Wednesday, 16 March 2011


The following table lists statistical information for the Sun and planets:
* The Sun's period of rotation at the surface varies from approximately 25 days at the equator to 36 days at the poles. Deep down, below the convective zone, everything appears to rotate with a period of 27 days.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


For I dipped into the Future, far as human eye could see; saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be. -Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1842

Our solar system consists of an average star we call the Sun, the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. It includes: the satellites of the planets; numerous comets, asteroids, and meteoroids; and the interplanetary medium. The Sun is the richest source of electromagnetic energy (mostly in the form of heat and light) in the solar system. The Sun's nearest known stellar neighbor is a red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri, at a distance of 4.3 light years away. The whole solar system, together with the local stars visible on a clear night, orbits the center of our home galaxy, a spiral disk of 200 billion stars we call the Milky Way. The Milky Way has two small galaxies orbiting it nearby, which are visible from the southern hemisphere. They are called the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud. The nearest large galaxy is the Andromeda Galaxy. It is a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way but is 4 times as massive and is 2 million light years away. Our galaxy, one of billions of galaxies known, is traveling through intergalactic space.

The planets, most of the satellites of the planets and the asteroids revolve around the Sun in the same direction, in nearly circular orbits. When looking down from above the Sun's north pole, the planets orbit in a counter-clockwise direction. The planets orbit the Sun in or near the same plane, called the ecliptic. Pluto is a special case in that its orbit is the most highly inclined (18 degrees) and the most highly elliptical of all the planets. Because of this, for part of its orbit, Pluto is closer to the Sun than is Neptune. The axis of rotation for most of the planets is nearly perpendicular to the ecliptic. The exceptions are Uranus and Pluto, which are tipped on their sides.

Composition Of The Solar System 

The Sun contains 99.85% of all the matter in the Solar System. The planets, which condensed out of the same disk of material that formed the Sun, contain only 0.135% of the mass of the solar system. Jupiter contains more than twice the matter of all the other planets combined. Satellites of the planets, comets, asteroids, meteoroids, and the interplanetary medium constitute the remaining 0.015%. The following table is a list of the mass distribution within our Solar System. 

  • Sun: 99.85%
  • Planets: 0.135%
  • Comets: 0.01% ?
  • Satellites: 0.00005%
  • Minor Planets: 0.0000002% ?
  •  Meteoroids: 0.0000001% ?
  • Interplanetary Medium: 0.0000001% ?
Interplanetary Space

Nearly all the solar system by volume appears to be an empty void. Far from being nothingness, this vacuum of "space" comprises the interplanetary medium. It includes various forms of energy and at least two material components: interplanetary dust and interplanetary gas. Interplanetary dust consists of microscopic solid particles. Interplanetary gas is a tenuous flow of gas and charged particles, mostly protons and electrons -- plasma -- which stream from the Sun, called the solar wind.

  The solar wind can be measured by spacecraft, and it has a large effect on comet tails. It also has a measurable effect on the motion of spacecraft. The speed of the solar wind is about 400 kilometers (250 miles) per second in the vicinity of Earth's orbit. The point at which the solar wind meets the interstellar medium, which is the "solar" wind from other stars, is called the heliopause. It is a boundary theorized to be roughly circular or teardrop-shaped, marking the edge of the Sun's influence perhaps 100 AU from the Sun. The space within the boundary of the heliopause, containing the Sun and solar system, is referred to as the heliosphere.

The solar magnetic field extends outward into interplanetary space; it can be measured on Earth and by spacecraft. The solar magnetic field is the dominating magnetic field throughout the interplanetary regions of the solar system, except in the immediate environment of planets which have their own magnetic fields.

 The Terrestrial Planets 

The terrestrial planets are the four innermost planets in the solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. They are called terrestrial because they have a compact, rocky surface like the Earth's. The planets, Venus, Earth, and Mars have significant atmospheres while Mercury has almost none. The following diagram shows the approximate distance of the terrestrial planets to the Sun.

The Jovian Planets  

 Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are known as the Jovian (Jupiter-like) planets, because they are all gigantic compared with Earth, and they have a gaseous nature like Jupiter's. The Jovian planets are also referred to as the gas giants, although some or all of them might have small solid cores. The following diagram shows the approximate distance of the Jovian planets to the Sun.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Our Sun is a normal main-sequence G2 star, one of more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy.

  diameter:                     1,390,000 km.
  mass:                           1.989e30 kg
  temperature:              5800 K (surface)
                                        15,600,000 K (core)

The Sun is by far the largest object in the solar system. It contains more than 99.8% of the total mass of the Solar System (Jupiter contains most of the rest).

