The Solar System consists of the Sun and those celestial objects bound to it by gravity, all of which formed from the collapse of a giant molecular cloud approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The Sun's retinue of objects circle it in a nearly flat disc called the ecliptic plane, most of the mass of which is contained within eight relatively solitary planets whose orbits are almost circular. The four smaller inner planets; Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, also called the terrestrial planets, are primarily composed of rock and metal. The four outer planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, also called the gas giants, are composed largely of hydrogen and helium and are far more massive than the terrestrials.
The Solar System is also home to two main belts of small bodies. The asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, is similar to the terrestrial planets as it is composed mainly of rock and metal. The Kuiper belt (and its subpopulation, the scattered disc), which lies beyond Neptune's orbit, is composed mostly of ices such as water, ammonia and methane. Within these belts, five individual objects, Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Eris, are recognised to be large enough to have been rounded by their own gravity, and are thus termed dwarf planets. The hypothetical Oort cloud, which acts as the source for long-period comets, may also exist at a distance roughly a thousand times beyond these regions.
Within the Solar System, various populations of small bodies, such as comets, centaurs and interplanetary dust, freely travel between these regions, while the solar wind, a flow of plasma from the Sun, creates a bubble in the interstellar medium known as the heliosphere, which extends out to the edge of the scattered disc.
Six of the planets and three of the dwarf planets are orbited by natural satellites, usually termed "moons" after Earth's Moon. Each of the outer planets is encircled by planetary rings of dust and other particles.
Discovery and exploration
For many thousands of years, humanity, with a few notable exceptions, did not recognise the existence of the Solar System. They believed the Earth to be stationary at the centre of the universe and categorically different from the divine or ethereal objects that moved through the sky. Although the Indian mathematician-astronomer Aryabhata and the Greek philosopher Aristarchus of Samos had speculated on a heliocentric reordering of the cosmos, Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to develop a mathematically predictive heliocentric system. His 17th-century successors Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton developed an understanding of physics which led to the gradual acceptance of the idea that the Earth moves around the Sun and that the planets are governed by the same physical laws that governed the Earth. In more recent times, improvements in the telescope and the use of unmanned spacecraft have enabled the investigation of geological phenomena such as mountains and craters and seasonal meteorological phenomena such as clouds, dust storms and ice caps on the other planets.
The principal component of the Solar System is the Sun, a main sequence G2 star that contains 99.86 percent of the system's known mass and dominates it gravitationally. The Sun's four largest orbiting bodies, the gas giants, account for 99 percent of the remaining mass, with Jupiter and Saturn together comprising more than 90 percent.
Most large objects in orbit around the Sun lie near the plane of Earth's orbit, known as the ecliptic. The planets are very close to the ecliptic while comets and Kuiper belt objects are frequently at significantly greater angles to it.
All of the planets and most other objects also orbit with the Sun's rotation (counter-clockwise, as viewed from above the Sun's north pole). There are exceptions, such as Halley's Comet.
Kepler's laws of planetary motion describe the orbits of objects about the Sun. According to Kepler's laws, each object travels along an ellipse with the Sun at one focus. Objects closer to the Sun (with smaller semi-major axes) have shorter years. On an elliptical orbit, a body's distance from the Sun varies over the course of its year. A body's closest approach to the Sun is called its perihelion, while its most distant point from the Sun is called its aphelion. Each body moves fastest at its perihelion and slowest at its aphelion. The orbits of the planets are nearly circular, but many comets, asteroids and Kuiper belt objects follow highly elliptical orbits.
To cope with the vast distances involved, many representations of the Solar System show orbits the same distance apart. In reality, with a few exceptions, the farther a planet or belt is from the Sun, the larger the distance between it and the previous orbit. For example, Venus is approximately 0.33 astronomical units (AU) farther out than Mercury, while Saturn is 4.3 AU out from Jupiter, and Neptune lies 10.5 AU out from Uranus. Attempts have been made to determine a correlation between these orbital distances (see Titius-Bode law), but no such theory has been accepted.
