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Mercury Comet

Earth Venus

Jupiter

Mars

Jupiter

Uranus

Neptune

Comet

Milky Way

Mercury (planet), first planet in distance from the Sun in the solar system. The smallest of the rocky or terrestrial planets that include Venus, Earth, and Mars, Mercury has a global magnetic field, but only a trace of an atmosphere and no moons of its own. It is the second hottest planet after Venus. Mercury circles the Sun every 88 Earth days at an average distance of 58 million km (36 million mi) and takes 59 days to turns on its axis. It retains an ancient cratered surface that has changed little since the formation of the solar system, making the planet of special interest to planetary scientists. Mercury was named for the fleet-footed messenger of the gods in Roman mythology. Mercurys diameter is 4,879 km (3,032 mi), about 40 percent the diameter of Earth or about 40 percent wider than the Moon. Mercurys volume and mass are about one-eighteenth that of Earth. Mercurys mean density, 5.4 g/cm, is nearly as great as that of Earth and is higher than that of any of the other planets. The force of gravity on the planets surface is about one-third of that on Earths surface or about twice the surface gravity on the Moon and about the same as the surface gravity on Mars, which is larger than Mercury but less dense. Two moons in the solar systemJupiters Ganymede and Saturns Titanare also larger than Mercury but are much less dense and hence have lower gravity (about the same as the Moon).

Venus (planet), second planet in distance from the Sun, but the hottest planet in the solar system (hotter than Mercury). Its hellish surface has broiling temperatures that make rocks glow red under a crushing atmosphere that shrouds the planet in thick layers of clouds. Venus is nearly the same size as Earth, but takes 243 days to rotate on its axis in the opposite direction. It also lacks a magnetic field and a moon. Why conditions on Venus and Earth are so different remains a major puzzle for planetary scientists. Venus circles the Sun at a distance of 108 million km (67 million mi) in a little over seven months (about 225 days). The planet was named for Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty. Except for the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the sky. It is often called the morning star when it appears in the east at sunrise, and the evening star when it is in the west at sunset. In ancient times the evening star was called Hesperus and the morning star Phosphorus, Eosphoros, or Lucifer.

Earth (planet), third planet in distance from the Sun in the solar system, the only planet known to harbor life, and the home of human beings. From space Earth resembles a big blue marble with swirling white clouds floating above blue oceans. About 71 percent of Earths surface is covered by water, which is essential to life. The rest is land, mostly in the form of continents that rise above the oceans. Earths surface is surrounded by a layer of gases known as the atmosphere, which extends upward from the surface, slowly thinning out into space. Below the surface is a hot interior of rocky material and two core layers composed of the metals nickel and iron in solid and liquid form.

Unlike the other planets, Earth has a unique set of characteristics ideally suited to supporting life as we know it. It is neither too hot, like Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, nor too cold, like distant Mars and the even more distant outer planetsJupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the tiny dwarf planet Pluto. Earths atmosphere includes just the right amount of gases that trap heat from the Sun, resulting in a moderate climate suitable for water to exist in liquid form. The atmosphere also helps block radiation from the Sun that would be harmful to life. Earths atmosphere distinguishes it from the planet Venus, which is otherwise much like Earth. Venus is about the same size and mass as Earth and is also neither too near nor too far from the Sun. But because Venus has too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, its surface is extremely hot462C (864F)hot enough to melt lead and too hot for life to exist.

Mars (planet), fourth planet in distance from the Sun in the solar system. Mars is of special scientific interest because of its similarities to Earth. It has an atmosphere with seasons and changing weather, and its surface shows evidence of ancient water and volcanoes. The length of its day and the tilt of its axis are similar to those of Earth. Mars takes about two years to circle the Sun at an average distance of 228 million km (141.7 million mi). The possibility of life on Mars, now or in the distant past, is one of the major questions in astronomy. More space probes have been sent to Mars than to any other planet. Mars is named for the Roman god of war. It is sometimes called the red planet because it appears fiery red in Earths night sky, the result of rusty, iron-oxide mineral dust that covers its surface. Mars is a relatively small planet, with a diameter of about 6,794 km (4,222 mi) or about half the diameter of Earth. Mars has about one-tenth Earths mass. The force of gravity on the surface of Mars is about three-eighths of that on Earth. Mars has twice the diameter and twice the surface gravity of Earths Moon. The surface area of Mars is almost exactly the same as the surface area of the dry land on Earth. Mars is believed to be about the same age as Earth, having formed from the same spinning, condensing cloud of gas and dust that formed the Sun and the other planets about 4.6 billion years ago. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are named after the sons of the Roman god Mars. These tiny bodies are heavily cratered, dark chunks of rock and may be asteroids captured by the gravitational pull of Mars. Phobos orbits Mars once in less than one Martian day, so it appears to rise in the west and set in the east, usually twice each day. Deimos has the more ordinary habit of rising in the east and setting in the west