It is often said that the Sun is an "ordinary" star. That's true in the sense that there are many others similar to it. But there are many more smaller stars than larger ones; the Sun is in the top 10% by mass. The median size of stars in our galaxy is probably less than half the mass of the Sun.

The Sun is personified in many mythologies: the Greeks called it Helios and the Romans called it Sol.

The Sun is, at present, about 70% hydrogen and 28% helium by mass everything else ("metals") amounts to less than 2%. This changes slowly over time as the Sun converts hydrogen to helium in its core.

The outer layers of the Sun exhibit differential rotation: at the equator the surface rotates once every 25.4 days; near the poles it's as much as 36 days. This odd behavior is due to the fact that the Sun is not a solid body like the Earth. Similar effects are seen in the gas planets. The differential rotation extends considerably down into the interior of the Sun but the core of the Sun rotates as a solid body.

Conditions at the Sun's core (approximately the inner 25% of its radius) are extreme. The temperature is 15.6 million Kelvin and the pressure is 250 billion atmospheres. At the center of the core the Sun's density is more than 150 times that of water.

The Sun's power (about 386 billion billion megaWatts) is produced by  nuclear fusion reactions. Each second about 700,000,000 tons of hydrogen are converted to about 695,000,000 tons of helium and 5,000,000 tons (=3.86e33 ergs) of energy in the form of gamma rays. As it travels out toward the surface, the energy is continuously absorbed and re-emitted at lower and lower temperatures so that by the time it reaches the surface, it is primarily visible light. For the last 20% of the way to the surface the energy is carried more by convection than by radiation.

The surface of the Sun, called the photosphere, is at a temperature of about 5800 K. Sunspots are "cool" regions, only 3800 K (they look dark only by comparison with the surrounding regions). Sunspots can be very large, as much as 50,000 km in diameter. Sunspots are caused by complicated and not very well understood interactions with the Sun's magnetic field.

A small region known as the chromosphere lies above the photosphere.

The highly rarefied region above the chromosphere, called the corona, extends millions of kilometers into space but is visible only during a total solar eclipse (left). Temperatures in the corona are over 1,000,000 K.

It just happens that the Moon and the Sun appear the same size in the sky as viewed from the Earth. And since the Moon orbits the Earth in approximately the same plane as the Earth's orbit around the Sun sometimes the Moon comes directly between the Earth and the Sun. This is called a solar eclipse; if the alignment is slighly imperfect then the Moon covers only part of the Sun's disk and the event is called a partial eclipse. When it lines up perfectly the entire solar disk is blocked and it is called a total eclipse of the Sun. Partial eclipses are visible over a wide area of the Earth but the region from which a total eclipse is visible, called the path of totality, is very narrow, just a few kilometers (though it is usually thousands of kilometers long). Eclipses of the Sun happen once or twice a year. If you stay home, you're likely to see a partial eclipse several times per decade. But since the path of totality is so small it is very unlikely that it will cross you home. So people often travel half way around the world just to see a total solar eclipse. To stand in the shadow of the Moon is an awesome experience. For a few precious minutes it gets dark in the middle of the day. The stars come out. The animals and birds think it's time to sleep. And you can see the solar corona. It is well worth a major journey.

The Sun's magnetic field is very strong (by terrestrial standards) and very complicated. Its magnetosphere (also known as the heliosphere) extends well beyond Pluto.

In addition to heat and light, the Sun also emits a low density stream of charged particles (mostly electrons and protons) known as the solar wind which propagates throughout the solar system at about 450 km/sec. The solar wind and the much higher energy particles ejected by solar flares can have dramatic effects on the Earth ranging from power line surges to radio interference to the beautiful aurora borealis.

Recent data from the spacecraft Ulysses show that during the minimum of the solar cycle the solar wind emanating from the polar regions flows at nearly double the rate, 750 kilometers per second, than it does at lower latitudes. The composition of the solar wind also appears to differ in the polar regions. During the solar maximum, however, the solar wind moves at an intermediate speed.

Further study of the solar wind will be done by the recently launched Wind, ACE and SOHO spacecraft from the dynamically stable vantage point directly between the Earth and the Sun about 1.6 million km from Earth.

The solar wind has large effects on the tails of comets and even has measurable effects on the trajectories of spacecraft.

Spectacular loops and prominences are often visible on the Sun's limb (left).