Most of the planets in the Solar System possess secondary systems of their own. Many are in turn orbited by planetary objects called natural satellites, or moons, some of which are larger than planets. Most of the largest natural satellites are in synchronous rotation, with one face permanently turned toward their parent. The four largest planets, the gas giants, also possess planetary rings, thin bands of tiny particles that orbit them in unison.
Informally, the Solar System is sometimes divided into separate regions. The inner Solar System includes the four terrestrial planets and the main asteroid belt. The outer Solar System is beyond the asteroids, including the four gas giant planets. Since the discovery of the Kuiper belt, the outermost parts of the Solar System are considered a distinct region consisting of the objects beyond Neptune.
Dynamically and physically, objects orbiting the Sun are officially classed into three categories: planets, dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies. A planet is any body in orbit around the Sun that has enough mass to form itself into a spherical shape and has cleared its immediate neighbourhood of all smaller objects. By this definition, the Solar System has eight known planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Pluto does not fit this definition, as it has not cleared its orbit of surrounding Kuiper belt objects. A dwarf planet is a celestial body orbiting the Sun that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity but which has not cleared its neighbouring region of planetesimals and is not a satellite. By this definition, the Solar System has five known dwarf planets: Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Other objects may be classified in the future as dwarf planets, such as Sedna, Orcus, and Quaoar. Dwarf planets that orbit in the trans-Neptunian region are called "plutoids". The remainder of the objects in orbit around the Sun are small Solar System bodies.
Planetary scientists use the terms gas, ice, and rock to describe the various classes of substances found throughout the Solar System. Rock is used to describe compounds with high melting points that remained solid under almost all conditions in the protoplanetary nebula. Rocky substances typically include silicates and metals such as iron and nickel. They are prevalent in the inner Solar System, forming most of the terrestrial planets and asteroids. Gases are materials with extremely low melting points and high vapor pressure such as molecular hydrogen, helium, and neon, which were always in the gaseous phase in the nebula. They dominate the middle region, comprising most of Jupiter and Saturn. Ices, like water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, have melting points up to a few hundred kelvins, while their phase depends on the ambient pressure and temperature. They can be found as ices, liquids, or gases in various places in the Solar System, while in the nebula they were either in the solid or gaseous phase. Icy substances comprise the majority of the satellites of the giant planets, as well as most of Uranus and Neptune (the so-called "ice giants") and the numerous small objects that lie beyond Neptune's orbit. Together, gases and ices are referred to as volatiles.
The Sun is the Solar System's star, and far and away its chief component. Its large mass (332,900 Earth masses) gives it an interior density high enough to sustain nuclear fusion, which releases enormous amounts of energy, mostly radiated into space as electromagnetic radiation, peaking in the 400–to–700 nm band we call visible light.
The Sun is classified as a moderately large yellow dwarf, but this name is misleading as, compared to majority of stars in our galaxy, the Sun is rather large and bright. Stars are classified by the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a graph which plots the brightness of stars against their surface temperatures. Generally, hotter stars are brighter. Stars following this pattern are said to be on the main sequence, and the Sun lies right in the middle of it. However, stars brighter and hotter than the Sun are rare, while substantially dimmer and cooler stars, known as red dwarfs, are common, making up 85 percent of the stars in the galaxy.
It is believed that the Sun's position on the main sequence puts it in the "prime of life" for a star, in that it has not yet exhausted its store of hydrogen for nuclear fusion. The Sun is growing brighter; early in its history it was 70 percent as bright as it is today.
The Sun is a population I star; it was born in the later stages of the universe's evolution, and thus contains more elements heavier than hydrogen and helium ("metals" in astronomical parlance) than older population II stars. Elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were formed in the cores of ancient and exploding stars, so the first generation of stars had to die before the universe could be enriched with these atoms. The oldest stars contain few metals, while stars born later have more. This high metallicity is thought to have been crucial to the Sun's developing a planetary system, because planets form from accretion of metals.
Along with light, the Sun radiates a continuous stream of charged particles (a plasma) known as the solar wind. This stream of particles spreads outwards at roughly 1.5 million kilometres per hour, creating a tenuous atmosphere (the heliosphere) that permeates the Solar System out to at least 100 AU (see heliopause). This is known as the interplanetary medium. Geomagnetic storms on the Sun's surface, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, disturb the heliosphere, creating space weather. The largest structure within the heliosphere is the heliospheric current sheet, a spiral form created by the actions of the Sun's rotating magnetic field on the interplanetary medium.