Jupiter (planet), fifth planet from the Sun and the largest planet in the solar system. The fourth brightest object in Earths sky, after the Sun, the Moon, and Venus, Jupiter is more than three times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star. Due to its prominence in the sky, the Romans named the planet for their chief god, Jupiter. Jupiter orbits the Sun at an average distance of 778 million km (484 million mi), which is about five times the distance from Earth to the Sun. Jupiters year, or the time it takes to complete an orbit about the Sun, is 11.9 Earth years, and its day, or the time it takes to rotate on its axis, is about 9.9 hours, less than half an Earth day. Unlike the rocky inner planets of the solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), Jupiter is a ball of dense gas and has no solid surface. Jupiter may have a core composed of rockforming minerals like those trapped in comet ices, but the core makes up less than 5 percent of the planets mass. The force of gravity at the level of the highest clouds in Jupiters atmosphere is about 2.5 times the force of gravity at Earths surface. Gas and clouds in Jupiters atmosphere travel at high speeds. This phenomenon is not fully understood but it is related to the planets high rate of rotation. These gases and clouds travel faster at the equator than at higher latitudes. The gases and clouds of the atmosphere are thrown outward as the planet rotates, similar to the manner in which mud is thrown outward from a spinning wheel. The balance between gravity and this outward force, which is proportional to the rotational speed of the atmosphere, noticeably distorts the planets round shape. Higher speed at the equator produces greater outward force, causing an equatorial bulge, whereas lower speed at the poles gives gravity the edge, leading to polar flattening. Jupiters equatorial diameter is 143,000 km (89,000 mi), 6.5 percent larger than the polar diameter of 133,700 km (83,000 mi).

Saturn, sixth planet in order of distance from the Sun, and the second largest in our solar system. Saturns most distinctive feature is a giant system of rings that surrounds the planet at its equator, stretching over twice the width of the planet itself. The first person to see the rings was the Italian scientist Galileo in 1610, using one of the earliest telescopes. Space probes have greatly increased our knowledge of Saturn, its rings, and its many moons. Flybys by the Pioneer and the Voyager probes led to the Cassini orbiter that began studying Saturn in detail in 2004. As seen from Earth, Saturn appears as a yellowish objectone of the brightest in the night sky. The planet is named for Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Saturn takes about 29.5 years to orbit the Sun at an average distance of 1,435 billion km (891.5 million mi), or about 9.59 astronomical unit (AU). An AU is equal to the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, or 150 million km (93 million mi). Saturn rotates on its axis in about 10.5 hours and is tilted at about 27, giving the planet distinct seasons. The diameter of Saturn is about 121,000 km (75,000 mi), and its mass is equal to the mass of about 95 Earths, making it the second largest planet in our solar system after Jupiter. Saturn is 10 percent wider at its equator than at its poles and has a more oblate (flattened sphere) shape than any other planet.

Uranus (planet), seventh planet in distance from the Sun, third largest planet in diameter, and fourth largest in mass in the solar system. Unlike other major planets, Uranus is tipped sideways on its axis of rotation. It experiences extreme seasons, and its 13 rings and 27 known moons revolve around its equator nearly vertically to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. Because of its great size and mass, scientists classify Uranus as one of the giant or Jovian (Jupiter-like) planetsalong with Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. Like more distant Neptune, Uranus is also classified as an ice giant planet, mainly made of the iceforming molecules water, ammonia, and methane as a liquid mixture above what is thought to be a rocky core. Its atmosphere is mainly hydrogen and helium, along with methane gas that gives the planet a blue-green color. Uranus looks like a star to the naked eye, but appears as a bluegreen disk through a large telescopeUranus was the first planet discovered by using a telescope. A flyby by the Voyager 2 space probe in 1986 provided most of the information we have about the planet, its rings, and its moons. Uranus is named after the god of the heavens in Greek and Roman mythology. Uranus orbits the Sun at an average distance of 2,860 million km (1,780 million mi) in a period of 84 Earth years. The planet only receives about 1/400th of the sunlight that Earth does. The diameter of Uranus at its equator is 51,118 km (31,763 mi). The planets mass is 14.54 times greater than the mass of Earth, and its volume is 67 times greater than that of Earth. The force of gravity at the surface of Uranus is 1.17 times the force of gravity on Earth.

