observed around Saturn and Uranus. This included the inner regular satellites of both planets – which would have also been the product of the past encounters with KBOs. It also accounted for the differences in the rings’ composition, showing how the planet’s Roche limits can influence what kind of material can be effectively captured.

This study is especially significant because it offers verifiable evidence for one of the enduring mysteries of our Solar System. And as Hyodo points out, it could come in mighty handy when it comes time to examine extra-solar planetary systems as well.

“Our theory suggested that, in the past, we had two possible epochs to form rings,” he said. “One is during the planet accretion phase and the other is during the Late heavy bombardment. Also, our model is naturally applicable to other planetary systems. So, our theory predicts that exoplanets also have massive rings around them.”

In the meantime, some might find the idea that ring systems are the corpses of Dwarf Planets troublesome. But I think we can all agree, a Soylent Green allusion might be just a bit over the top!

Further Reading: arXiv

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:

Why is Uranus on its Side?

It’s impossible to do an article about Uranus without opening up the back door to a spit storm of potty humour. I get it, there’s something just hilarious about talking about your, mine and everyone’s anus. And even if you use the more sanitized and sterile term urine-us, it’s still pretty dirty, in an unwashed New York stairwell kind of way. You’re in us? No.

This is a no-win solution. It’s a Kobayashi Maru scenario here. We’re all doomed.

Can we call a truce? I dare you commentators, to keep the YouTube comments as pure and clean as driven snow, so we can focus on the super interesting science. Think of the children.

Let’s set the stage, I’m going to let planetary astronomer Kevin Grazier give you the proper pronunciation to clear our minds and let us move forward with grace and civility.


Kevin Grazier:
Strictly speaking, it’s pronounced Youranous, is the  pronunciation.


As you probably know, Uranus… I mean Ouranus. No, I can’t do it, my brainwashing is too far along. Save yourselves!. Anyway, Uranus is the 7th planet from the Sun, and the 3rd largest planet in the Solar System. Jupiter and Saturn get all the spacecraft and Hubble space telescopes, but Uranus is an incredibly worthwhile target to visit.

Diameter comparison of Uranus and Earth. Approximate scale is 90 km/px. Credit: NASA
Diameter comparison of Uranus and Earth. Approximate scale is 90 km/px. Credit: NASA

It’s almost exactly 4 times larger than Earth and has its own set of strange dusty rings – perhaps left over from a shattered moon. It has at least 27 moons, that we know of, and many more interesting features that would fascinate astronomers, if we had a spacecraft there, which we don’t. Which is ridiculous. We’ve only made one close flyby of Uranus by Voyager II back in 1986.

We’ve seen Pluto up close, but there are no plans to visit Uranus? Madness.

Near-infrared views of Uranus reveal its otherwise faint ring system, highlighting the extent to which it is tilted. Credit: Lawrence Sromovsky, (Univ. Wisconsin-Madison), Keck Observatory.
Credit: Lawrence Sromovsky, (Univ. Wisconsin-Madison), Keck Observatory.

Anyway, perhaps one of the strangest aspects of Uranus is its tilt. The planet is flipped over on its side, like a Weeble, that wouldn’t unwobble.

Actually, all the planets in the Solar System have some level of axial tilt. The Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the Sun’s equator. Mars is 25 degrees, and even Mercury is 2.1 degrees tilted. These tilts are everywhere.

But Uranus is 97.8 degrees. That’s just 0.2 degrees shy of a 90s boy band.

You might be wondering, why have it be more than 90 degrees. High school geometry tells me that 97.8 degrees is the same as 82.2 degrees. And that’s true. But astronomers define the angle as greater than 90 degrees when you take its direction of rotation into account. When you describe it as turning in the same direction as the rest of the planets in the Solar System, then you have to measure it this way.

What could have done that to Uranus, how could it have happened?

The fact that Uranus is flipped over on its side tells us that the calm clockwork motion of the Solar System hasn’t always been this way. Shortly after the formation of the Sun and planets, our neighborhood was a violent place.

