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solar system

The Planets

In order of increasing average distance from the sun, the planets are Mercury, Venus, earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The planets orbiting nearer the sun than the earth are termed inferior planets; those whose orbits are larger are called superior planets. The unit for measuring distance in the solar system is the astronomical unit (AU), the average distance between the earth and the sun. The mean distances of the planets from the sun range from 0.39 AU for Mercury to 30.04 AU for Nepture.

Pluto, regarded for many years after its discovery as a planet, was reclassified in 2006 as a dwarf planet, which is a planetlike celestial body that does not clear or dominate the region of its orbit. In addition, Pluto is unlike the terrestrial planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—which are rocky, and it is unlike the gas giants—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Its orbit, which is tilted from the plane in which the eight planets travel about the Sun, its size, and its composition more closely resemble those of the objects residing in the Kuiper belt (which were first discovered in 1992; see under comet) than those of a major planet, and Pluto is now recognized as a Kuiper belt, or transneptunian, object.

See the table entitled Major Planets of the Solar System.

Planetary Motion

The motion of the planets was first described accurately by Johannes Kepler at the beginning of the 17th cent.; he showed that the planets move in nearly circular elliptical orbits. Isaac Newton later showed that the laws of planetary motion discovered by Kepler apply also to all other bodies in the solar system and are based on the force of gravitation. The sun's gravitational pull is the dominant force in the solar system; the forces exerted by the other celestial bodies on one another produce small shifts and variations, called perturbations, in their orbits. The planets orbit the sun in approximately the same plane (that of the ecliptic) and move in the same direction—counterclockwise as viewed from above the earth's North Pole. A planet's year, or sidereal period, is the time required for it to complete one full circuit around the sun. Mercury's year is 88 earth days, while Neptune's year is 165 earth years. All the planets rotate about their own axes as they revolve around the sun; their periods of rotation vary from just under 10 earth hours for Jupiter to 243 earth days for Venus. The rotation of Venus is from east to west (see retrograde motion). The equatorial planes of the planets are tilted to various degrees with respect to their orbital planes, giving rise to yearly seasons. The smallest tilt, that of Jupiter, is 3°, whereas that of Uranus is 98°, causing its axis of rotation to lie nearly in the plane of the planet's orbit. The tilt of the earth's equatorial plane is 231/2°.

Physical Properties

The planets are grouped according to their physical properties. The inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), called the terrestrial, or earthlike, planets, are dense and small in size, with solid, rocky crusts and molten metallic interiors. Except for Mercury, they possess gaseous atmospheres from which lighter elements have escaped because of the low gravitational force. The Jovian planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) all have great volume and mass but relatively low density. Jupiter is heavier than all the other planets combined; it is 318 times as heavy as the earth and 1,300 times as large, making its density only about one fourth that of the earth. Saturn has a mass 95 times that of the earth and a density less than that of water. The atmospheres of the Jovian planets are very thick, merging imperceptibly with the bodies of the planets, and are rich in hydrogen, hydrogen compounds, and helium. Most of the major planets have one or more moons. See satellite, natural.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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