Earth's magnetic field stops its atmosphere from being stripped away by the solar wind. Venus and Mars do not have magnetic fields, and as a result, the solar wind causes their atmospheres to gradually bleed away into space. The interaction of the solar wind with Earth's magnetic field funnels charged particles at right angles to the Earth's upper atmosphere, where its interactions create aurorae seen near the magnetic poles.
Cosmic rays originate outside the Solar System. The heliosphere partially shields the Solar System, and planetary magnetic fields (for those planets that have them) also provide some protection. The density of cosmic rays in the interstellar medium and the strength of the Sun's magnetic field change on very long timescales, so the level of cosmic radiation in the Solar System varies, though by how much is unknown.
The interplanetary medium is home to at least two disc-like regions of cosmic dust. The first, the zodiacal dust cloud, lies in the inner Solar System and causes zodiacal light. It was likely formed by collisions within the asteroid belt brought on by interactions with the planets. The second extends from about 10 AU to about 40 AU, and was probably created by similar collisions within the Kuiper belt.
Inner Solar System
The inner Solar System is the traditional name for the region comprising the terrestrial planets and asteroids. Composed mainly of silicates and metals, the objects of the inner Solar System huddle very closely to the Sun; the radius of this entire region is shorter than the distance between Jupiter and Saturn.
The four inner or terrestrial planets have dense, rocky compositions, few or no moons, and no ring systems. They are composed largely of minerals with high melting points, such as the silicates which form their crusts and mantles, and metals such as iron and nickel, which form their cores. Three of the four inner planets (Venus, Earth and Mars) have substantial atmospheres; all have impact craters and tectonic surface features such as rift valleys and volcanoes. The term inner planet should not be confused with inferior planet, which designates those planets which are closer to the Sun than Earth is (i.e. Mercury and Venus).
The main asteroid belt occupies the orbit between Mars and Jupiter, between 2.3 and 3.3 AU from the Sun. It is thought to be remnants from the Solar System's formation that failed to coalesce because of the gravitational interference of Jupiter.
Asteroids range in size from hundreds of kilometres across to microscopic. All asteroids save the largest, Ceres, are classified as small Solar System bodies, but some asteroids such as Vesta and Hygieia may be reclassed as dwarf planets if they are shown to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium.
The asteroid belt contains tens of thousands, possibly millions, of objects over one kilometre in diameter. Despite this, the total mass of the main belt is unlikely to be more than a thousandth of that of the Earth. The main belt is very sparsely populated; spacecraft routinely pass through without incident. Asteroids with diameters between 10 and 10 m are called meteoroids.
Trojan asteroids are located in either of Jupiter's L4 or L5 points (gravitationally stable regions leading and trailing a planet in its orbit); the term "Trojan" is also used for small bodies in any other planetary or satellite Lagrange point. Hilda asteroids are in a 2:3 resonance with Jupiter; that is, they go around the Sun three times for every two Jupiter orbits.
The inner Solar System is also dusted with rogue asteroids, many of which cross the orbits of the inner planets.
Outer Solar System
The outer region of the Solar System is home to the gas giants and their planet-sized satellites. Many short period comets, including the centaurs, also orbit in this region. Due to their greater distance from the Sun, the solid objects in the outer Solar System are composed of a higher proportion of volatiles (such as water, ammonia, methane, often called ices in planetary science) than the rocky denizens of the inner Solar System, as the colder temperatures allow these compounds to remain solid.
The four outer planets, or gas giants (sometimes called Jovian planets), collectively make up 99 percent of the mass known to orbit the Sun. Jupiter and Saturn consist overwhelmingly of hydrogen and helium; Uranus and Neptune possess a greater proportion of ices in their makeup. Some astronomers suggest they belong in their own category, “ice giants.” All four gas giants have rings, although only Saturn's ring system is easily observed from Earth. The term outer planet should not be confused with superior planet, which designates planets outside Earth's orbit (the outer planets and Mars).