The early planets smashed into each other, pushed one another into new orbits. Some planets could have been spun out of the Solar System entirely, while others might have been driven into the Sun. Our own Moon was likely formed when a Mars-sized object crashed into the Earth. Other moons might have been captured from three body interactions between worlds. It was mayhem.

The Solar System that you see today contains the survivors. Everything that wasn’t delivered a death blow.

And something really tried to deliver a death blow to Uranus, very early after it formed. We know this because the moons of Uranus orbit at the same tilt as the planet’s axis. This means that something smashed into Uranus while it was still surrounded by the disk of gas and dust that its moons formed from.

When the massive collision happened, the planet flipped over, wrenching this disk with it. The moons formed within this new configuration.

Astronomers think it was more complicated than that, however. If it was a single, massive collision, models suggest the planet would just flip over entirely, and end up rotating backwards from the other planets in the Solar System.

It’s more likely that another collision or even a series of collisions put the brakes on Uranus’ end over end roll, putting it into its current configuration. It boggles the mind to think about what must have happened.

Uranus' tilt drastically affects the amount of sunlight the hemispheres receive during its orbit. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
Uranus’ tilt drastically affects the amount of sunlight the hemispheres receive during its orbit. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Having such a huge axial tilt makes a big different to Uranus. As it travels around the Sun in its 84-year orbit, the planet still has its poles pointed at fixed locations in space. This means that it spends 42 years with its northern hemisphere roughly pointed towards the Sun, and 42 years with its southern hemisphere in sunlight.

If you could stand on the north pole of Uranus, the Sun would be directly overhead in the middle of summer, and then it would make bigger and bigger circles until it dipped below the horizon a few decades later. Then you wouldn’t see it for a few decades until it finally reappeared again. It would be very very strange.

Of course, it’s a gas planet, so you can’t stand on it. If you could stand on it, we’d all be marveling at your ability to stand on planets.

Here we are in our calm, ordered Solar System, everything’s business as usual. But if you look around, you realize it’s pretty amazing that our planet is even here. Poor sideways Uranus is a testament to our good luck.

What are the Jovian Planets?

Beyond our Solar System’s “Frost Line” – the region where volatiles like water, ammonia and methane begin to freeze – four massive planets reside. Though these planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – vary in terms of size, mass, and composition, they all share certain characteristics that cause them to differ greatly from the terrestrial planets located in the inner Solar System.

Officially designated as gas (and/or ice) giants, these worlds also go by the name of “Jovian planets”. Used interchangeably with terms like gas giant and giant planet, the name describes worlds that are essentially “Jupiter-like”. And while the Solar System contains four such planets, extra-solar surveys have discovered hundreds of Jovian planets, and that’s just so far…

Definition:

The term Jovian is derived from Jupiter, the largest of the Outer Planets and the first to be observed using a telescope  – by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Taking its name from the Roman king of the gods – Jupiter, or Jove – the adjective Jovian has come to mean anything associated with Jupiter; and by extension, a Jupiter-like planet.

The giant planets of the Solar System (aka. Jovians). Credit: spiff.rit.edu
The giant planets of the Solar System (aka. the Jovians). Credit: spiff.rit.edu

Within the Solar System, four Jovian planets exist – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. A planet designated as Jovian is hence a gas giant, composed primarily of hydrogen and helium gas with varying degrees of heavier elements. In addition to having large systems of moons, these planets each have their own ring systems as well.

Another common feature of gas giants is their lack of a surface, at least when compared to terrestrial planets. In all cases, scientists define the “surface” of a gas giant (for the sake of defining temperatures and air pressure) as being the region where the atmospheric pressure exceeds one bar (the pressure found on Earth at sea level).

Structure and Composition:

In all cases, the gas giants of our Solar System are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium with the remainder being taken up by heavier elements. These elements correspond to a structure that is differentiated between an outer layer of molecular hydrogen and helium that surrounds a layer of liquid (or metallic) hydrogen or volatile elements, and a probable molten core with a rocky composition.

Due to difference in their structure and composition, the four gas giants are often differentiated, with Jupiter and Saturn being classified as “gas giants” while Uranus and Neptune are “ice giants”. This is due to the fact that Neptune and Uranus have higher concentrations of methane and heavier elements  – like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur – in their interior.