The Sun's output is not entirely constant. Nor is the amount of sunspot activity. There was a period of very low sunspot activity in the latter half of the 17th century called the Maunder Minimum. It coincides with an abnormally cold period in northern Europe sometimes known as the Little Ice Age. Since the formation of the solar system the Sun's output has increased by about 40%.

The Sun is about 4.5 billion years old. Since its birth it has used up about half of the hydrogen in its core. It will continue to radiate "peacefully" for another 5 billion years or so (although its luminosity will approximately double in that time). But eventually it will run out of hydrogen fuel. It will then be forced into radical changes which, though commonplace by stellar standards, will result in the total destruction of the Earth (and probably the creation of a planetary nebula). 

The Sun's satellites 

There are eight planets and a large number of smaller objects orbiting the Sun. (Exactly which bodies should be classified as planets and which as "smaller objects" has been the source of some controversy, but in the end it is really only a matter of definition. Pluto is no longer officially a planet but we'll keep it here for history's sake.) 



Distance        Radius         Mass
Planet                  (000 km)         (km)              (kg)                       
   ---------                 ------------        ------           -------            

MERCURY          57,910              2439         3.30e23
Venus                    108,200            6052          4.87e24
Earth                     149,600            6378          5.98e24  
Mars                    227,940             3397          6.42e23  
Jupiter                  778,330             71492          1.90e27
Saturn               1,426,940             60268          5.69e26            
Uranus              2,870,990             25559          8.69e25        
Neptune            4,497,070             24764         1.02e26                                 
Pluto                 5,913,520              1160         1.31e22                        

Tuesday, 8 March 2011


Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and the eighth largest. Mercury is slightly smaller in diameter than the moons Ganymede and Titan but more than twice as massive.

   orbit:                 57,910,000 km (0.38 AU) from Sun
  diameter:           4,880 km
  mass:                3.30e23 kg

In Roman mythology Mercury is the god of commerce, travel and thievery, the Roman counterpart of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. The planet probably received this name because it moves so quickly across the sky.

Mercury has been known since at least the time of the Sumerians (3rd millennium BC). It was sometimes given separate names for its apparitions as a morning star and as an evening star. Greek astronomers knew, however, that the two names referred to the same body. Heraclitus even believed that Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun, not the Earth.

Since it is closer to the Sun than the Earth, the illumination of Mercury's disk varies when viewed with a telescope from our perspective. Galileo's telescope was too small to see Mercury's phases but he did see the phases of Venus.

Mercury has been now been visited by two spacecraft, Mariner 10 and MESSENGER. Marriner 10 flew by three times in 1974 and 1975. Only 45% of the surface was mapped (and, unfortunately, it is too close to the Sun to be safely imaged by HST). MESSENGER was launched by NASA in 2004 and will orbit Mercury starting in 2011 after several flybys. Its first flyby in Jan 2008 provided new high quality images of some of the terrain not seen by Marriner 10.

Mercury's orbit is highly eccentric; at perihelion it is only 46 million km from the Sun but at aphelion it is 70 million. The position of the perihelion precesses around the Sun at a very slow rate. 19th century astronomers made very careful observations of Mercury's orbital parameters but could not adequately explain them using Newtonian mechanics. The tiny differences between the observed and predicted values were a minor but nagging problem for many decades. It was thought that another planet (sometimes called Vulcan) slightly closer to the Sun than Mercury might account for the discrepancy. But despite much effort, no such planet was found. The real answer turned out to be much more dramatic: Einstein's General Theory of Relativity! Its correct prediction of the motions of Mercury was an important factor in the early acceptance of the theory.

Until 1962 it was thought that Mercury's "day" was the same length as its "year" so as to keep that same face to the Sun much as the Moon does to the Earth. But this was shown to be false in 1965 by doppler radar observations. It is now known that Mercury rotates three times in two of its years. Mercury is the only body in the solar system known to have an orbital/rotational resonance with a ratio other than 1:1 (though many have no resonances at all).

This fact and the high eccentricity of Mercury's orbit would produce very strange effects for an observer on Mercury's surface. At some longitudes the observer would see the Sun rise and then gradually increase in apparent size as it slowly moved toward the zenith. At that point the Sun would stop, briefly reverse course, and stop again before resuming its path toward the horizon and decreasing in apparent size. All the while the stars would be moving three times faster across the sky. Observers at other points on Mercury's surface would see different but equally bizarre motions.

Temperature variations on Mercury are the most extreme in the solar system ranging from 90 K to 700 K. The temperature on Venus is slightly hotter but very stable.