Comets are small Solar System bodies, usually only a few kilometres across, composed largely of volatile ices. They have highly eccentric orbits, generally a perihelion within the orbits of the inner planets and an aphelion far beyond Pluto. When a comet enters the inner Solar System, its proximity to the Sun causes its icy surface to sublimate and ionise, creating a coma: a long tail of gas and dust often visible to the naked eye.
Short-period comets have orbits lasting less than two hundred years. Long-period comets have orbits lasting thousands of years. Short-period comets are believed to originate in the Kuiper belt, while long-period comets, such as Hale-Bopp, are believed to originate in the Oort cloud. Many comet groups, such as the Kreutz Sungrazers, formed from the breakup of a single parent. Some comets with hyperbolic orbits may originate outside the Solar System, but determining their precise orbits is difficult. Old comets that have had most of their volatiles driven out by solar warming are often categorised as asteroids.
The centaurs are icy comet-like bodies with a semi-major axis greater than Jupiter (5.5 AU) and less than Neptune (30 AU). The largest known centaur, 10199 Chariklo, has a diameter of about 250 km. The first centaur discovered, 2060 Chiron, has also been classified as comet (95P) since it develops a coma just as comets do when they approach the Sun.
The area beyond Neptune, or the "trans-Neptunian region", is still largely unexplored. It appears to consist overwhelmingly of small worlds (the largest having a diameter only a fifth that of the Earth and a mass far smaller than that of the Moon) composed mainly of rock and ice. This region is sometimes known as the "outer Solar System", though others use that term to mean the region beyond the asteroid belt.
The Kuiper belt, the region's first formation, is a great ring of debris similar to the asteroid belt, but composed mainly of ice. It extends between 30 and 50 AU from the Sun. It is composed mainly of small Solar System bodies, but many of the largest Kuiper belt objects, such as Quaoar, Varuna, and Orcus, may be reclassified as dwarf planets. There are estimated to be over 100,000 Kuiper belt objects with a diameter greater than 50 km, but the total mass of the Kuiper belt is thought to be only a tenth or even a hundredth the mass of the Earth. Many Kuiper belt objects have multiple satellites, and most have orbits that take them outside the plane of the ecliptic.
The Kuiper belt can be roughly divided into the "classical" belt and the resonances. Resonances are orbits linked to that of Neptune (e.g. twice for every three Neptune orbits, or once for every two). The first resonance actually begins within the orbit of Neptune itself. The classical belt consists of objects having no resonance with Neptune, and extends from roughly 39.4 AU to 47.7 AU. Members of the classical Kuiper belt are classified as cubewanos, after the first of their kind to be discovered, (15760) 1992 QB1, and are still in near primordial, low-eccentricity orbits.
Pluto and Charon
Haumea and Makemake
The scattered disc overlaps the Kuiper belt but extends much further outwards. This region is thought to be the source of short-period comets. Scattered disc objects are believed to have been ejected into erratic orbits by the gravitational influence of Neptune's early outward migration. Most scattered disc objects (SDOs) have perihelia within the Kuiper belt but aphelia as far as 150 AU from the Sun. SDOs' orbits are also highly inclined to the ecliptic plane, and are often almost perpendicular to it. Some astronomers consider the scattered disc to be merely another region of the Kuiper belt, and describe scattered disc objects as "scattered Kuiper belt objects." Some astronomers also classify centaurs as inward-scattered Kuiper belt objects along with the outward-scattered residents of the scattered disc.
The point at which the Solar System ends and interstellar space begins is not precisely defined, since its outer boundaries are shaped by two separate forces: the solar wind and the Sun's gravity. The outer limit of the solar wind's influence is roughly four times Pluto's distance from the Sun; this heliopause is considered the beginning of the interstellar medium. However, the Sun's Roche sphere, the effective range of its gravitational influence, is believed to extend up to a thousand times farther.