These cut-aways illustrate interior models of the giant planets. Jupiter is shown with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of metallic hydrogen. Credit: NASA/JPL
Interior models of the giant planets, showing rocky cores overlaid by solid and gaseous envelopes. Credit: NASA/JPL

In stark contrast to the terrestrial planets, the density of the gas giants is slightly greater than that of water (1 g/cm³). The one exception to this is Saturn, where the mean density is actually lower than water (0.687 g/cm3). In all cases, temperature and pressure increase dramatically the closer one ventures into the core.

Atmospheric Conditions:

Much like their structures and compositions, the atmospheres and weather patterns of the four gas/ice giants are quite similar. The primary difference is that the atmospheres get progressively cooler the farther away they are from Sun. As a result, each Jovian planet has distinct cloud layers who’s altitudes are determined by their temperatures, such that the gases can condense into liquid and solid states.

In short, since Saturn is colder than Jupiter at any particular altitude, its cloud layers occur deeper within it’s atmosphere. Uranus and Neptune, due to their even lower temperatures, are able to hold condensed methane in their very cold tropospheres, whereas Jupiter and Saturn cannot.

The presence of this methane is what gives Uranus and Neptune their hazy blue color, where Jupiter is orange-white in appearance due to the intermingling of hydrogen (which gives off a red appearance), while the upwelling of phosphorus, sulfur, and hydrocarbons yield spotted patches areas and ammonia crystals create white bands.

Shortly after forming, Jupiter was slowly pulled toward the sun. Saturn was also pulled in and eventually, their fates became linked. When Jupiter was about where Mars is now, the pair turned and moved away from the sun. Scientists have referred to this as the "Grand Tack," a reference to the sailing maneuver. Credit: NASA/GSFC
Jupiter and Saturn have similar appearances, owing to their similar compositions and atmospheres. Credit: NASA/GSFC

The atmosphere of Jupiter is classified into four layers based on increasing altitude: the troposphere, stratosphere, thermosphere and exosphere. Temperature and pressure increase with depth, which leads to rising convection cells emerging that carry with them the phosphorus, sulfur, and hydrocarbons that interact with UV radiation to give the upper atmosphere its spotted appearance.

Saturn’s atmosphere is similar in composition to Jupiter’s. Hence why it is similarly colored, though its bands are much fainter and are much wider near the equator (resulting in a pale gold color). As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. Both planets also have clouds composed of ammonia crystals in their upper atmospheres, with a possible thin layer of water clouds underlying them.

Uranus’ atmosphere can be divided into three sections – the innermost stratosphere, the troposphere, and the outer thermosphere. The troposphere is the densest layer, and also happens to be the coldest in the solar system. Within the troposphere are layers of clouds, with methane clouds on top, ammonium hydrosulfide clouds, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide clouds, and water clouds at the lowest pressures.

Next is the stratosphere, which contains ethane smog, acetylene and methane, and these hazes help warm this layer of the atmosphere. Here, temperatures increase considerably, largely due to solar radiation. The outermost layer (the thermosphere and corona) has a uniform temperature of 800-850 (577 °C/1,070 °F), though scientists are unsure as to the reason.

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

This is something that Uranus shares with Neptune, which also experiences unusually high temperatures in its thermosphere (about 750 K (476.85 °C/890 °F). Like Uranus, Neptune is too far from the Sun for this heat to be generated through the absorption of ultraviolet radiation, which means another heating mechanism is involved.

Neptune’s atmosphere is also predominantly hydrogen and helium, with a small amount of methane. The presence of methane is part of what gives Neptune its blue hue, although Neptune’s is darker and more vivid. Its atmosphere can be subdivided into two main regions: the lower troposphere (where temperatures decrease with altitude), and the stratosphere (where temperatures increase with altitude).

The lower stratosphere is believed to contain hydrocarbons like ethane and ethyne, which are the result of methane interacting with UV radiation, thus producing Neptune’s atmospheric haze. The stratosphere is also home to trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, which are responsible for Neptune’s stratosphere being warmer than that of Uranus.