 Mercury is in many ways similar to the Moon: its surface is heavily cratered and very old; it has no plate tectonics. On the other hand, Mercury is much denser than the Moon (5.43 gm/cm3 vs 3.34). Mercury is the second densest major body in the solar system, after Earth. Actually Earth's density is due in part to gravitational compression; if not for this, Mercury would be denser than Earth. This indicates that Mercury's dense iron core is relatively larger than Earth's, probably comprising the majority of the planet. Mercury therefore has only a relatively thin silicate mantle and crust.

Mercury's interior is dominated by a large iron core whose radius is 1800 to 1900 km. The silicate outer shell (analogous to Earth's mantle and crust) is only 500 to 600 km thick. At least some of the core is probably molten.

Mercury actually has a very thin atmosphere consisting of atoms blasted off its surface by the solar wind. Because Mercury is so hot, these atoms quickly escape into space. Thus in contrast to the Earth and Venus whose atmospheres are stable, Mercury's atmosphere is constantly being replenished.

 The surface of Mercury exhibits enormous escarpments, some up to hundreds of kilometers in length and as much as three kilometers high. Some cut thru the rings of craters and other features in such a way as to indicate that they were formed by compression. It is estimated that the surface area of Mercury shrank by about 0.1% (or a decrease of about 1 km in the planet's radius).

One of the largest features on Mercury's surface is the Caloris Basin (right); it is about 1300 km in diameter. It is thought to be similar to the large basins (maria) Weird terrain opposite Caloris Basin
on the Moon. Like the lunar basins, it was probably caused by a very large impact early in the history of the solar system.  That impact was probably also responsible for the odd terrain on the exact opposite side of the planet (left). 

In addition to the heavily cratered terrain, Mercury also has regions of relatively smooth plains. Some may be the result of ancient volcanic activity but some may be the result of the deposition of ejecta from cratering impacts.

A reanalysis of the Mariner data provides some preliminary evidence of recent volcanism on Mercury. But more data will be needed for confirmation.

Amazingly, radar observations of Mercury's north pole (a region not mapped by Mariner 10) show evidence of water ice in the protected shadows of some craters.

Mercury has a small magnetic field whose strength is about 1% of Earth's.

Mercury has no known satellites.

Mercury is often visible with binoculars or even the unaided eye, but it is always very near the Sun and difficult to see in the twilight sky. There are several Web sites that show the current position of Mercury (and the other planets) in the sky. More detailed and customized charts can be created with a planetarium program.

Sunday, 6 March 2011


Venus is the second planet from the Sun and the sixth largest. Venus' orbit is the most nearly circular of that of any planet, with an eccentricity of less than 1%.

   orbit:                 108,200,000 km (0.72 AU) from Sun
  diameter:          12,103.6 km
   mass:               4.869e24 kg

 Venus (Greek: Aphrodite; Babylonian: Ishtar) is the goddess of love and beauty. The planet is so named probably because it is the brightest of the planets known to the ancients. (With a few exceptions, the surface features on Venus are named for female figures.)

Venus has been known since prehistoric times. It is the brightest object in the sky except for the Sun and the Moon. Like Mercury, it was popularly thought to be two separate bodies: Eosphorus as the morning star and Hesperus as the evening star, but the Greek astronomers knew better. (Venus's apparition as the morning star is also sometimes called Lucifer.)

Since Venus is an inferior planet, it shows phases when viewed with a telescope from the perspective of Earth. Galileo's observation of this phenomenon was important evidence in favor of Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the solar system.

The first spacecraft to visit Venus was Mariner 2 in 1962. It was subsequently visited by many others (more than 20 in all so far), including Pioneer Venus and the Soviet Venera 7 the first spacecraft to land on another planet, and Venera 9 which returned the first photographs of the surface. The Magellan radar map (false color)
first orbiter, the US spacecraft Magellan Magellan radar map (false color) produced detailed maps of Venus' surface using radar. ESA's Venus Express is now in orbit with a large variety of instruments. 

Venus' rotation is somewhat unusual in that it is both very slow (243 Earth days per Venus day, slightly longer than Venus' year) and retrograde. In addition, the periods of Venus' rotation and of its orbit are synchronized such that it always presents the same face toward Earth when the two planets are at their closest approach. Whether this is a resonance effect or merely a coincidence is not known.