Neptune (planet), eighth planet in distance from the Sun, fourth largest planet in diameter, and third largest in mass in the solar system. Neptunes gravity has a major influence on the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy bodies in the outer solar system that is a source of comets and includes the dwarf planet Pluto, formerly counted as the ninth planet. Because of its great size and mass, scientists classify Neptune as one of the giant or Jovian (Jupiter-like) planetsalong with Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Like Uranus, Neptune is also classified as an ice giant planet, mainly made of the ice-forming molecules water, ammonia, and methane as a liquid mixture above what is thought to be a rocky core. Its atmosphere is mainly hydrogen and helium, along with methane gas that gives the planet a blue-green color. Neptune orbits the Sun at an average distance of about 4,490 million km (about 2,790 million mi) in a period of 165 Earth years and only receives about 1/900th the amount of sunlight that Earth does. Neptunes diameter at the equator is about 49,520 km (about 30,767 mi). Even though Neptunes volume is 72 times Earths volume, its mass is only 17.15 times Earths mass. Neptune has four rings and 13 known moons. The planet is named after the sea god Neptune in Roman mythology.

Comet, small icy body in space that sheds gas and dust. Like rocky asteroids, icy comets are ancient objects left over from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Some comets can be seen from Earth with the unaided eye. Comets typically have highly elliptical (oval-shaped), off-center orbits that swing near the Sun. When a comet is heated by the Sun, some of the ice on the comets surface turns into gas directly without melting. The gas and dust freed from the ice can create a cloud (coma) around the body (nucleus) of the comet. More gas and dust erupt from cracks in the comets dark crust. High-energy charged particles emitted by the Sun, called the solar wind, can carry the gas and dust away from the comet as a long tail that streams into space. Gas in the tail becomes ionized and glows as bluish plasma, while dust in the tail is lit by sunlight and looks yellowish. This distinctive visible tail is the origin of the word comet, which comes from Greek words meaning long-haired star. Humans have observed comets since prehistoric times. Comets were long regarded as supernatural warnings of calamity or signs of important events. Astronomers and planetary scientists now study comets for clues to the chemical makeup and early history of the solar system, since comets have been in the deep-freeze of outer space for billions of years. Materials in comets may have played a major role in the formation of Earth and the origin of life. Catastrophic impacts by comets may also have affected the history of life on Earth, and they still pose a threat to humans.

Solar System, the Sun and everything that orbits the Sun, including the planets and their satellites; the dwarf planets, asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, and comets; and interplanetary dust and gas. The term may also refer to a group of celestial bodies orbiting another star (see Extrasolar Planets). In this article, solar system refers to the system that includes Earth and the Sun. The dimensions of the solar system are specified in terms of the mean distance from Earth to the Sun, called the astronomical unit (AU). One AU is 150 million km (about 93 million mi). Estimates for the boundary where the Suns magnetic field ends and interstellar space begins called the heliopauserange from 86 to 100 AU from the Sun. The most distant known body orbiting the Sun is the dwarf planet Eris, whose discovery was reported in July 2005. Eris is currently about 97 AU from the Sun. Another planetlike object in the outer solar system named Sedna is currently at 90 AU but will reach about 900 AU at the farthest point in its orbit thousands of years from now. Comets known as long-period comets, however, achieve the greatest distance from the Sun; they have highly eccentric orbits ranging out to 50,000 AU or more. (A comets period is how long it takes it to complete one revolution about the Sun.) They are members of the Oort cloud, a spherical shell of comet nuclei that surrounds the flat plane of planetary orbits at this enormous distance. The solar system was the only planetary system known to exist around a star similar to the Sun until 1995, when astronomers discovered a planet about 0.6 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. Jupiter is the most massive planet in our solar system. Soon after, astronomers found a planet about 8.1 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting the star 70 Virginis, and a planet about 3.5 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting the star 47 Ursa Majoris. Since then, astronomers have found planets and disks of dust in the process of forming planets around many other stars. Most astronomers think it likely that solar systems of some sort are numerous throughout the universe. See Astronomy; Galaxy; Star.

Milky Way, the large, disk-shaped aggregation of stars, or galaxy, that includes the Sun and its solar system. In addition to the Sun, the Milky Way contains about 400 billion other stars. There are hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe, some of which are much larger and contain many more stars than the Milky Way. The Milky Way is visible at night, appearing as a faintly luminous band that stretches across the sky. The name Milky Way is derived from Greek mythology, in which the band of light was said to be milk from the breast of the goddess Hera. Its hazy appearance results from the combined light of stars too far away to be distinguished individually by the unaided eye. All of the individual stars that are distinct in the sky lie within the Milky Way Galaxy. From the middle northern latitudes, the Milky Way is best seen on clear, moonless, summer nights, when it appears as a luminous, irregular band circling the sky from the northeastern to the southeastern horizon. It extends through the constellations Perseus, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. In the region of the Northern Cross it divides into two streams: the western stream, which is bright as it passes through the Northern Cross, fades near Ophiuchus, or the Serpent Bearer, because of dense dust clouds, and appears again in Scorpio; and the eastern stream, which grows brighter as it passes southward through Scutum and Sagittarius. The brightest part of the Milky Way extends from Scutum to Scorpio, through Sagittarius. The center of the galaxy lies in the direction of Sagittarius and is about 25,000 light-years from the Sun (a light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 9.46 trillion km or 5.88 trillion mi).