Weather Patterns:

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. These are the result of Jupiter’s intense radiation, it’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere.

Reprocessed view by Bjorn Jonsson of the Great Red Spot taken by Voyager 1 in 1979 reveals an incredible wealth of detail.
Reprocessed view by Bjorn Jonsson of the Great Red Spot taken by Voyager 1 in 1979 reveals an incredible wealth of detail. Credit: NASA/JPL

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 also periodically experiences flashes of lightning in its atmosphere, which can be up to a thousand times as powerful as those observed here on the Earth.

Saturn’s atmosphere is similar, exhibiting long-lived ovals now and then that can be several thousands of kilometers wide. A good example is the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval), a unique but short-lived phenomenon that occurs once every 30 Earth years. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, and is believed to be followed by another in 2020.

The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, which have reached a measured high of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a persisting hexagonal wave pattern measuring about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) and rotating with a period of 10h 39m 24s.

Saturn makes a beautifully striped ornament in this natural-color image, showing its north polar hexagon and central vortex (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Saturn makes a beautifully striped ornament in this natural-color image, showing its north polar hexagon and central vortex. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The south pole vortex apparently takes the form 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.

Uranus’s weather follows a similar pattern where systems are broken up into bands that rotate around the planet, which are driven by internal heat rising to the upper atmosphere. 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).

Because Neptune is not a solid body, its atmosphere undergoes differential rotation, with its wide equatorial zone rotating slower than the planet’s magnetic field (18 hours vs. 16.1 hours). By contrast, the reverse is true for the polar regions where the rotation period is 12 hours. This differential rotation is the most pronounced of any planet in the Solar System, and results in strong latitudinal wind shear and violent storms.

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 Dar Spot (top left), Scooter (middle), and the Small Dark Spot (lower right). Credit: NASA/JPL

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

Exoplanets:

Due to the limitations imposed by our current methods, most of the exoplanets discovered so far by surveys like the Kepler space observatory have been comparable in size to the giant planets of the Solar System. Because these large planets are inferred to share more in common with Jupiter than with the other giant planets, the term “Jovian Planet” has been used by many to describe them.

Many of these planets, being greater in mass than Jupiter, have also been dubbed as “Super-Jupiters” by astronomers. Such planets exist at the borderline between planets and brown dwarf stars, the smallest stars known to exist in our Universe. They can be up to 80 times more massive than Jupiter but are still comparable in size, since their stronger gravity compresses the material into an ever denser, more compact sphere.

Artist's concept of "hot Jupiter" exoplanet HD 149026b (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the “Hot Jupiter” exoplanet HD 149026b. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Those Super-Jupiters that have distant orbits from their parent stars are known as “Cold Jupiters”, whereas those that have close orbits are called “Hot Jupiters”. A surprising number of Hot Jupiters have been observed by exoplanet surveys, due to the fact that they are particularly easy to spot using the Radial Velocity method – which measures the oscillation of parent stars due to the influence of their planets.

In the past, astronomers believed that Jupiter-like planets could only form in the outer reaches of a star system. However, the recent discovery of many Jupiter-sized planets orbiting close to their stars has cast doubt on this. Thanks to the discovery of Jovians beyond our Solar System, astronomers may be forced to rethink our models of planetary formation.

Since Galileo first observed Jupiter through his telescope, Jovian planets have been an endless source of fascination for us. And despite many centuries of research and progress, there are still many things we don’t know about them. Our latest effort to explore Jupiter, the Juno Mission, is expected to produce some rather interesting finds. Here’s hoping they bring us one step closer to understanding those darn Jovians!

We have written many interesting articles about gas giants here at Universe Today. Here’s the Solar System Guide, The Outer Planets, What’s Inside a Gas Giant?, and Which Planets Have Rings?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page and Science Daily’s the Jovian planets.

Astronomy Cast has a number of episodes on the Jovian planets, including Episode 56: Jupiter.

What are the Different Masses of the Planets?