Venus is sometimes regarded as Earth's sister planet. In some ways they are very similar:
  •   Venus is only slightly smaller than Earth (95% of Earth's diameter, 80% of Earth's mass). 
  •   Both have few craters indicating relatively young surfaces.
  •   Their densities and chemical compositions are similar. 
Because of these similarities, it was thought that below its dense clouds Venus might be very Earthlike and might even have life. But, unfortunately, more detailed study of Venus reveals that in many important ways it is radically different from Earth. It may be the least hospitable place for life in the solar system.

The pressure of Venus' atmosphere at the surface is 90 atmospheres (about the same as the pressure at a depth of 1 km in Earth's oceans). It is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. There are several layers of clouds many kilometers thick composed of sulfuric acid. These clouds completely obscure our view of the surface. This dense atmosphere produces a run-away greenhouse effect that raises Venus' surface temperature by about 400 degrees to over 740 K (hot enough to melt lead). Venus' surface is actually hotter than Mercury's despite being nearly twice as far from the Sun.

There are strong (350 kph) winds at the cloud tops but winds at the surface are very slow, no more than a few kilometers per hour.

Venus probably once had large amounts of water like Earth but it all boiled away. Venus is now quite dry. Earth would have suffered the same fate had it been just a little closer to the Sun. We may learn a lot about Earth by learning why the basically similar Venus turned out so differently.

Most of Venus' surface consists of gently rolling plains with little relief. There are also several broad depressions: Atalanta Planitia, Guinevere Planitia, Lavinia Planitia. There two large highland areas: Ishtar Terra in the northern hemisphere (about the size of Australia) and Aphrodite Terra along the equator (about the size of South America). The interior of Ishtar consists mainly of a high plateau, Lakshmi Planum, which is surrounded by the highest mountains on Venus including the enormous Maxwell Montes.

Thursday, 24 February 2011


Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the fifth largest: 

      orbit:            149,600,000 km (1.00 AU) from Sun
     diameter:    12,756.3 km
       mass:           5.972e24 kg

Earth is the only planet whose English name does not derive from Greek/Roman mythology. The name derives from Old English and Germanic. There are, of course, hundreds of other names for the planet in other languages. In Roman Mythology, the goddess of the Earth was Tellus - the fertile soil (Greek: Gaia, terra mater - Mother Earth).

It was not until the time of Copernicus (the sixteenth century) that it was understood that the Earth is just another planet.

Earth, of course, can be studied without the aid of spacecraft. Nevertheless it was not until the twentieth century that we had maps of the entire planet. Pictures of the planet taken from space are of considerable importance; for example, they are an enormous help in weather prediction and especially in tracking and predicting hurricanes. And they are extraordinarily beautiful. 

The Earth is divided into several layers which have distinct chemical and seismic properties (depths in km): 

                    0-  40         Crust

                   40- 400      Upper mantle

                   400- 650   Transition region
   The crust varies considerably in thickness, it is thinner under the oceans, thicker under the continents. The inner core and crust are solid; the outer core and mantle layers are plastic or semi-fluid. The various layers are separated by discontinuities which are evident in seismic data; the best known of these is the Mohorovicic discontinuity between the crust and upper mantle.

Most of the mass of the Earth is in the mantle, most of the rest in the core; the part we inhabit is a tiny fraction of the whole (values below x10^24 kilograms):

  atmosphere                           = 0.0000051
  oceans                                    = 0.0014
  crust                                        = 0.026
  mantle                                     = 4.043
  outer core                              = 1.835
  inner core                              = 0.09675

The core is probably composed mostly of iron (or nickel/iron) though it is possible that some lighter elements may be present, too. Temperatures at the center of the core may be as high as 7500 K, hotter than the surface of the Sun. The lower mantle is probably mostly silicon, magnesium and oxygen with some iron, calcium and aluminum. The upper mantle is mostly olivene and pyroxene (iron/magnesium silicates), calcium and aluminum. We know most of this only from seismic techniques; samples from the upper mantle arrive at the surface as lava from volcanoes but the majority of the Earth is inaccessible. The crust is primarily quartz (silicon dioxide) and other silicates like feldspar. Taken as a whole, the Earth's chemical composition (by mass) is:

  34.6%             Iron
  29.5%             Oxygen
  15.2%            Silicon
  12.7%            Magnesium
  2.4%              Nickel
  1.9%              Sulfur          
  0.05%           Titanium

The Earth is the densest major body in the solar system.

                                       Distance              Radius                   Mass
Satellite                        (000 km)                (km)                      (kg)
---------                            --------                     ------                        -------
Moon                            384                         1738                     7.35e22