The heliosphere is divided into two separate regions. The solar wind travels at roughly 400 km/s until it collides with flows of plasma in the interstellar medium. The collision occurs at the termination shock, which is roughly 80–100 AU from the Sun in the upwind direction and roughly 200 AU from the Sun downwind. Here the wind slows dramatically, condenses and becomes more turbulent, forming a great oval structure known as the heliosheath that looks and behaves very much like a comet's tail, extending outward for a further 40 AU on the upwind side but tailing many times that distance in the opposite direction. Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are reported to have passed the termination shock and entered the heliosheath, at 94 and 84 AU from the Sun, respectively. The outer boundary of the heliosphere, the heliopause, is the point at which the solar wind finally terminates and is the beginning of interstellar space.
The shape and form of the outer edge of the heliosphere is likely affected by the fluid dynamics of interactions with the interstellar medium as well as solar magnetic fields prevailing to the south, e.g. it is bluntly shaped with the northern hemisphere extending 9 AU (roughly 900 million miles) farther than the southern hemisphere. Beyond the heliopause, at around 230 AU, lies the bow shock, a plasma "wake" left by the Sun as it travels through the Milky Way.
No spacecraft have yet passed beyond the heliopause, so it is impossible to know for certain the conditions in local interstellar space. It is expected that NASA's Voyager spacecraft will pass the heliopause some time in the next decade and transmit valuable data on radiation levels and solar wind back to the Earth. How well the heliosphere shields the Solar System from cosmic rays is poorly understood. A NASA-funded team has developed a concept of a "Vision Mission" dedicated to sending a probe to the heliosphere.
The hypothetical Oort cloud is a spherical cloud of up to a trillion icy objects that is believed to be the source for all long-period comets and to surround the Solar System at roughly 50,000 AU (around 1 light-year (LY)), and possibly to as far as 100,000 AU (1.87 LY). It is believed to be composed of comets which were ejected from the inner Solar System by gravitational interactions with the outer planets. Oort cloud objects move very slowly, and can be perturbed by infrequent events such as collisions, the gravitational effects of a passing star, or the galactic tide, the tidal force exerted by the Milky Way.
90377 Sedna (525.86 AU average) is a large, reddish Pluto-like object with a gigantic, highly elliptical orbit that takes it from about 76 AU at perihelion to 928 AU at aphelion and takes 12,050 years to complete. Mike Brown, who discovered the object in 2003, asserts that it cannot be part of the scattered disc or the Kuiper belt as its perihelion is too distant to have been affected by Neptune's migration. He and other astronomers consider it to be the first in an entirely new population, which also may include the object 2000 CR105, which has a perihelion of 45 AU, an aphelion of 415 AU, and an orbital period of 3,420 years. Brown terms this population the "Inner Oort cloud," as it may have formed through a similar process, although it is far closer to the Sun. Sedna is very likely a dwarf planet, though its shape has yet to be determined with certainty.
Much of our Solar System is still unknown. The Sun's gravitational field is estimated to dominate the gravitational forces of surrounding stars out to about two light years (125,000 AU). Lower estimates for the radius of the Oort cloud, by contrast, do not place it farther than 50,000 AU. Despite discoveries such as Sedna, the region between the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud, an area tens of thousands of AU in radius, is still virtually unmapped. There are also ongoing studies of the region between Mercury and the Sun. Objects may yet be discovered in the Solar System's uncharted regions.
The Solar System is located in the Milky Way galaxy, a barred spiral galaxy with a diameter of about 100,000 light-years containing about 200 billion stars. Our Sun resides in one of the Milky Way's outer spiral arms, known as the Orion Arm or Local Spur. The Sun lies between 25,000 and 28,000 light years from the Galactic Centre, and its speed within the galaxy is about 220 kilometres per second, so that it completes one revolution every 225–250 million years. This revolution is known as the Solar System's galactic year. The solar apex, the direction of the Sun's path through interstellar space, is near the constellation of Hercules in the direction of the current location of the bright star Vega.