It is a well known fact that the planets of the Solar System vary considerably in terms of size. For instance, the planets of the inner Solar System are smaller and denser than the gas/ice giants of the outer Solar System. And in some cases, planets can actually be smaller than the largest moons. But a planet’s size is not necessarily proportional to its mass. In the end, how massive a planet is has more to do with its composition and density.

So while a planet like Mercury may be smaller in size than Jupiter’s moon Ganymede or Saturn’s moon Titan, it is more than twice as massive than they are. And while Jupiter is 318 times as massive as Earth, its composition and density mean that it is only 11.21 times Earth’s size. Let’s go over the planet’s one by one and see just how massive they are, shall we?

Mercury:

Mercury is the Solar System’s smallest planet, with an average diameter of 4879 km (3031.67 mi). It is also one of its densest at 5.427 g/cm3, which is second only to Earth. As a terrestrial planet, it is composed of silicate rock and minerals and is differentiated between an iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. But unlike its peers (Venus, Earth and Mars), it has an abnormally large metallic core relative to its crust and mantle.

All told, Mercury’s mass is approximately 0.330 x 1024 kg, which works out to 330,000,000 trillion metric tons (or the equivalent of 0.055 Earths). Combined with its density and size, Mercury has a surface gravity of 3.7 m/s² (or 0.38 g).

Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL
Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL

Venus:

Venus, otherwise known as “Earth’s Sister Planet”, is so-named because of its similarities in composition, size, and mass to our own. Like Earth, Mercury and Mars, it is a terrestrial planet, and hence quite dense. In fact, with a density of 5.243 g/cm³, it is the third densest planet in the Solar System (behind Earth and Mercury). Its average radius is roughly 6,050 km (3759.3 mi), which is the equivalent of 0.95 Earths.

And when it comes to mass, the planet weighs in at a hefty 4.87 x 1024 kg, or 4,870,000,000 trillion metric tons. Not surprisingly, this is the equivalent of 0.815 Earths, making it the second most massive terrestrial planet in the Solar System. Combined with its density and size, this means that Venus also has comparable gravity to Earth – roughly 8.87 m/s², or 0.9 g.

Earth:

Like the other planets of the inner Solar System, Earth is also a terrestrial planet, composed of metals and silicate rocks differentiated between an iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. Of the terrestrial planets, it is the largest and densest, with an average radius of 6,371.0 km (3,958.8 mi) and a mean of density of 5.514 g/cm3.

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

And at 5.97 x 1024 kg (which works out to 5,970,000,000,000 trillion metric tons) Earth is the most massive of all the terrestrial planets. Combined with its size and density, Earth experiences the surface gravity that we are all familiar with – 9.8 m/s², or 1 g.

Mars:

Mars is the third largest terrestrial planet, and the second smallest planet in our Solar System. Like the others, it is composed of metals and silicate rocks that are differentiated between a iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. But while it is roughly half the size of Earth (with a mean diameter of 6792 km, or 4220.35 mi), it is only one-tenth as massive.

In short, Mars has a mass of 0.642 x1024 kg, which works out to 642,000,000 trillion metric tons, or roughly 0.11 the mass of Earth. Combined with its size and density – 3.9335 g/cm³ (which is roughly 0.71 times that of Earth’s) – Mars has a surface gravity of 3.711 m/s² (or 0.376 g).

Jupiter:

Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System. With a mean diameter of 142,984 km, it is big enough to fit all the other planets (except Saturn) inside itself, and big enough to fit Earth 11.8 times over. But with a mass of 1898 x 1024 kg (or 1,898,000,000,000 trillion metric tons), Jupiter is more massive than all the other planets in the Solar System combined – 2.5 times more massive, to be exact.

upiter's structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)
Jupiter’s structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)

However, as a gas giant, it has a lower overall density than the terrestrial planets. It’s mean density is 1.326 g/cm, but this increases considerably the further one ventures towards the core. And though Jupiter does not have a true surface, if one were to position themselves within its atmosphere where the pressure is the same as Earth’s at sea level (1 bar), they would experience a gravitational pull of 24.79 m/s2 (2.528 g).

Saturn:

Saturn is the second largest of the gas giants; with a mean diameter of 120,536 km, it is just slightly smaller than Jupiter. However, it is significantly less massive than its Jovian cousin, with a mass of 569 x 1024 kg (or 569,000,000,000 trillion metric tons). Still, this makes Saturn the second most-massive planet in the Solar System, with 95 times the mass of Earth.

Much like Jupiter, Saturn has a low mean density due to its composition. In fact, with an average density of 0.687 g/cm³, Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System that is less dense than water (1 g/cm³).  But of course, like all gas giants, its density increases considerably the further one ventures towards the core. Combined with its size and mass, Saturn has a “surface” gravity that is just slightly higher than Earth’s – 10.44 m/s², or 1.065 g.

Diagram of Saturn's interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons
Diagram of Saturn’s interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons

Uranus:

With a mean diameter of 51,118 km, Uranus is the third largest planet in the Solar System. But with a mass of 86.8 x 1024 kg (86,800,000,000 trillion metric tons) it is the fourth most massive – which is 14.5 times the mass of Earth. This is due to its mean density of 1.271 g/cm3, which is about three quarters of what Neptune’s is. Between its size, mass, and density, Uranus’ gravity works out to 8.69 m/s2, which is 0.886 g.

Neptune:

Neptune is significantly larger than Earth; at 49,528 km, it is about four times Earth’s size. And with a mass of 102 x 1024 kg (or 102,000,000,000 trillion metric tons) it is also more massive – about 17 times more to be exact. This makes Neptune the third most massive planet in the Solar System; while its density is the greatest of any gas giant (1.638 g/cm3). Combined, this works out to a “surface” gravity of 11.15 m/s2 (1.14 g).

As you can see, the planets of the Solar System range considerably in terms of mass. But when you factor in their variations in density, you can see how a planets mass is not always proportionate to its size. In short, while some planets may be a few times larger than others, they are can have many, many times more mass.

We have written many interesting articles about the planets here at Universe. For instance, here’s Interesting Facts About the Solar System, What are the Colors of the Planets?, What are the Signs of the Planets?, How Dense are the Planets?, and What are the Diameters of the Planets?.

For more information, check out Nine Planets overview of the Solar System, NASA’s Solar System Exploration, and use this site to find out what you would weigh on other planets.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all of the planets. Here’s Episode 49: Mercury to start!

What Are The Diameters of the Planets?

The planets of our Solar System vary considerably in size and shape. Some planets are small enough that they are comparable in diameter to some of our larger moons – i.e. Mercury is smaller than Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and Saturn’s moon Titan. Meanwhile, others like Jupiter are so big that they are larger in diameter than most of the others combined.

In addition, some planets are wider at the equator than they are at the poles. This is due to a combination of the planets composition and their rotational speed. As a result, some planets are almost perfectly spherical while others are oblate spheroids (i.e. experience some flattening at the poles). Let us examine them one by one, shall we?

Mercury:

With a diameter of 4,879 km (3031.67 mi), Mercury is the smallest planet in our Solar System. In fact, Mercury is not much larger than Earth’s own Moon – which has a diameter of 3,474 km (2158.64 mi). At 5,268 km (3,273 mi) in diameter, Jupiter’s moon of Ganymede is also larger, as is Saturn’s moon Titan – which is 5,152 km (3201.34 mi) in diameter.

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, revealing parts of the never seen by human eyes. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

As with the other planets in the inner Solar System (Venus, Earth, and Mars), Mercury is a terrestrial planet, which means it is composed primarily of metals and silicate rocks that are differentiated into an iron-rich core and a silicate mantle and crust.

Also, due to the fact that Mercury has a very slow sidereal rotational period, taking 58.646 days to complete a single rotation on its axis, Mercury experiences no flattening at the poles. This means that the planet is almost a perfect sphere and has the same diameter whether it is measured from pole to pole or around its equator.

Venus:

Venus is often referred to as Earth’s “sister planet“, and not without good reason. At 12,104 km (7521 mi) in diameter, it is almost the same size as Earth. But unlike Earth, Venus experiences no flattening at the poles, which means that it almost perfectly circular. As with Mercury, this is due to Venus’ slow sidereal rotation period, taking 243.025 days to rotate once on its axis.