The Solar System's location in the galaxy is very likely a factor in the evolution of life on Earth. Its orbit is close to being circular and is at roughly the same speed as that of the spiral arms, which means it passes through them only rarely. Since spiral arms are home to a far larger concentration of potentially dangerous supernovae, this has given Earth long periods of interstellar stability for life to evolve. The Solar System also lies well outside the star-crowded environs of the galactic centre. Near the centre, gravitational tugs from nearby stars could perturb bodies in the Oort Cloud and send many comets into the inner Solar System, producing collisions with potentially catastrophic implications for life on Earth. The intense radiation of the galactic centre could also interfere with the development of complex life. Even at the Solar System's current location, some scientists have hypothesised that recent supernovae may have adversely affected life in the last 35,000 years by flinging pieces of expelled stellar core towards the Sun in the form of radioactive dust grains and larger, comet-like bodies.
The immediate galactic neighbourhood of the Solar System is known as the Local Interstellar Cloud or Local Fluff, an area of dense cloud in an otherwise sparse region known as the Local Bubble, an hourglass-shaped cavity in the interstellar medium roughly 300 light years across. The bubble is suffused with high-temperature plasma that suggests it is the product of several recent supernovae.
There are relatively few stars within ten light years (95 trillion km) of the Sun. The closest is the triple star system Alpha Centauri, which is about 4.4 light years away. Alpha Centauri A and B are a closely tied pair of Sun-like stars, while the small red dwarf Alpha Centauri C (also known as Proxima Centauri) orbits the pair at a distance of 0.2 light years. The stars next closest to the Sun are the red dwarfs Barnard's Star (at 5.9 light years), Wolf 359 (7.8 light years) and Lalande 21185 (8.3 light years). The largest star within ten light years is Sirius, a bright main sequence star roughly twice the Sun's mass and orbited by a white dwarf called Sirius B. It lies 8.6 light years away. The remaining systems within ten light years are the binary red dwarf system Luyten 726-8 (8.7 light years) and the solitary red dwarf Ross 154 (9.7 light years). Our closest solitary sun-like star is Tau Ceti, which lies 11.9 light years away. It has roughly 80 percent the Sun's mass, but only 60 percent its luminosity. The closest known extrasolar planet to the Sun lies around the star Epsilon Eridani, a star slightly dimmer and redder than the Sun, which lies 10.5 light years away. Its one confirmed planet, Epsilon Eridani b, is roughly 1.5 times Jupiter's mass and orbits its star every 6.9 years.
Formation and evolution
The Solar System formed from the gravitational collapse of a giant molecular cloud 4.6 billion years ago. This initial cloud was likely several light-years across and probably birthed several stars.
As the region that would become the Solar System, known as the pre-solar nebula, collapsed, conservation of angular momentum made it rotate faster. The centre, where most of the mass collected, became increasingly hotter than the surrounding disc. As the contracting nebula rotated, it began to flatten into a spinning protoplanetary disc with a diameter of roughly 200 AU and a hot, dense protostar at the centre. At this point in its evolution, the Sun is believed to have been a T Tauri star. Studies of T Tauri stars show that they are often accompanied by discs of pre-planetary matter with masses of 0.001–0.1 solar masses, with the vast majority of the mass of the nebula in the star itself. The planets formed by accretion from this disk.
Within 50 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the centre of the protostar became great enough for it to begin thermonuclear fusion. The temperature, reaction rate, pressure, and density increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved, with the thermal energy countering the force of gravitational contraction. At this point the Sun became a full-fledged main sequence star.
The Solar System as we know it today will last until the Sun begins its evolution off of the main sequence of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. As the Sun burns through its supply of hydrogen fuel, the energy output supporting the core tends to decrease, causing it to collapse in on itself. This increase in pressure heats the core, so it burns even faster. As a result, the Sun is growing brighter at a rate of roughly ten percent every 1.1 billion years.
Around 5.4 billion years from now, the hydrogen in the core of the Sun will have been entirely converted to helium, ending the main sequence phase. At this time, the outer layers of the Sun will expand to roughly up to 260 times its current diameter; the Sun will become a red giant. Because of its vastly increased surface area, the surface of the Sun will be considerably cooler than it is on the main sequence (2600 K at the coolest).
Eventually, the Sun's outer layers will fall away, leaving a white dwarf, an extraordinarily dense object, half the original mass of the Sun but only the size of the Earth. The ejected outer layers will form what is known as a planetary nebula, returning some of the material that formed the Sun to the interstellar medium.
Published - July 2009
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