The planet Venus, as imaged by the Magellan 10 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL
The planet Venus, as imaged by the Magellan 10 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Earth:

With a mean diameter of 12,756 km (7926 mi), Earth is the largest terrestrial planet in the Solar System and the fifth largest planet overall. However, due to flattening at its poles (0.00335), Earth is not a perfect sphere, but an oblate spheroid. As a result, its polar diameter differs from its equatorial diameter, but only by about 41 km (25.5 mi)

In short, Earth measures 12713.6 km (7900 mi) in diameter from pole to pole, and 12756.2 km (7926.3 mi) around its equator. Once again, this is due to Earth’s sidereal rotational period, which takes a relatively short 23 hours, 58 minutes and 4.1 seconds to complete a single rotation on its axis.

Mars:

Mars is often referred to as “Earth’s twin”; and again, for good reason. Like Earth, Mars experiences flattening at its poles (0.00589), which is due to its relatively rapid sidereal rotational period (24 hours, 37 minutes and 22 seconds, or 1.025957 Earth days).

As a result, it experiences a bulge at its equator which leads to a variation of 40 km (25 mi) between its polar radius and equatorial radius. This works out to Mars having a mean diameter of 6779 km (4212.275 mi), varying between 6752.4 km (4195.75 mi) between its poles and 6792.4 km (4220.6 mi) at its equator.

Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of Mars, similar to what one would see from orbital distance of 2500 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter:

Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System, measuring some 142,984 km (88,846 mi) in diameter. Again, this its mean diameter, since Jupiter experiences some rather significant flattening at the poles (0.06487). This is due to its rapid rotational period, with Jupiter taking just 9 hours 55 minutes and 30 seconds to complete a single rotation on its axis.

Combined with the fact that Jupiter is a gas giant, this means the planet experiences significant bulging at its equator. Basically, it varies in diameter from 133,708 km (83,082.3 mi) when measured from pole to pole, and 142,984 km (88,846 mi) when measured around the equator. This is a difference of 9276 km (5763.8 mi), one of the most pronounced in the Solar System.

 Saturn:

With a mean diameter of 120,536 km (74897.6 mi), Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System. Like Jupiter, it experiences significant flattening at its poles (0.09796) due to its high rotational velocity (10 hours and 33 minutes) and the fact that it is a gas giant. This means that it varies in diameter from 108,728 km (67560.447 mi) when measured at the poles and 120,536 km (74,897.6 mi) when measured at the equator. This is a difference of almost 12,000 km, the greatest of all planets.

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. 10, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

Uranus:

Uranus has a mean diameter of 50,724 km (31,518.43 mi), making it the third largest planet in the Solar System. But due to its rapid rotational velocity – the planet takes 17 hours 14 minutes and 24 seconds to complete a single rotation – and its composition, the planet experiences a significant polar flattening (0.0229). This leads to a variation in diameter of 49,946 km (31,035 mi) at the poles and 51,118 km (31763.25 mi) at the equator – a difference of 1172 km (728.25 mi).

Neptune:

Lastly, there is Neptune, which has a mean diameter of 49,244 km (30598.8 mi). But like all the other gas giants, this varies due to its rapid rotational period (16 hours, 6 minutes and 36 seconds) and composition, and subsequent flattening at the poles (0.0171). As a result, the planet experiences a variation of 846 km (525.68 mi), measuring 48,682 km (30249.59 mi) at the poles and 49,528 km (30775.27 mi) at the equator.

In summary, the planets of our Solar System vary in diameter due to differences in their composition and the speed of their rotation. In short, terrestrial planets tend to be smaller than gas giants, and gas giants tend to spin faster than terrestrial worlds. Between these two factors, the worlds we know range between near-perfect spheres and flattened spheres.

We have written many articles about the Solar System here at Universe Today. Here’s Interesting Facts about the Solar SystemHow Long Is A Day On The Other Planets Of The Solar System?, What Are the Colors of the Planets?, How Long Is A Year On The Other Planets?, What Is The Atmosphere Like On Other Planets?, and How Strong is Gravity on Other Planets?

For more information of the planets, here is a look at the eight planets and some fact sheets about the planets from NASA.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all the planets. Here is Mercury to start out with.

What is the Surface Temperature of Neptune?

Our Solar System is a fascinating place. Between its eight planets and many dwarf planets, there are some serious differences in terms of orbit, composition, and temperature. Whereas conditions within the inner Solar System, where planets are terrestrial in nature, can get pretty hot, planets that orbit beyond the Frost Line – where it is cold enough that volatiles (i.e. water, ammonia, methane, CO and CO²) condense into solids – can get mighty cold!

It is in this environment that we find Neptune, the Solar System’s most distance (and hence most cold) planet. While this gas/ice giant has no “surface” to speak of, Earth-based research and flybys have been conducted that have managed to obtain accurate measurements of the temperature in the planet’s upper atmosphere. All told, the planet experiences temperatures that range from approximately 55 K (-218 °C; -360 °F) to 72 K (-200 °C; -328 °F), making it the coldest planet in the Solar System.

Orbital Characteristics:

Of all the planets in the Solar System, Neptune orbits the Sun at the greatest average distance. With a very minor eccentricity (0.0086), it orbits the Sun at an semi-major axis of approximately 30.11 AU (4,504,450,000,000 km), ranging from 29.81 AU (4.459 x 109 km) at perihelion and 30.33 AU (4.537 x 109 km) at aphelion.

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

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

Because Neptune’s axial tilt (28.32°) is similar to that of Earth (~23°) and Mars (~25°), the planet experiences similar seasonal changes. Combined with its long orbital period, this means that the seasons last for forty Earth years. In addition, the planets axial tilt also leads to variations in the length of its day, as well as variations in temperature between the northern and southern hemispheres (see below).

“Surface” Temperature:

Due to their composition, determining a surface temperature on gas or ice giants (compared to terrestrial planets or moons) is technically impossible. As a result, astronomers have relied on measurements obtained at altitudes where the atmospheric pressure is equal to 1 bar (or 100 kilo Pascals), the equivalent of air pressure here on Earth at sea level.

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

It is here on Neptune, just below the upper level clouds, that pressures reach between 1 and 5 bars (100 – 500 kPa). It is also at this level that temperatures reach their recorded 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).

But as with all gas and ice giants, temperatures vary on Neptune due to depth and pressure. In short, the deeper one goes into Neptune, the hotter it becomes. At its core, Neptune reaches temperatures of up to 7273 K (7000 °C; 12632 °F), which is comparable to the surface of the Sun. The huge temperature differences between Neptune’s center and its surface create huge wind storms, which can reach as high as 2,100 km/hour, making them the fastest in the Solar System.

Temperature Anomalies and Variations:

Whereas Neptune averages the coldest temperatures in the Solar System, a strange anomaly is the planet’s south pole. Here, it is 10 degrees K warmer than the rest of planet. This “hot spot” occurs because Neptune’s south pole is currently exposed to the Sun. As Neptune continues its journey around the Sun, the position of the poles will reverse. Then the northern pole will become the warmer one, and the south pole will cool down.

Neptune’s more varied weather when compared to Uranus is due in part to its higher internal heating, which is particularly perplexing for scientists. Despite the fact that Neptune is located over 50% further from the Sun than Uranus, and receives only 40% its amount of sunlight, the two planets’ surface temperatures are roughly equal.

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)

Deeper inside the layers of gas, the temperature rises steadily. This is consistent with Uranus, but oddly enough, 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. The mechanism for this remains unknown.

And while temperatures on Pluto have been recorded as reaching lower – down to 33 K (-240 °C; -400 °F) – Pluto’s status as a dwarf planet mean that it is no longer in the same class as the others. As such, Neptune remains the coldest planet of the eight.

We have written many articles about Neptune here at Universe Today.  Here’s The Gas (and Ice) Giant Neptune, What is the Surface of Neptune Like?, 10 Interesting Facts About Neptune, and The Rings of Neptune.

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 have recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about Neptune. You can listen to it here, Episode 63: Neptune.