Solar System (Encyclopedia of Science)
Our solar system consists of the Sun and all of its orbiting objects. These objects include the planets with their rings and moons, asteroids, comets, meteors and meteorites, and particles of dust and debris.
The Sun, which keeps these objects in orbit with its gravitational field, alone accounts for about 99.8 percent of the mass of the solar system. Jupiter, the largest planet, represents another 0.1 percent of the mass. Everything else in the solar system together makes up the remaining 0.1 percent.
The average distance between the Sun and Pluto, the farthest planet, is about 3.66 billion miles (5.89 billion kilometers). Incorporating the entire space within the orbit of Pluto, the area encompassed by the solar system is 41.85 billion square miles (108.4 billion square kilometers). Our solar system seems quite insignificant, however, when considered in the context of the more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, and the estimated 50 billion galaxies in the universe.
A planet is defined as a body that orbits a star (in our case the Sun) and produces no light of its own, but reflects the light of its controlling star. At present, scientists know of nine planets in the solar system. They are grouped into three categories: the solid, terrestrial planets; the giant, gaseous (also known as Jovian)...
(The entire section is 1420 words.)
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Solar System (World of Earth Science)
Earth's solar system is comprised of the Sun, nine major planets, some 100,000 asteroids larger than 0.6 mi (1 km) in diameter, and perhaps 1 trillion cometary nuclei. While the major planets lie within 40 Astronomical Units (AU)he average distance of Earth to the Sunhe outermost boundary of the solar system stretches to 1 million AU, one-third the way to the nearest star. Cosmologists and Astronomers assert that the solar system was formed through the collapse of a spinning cloud of interstellar gas and dust.
The central object in the solar system is the Sun. It is the largest and most massive object in the solar system; its diameter is 109 times that of Earth, and it is 333,000 times more massive. The extent of the solar system is determined by the gravitational attraction of the Sun. Indeed, the boundary of the solar system is defined as the surface within which the gravitational pull of the Sun dominates over that of the galaxy. Under this definition, the solar system extends outwards from the Sun to a distance of about 100,000 AU. The solar system is much larger, therefore, than the distance to the remotest known planet, Pluto, which orbits the Sun at a mean distance of 39.44 AU.
The Sun and the solar system are situated some 26,000 light years from the center of our galaxy. The Sun takes about 240 million years to complete one orbit about the galactic center.
Since its formation the Sun has completed about 19 such trips. As it orbits about the center of the galaxy, the Sun also moves in an oscillatory fashion above and below the galactic plane with a period of about 30 million years. During their periodic sojourns above and below the plane of the galaxy, the Sun and solar system suffer gravitational encounters with other stars and giant molecular clouds. These close encounters result in the loss of objects (essentially dormant cometary nuclei located in the outer Oort cloud) that are on, or near, the boundary of the solar system. These encounters also nudge some cometary nuclei toward the inner solar system where they may be observed as long-period comets.
The objects within our solar system demonstrate several essential dynamical characteristics. When viewed from above the Sun's North Pole, all of the planets orbit the Sun along near-circular orbits in a counterclockwise manner. The Sun also rotates in a counterclockwise direction. With respect to the Sun, therefore, the planets have prograde orbits. The major planets, asteroids, and short-period comets all move along orbits only slightly inclined to one another. For this reason, when viewed from Earth, the asteroids and planets all appear to move in the narrow zodiacal band of constellations. All of the major planets, with three exceptions, spin on their central axes in the same direction that they orbit the Sun. That is, the planets mostly spin in a prograde motion. The planets Venus, Uranus, and Pluto are the three exceptions, having retrograde (backwards) spins.
The distances at which the planets orbit the Sun increase geometrically, and it appears that each planet is roughly 64% further from the Sun than its nearest inner neighbor. The separation between successive planets increases dramatically beyond the orbit of Mars. While the inner, or terrestrial planets are typically separated by distances of about four-tenths of an AU, the outer, or Jovian planets are typically separated by 50 AU.
Although the asteroids and short-period comets satisfy, in a general sense, the same dynamical constraints as the major planets, we have to remember that such objects have undergone significant orbital evolution since the solar system formed. The asteroids, for example, have undergone many mutual collisions and fragmentation events, and the cometary nuclei have suffered from numerous gravitational perturbations from the planets. Long-period comets in particular have suffered considerable dynamical evolution, first to become members of the Oort cloud, and second to become comets visible in the inner solar system.
The compositional make-up of the various solar system bodies offers several important clues about the conditions under which they formed. The four interior planetsercury, Venus, Earth, and Marsre classified as terrestrial and are composed of rocky material surrounding an iron-nickel metallic core. In contrast, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus are classified as the "gas giants" and are large masses of hydrogen in gaseous, liquid, and solid form surrounding Earth-size rock and metal cores. Pluto fits neither of these categories, having an icy surface of frozen methane. Pluto more greatly resembles the satellites of the gas giants, which contain large fractions of icy material. This observation suggests that the initial conditions under which such ices might have formed only prevailed beyond the orbit of Jupiter.
In summary, any proposed theory for the formation of the solar system must explain both the dynamical and chemical properties of the objects in the solar system. It must also be sufficient flexibility to allow for distinctive features such as retrograde spin, and the chaotic migration of cometary orbits.
Astronomers almost universally assert that the best descriptive model for the formation of the solar system is the solar nebula hypothesis. The essential idea behind the solar nebula model is that the Sun and planets formed through the collapse of a rotating cloud of interstellar gas and dust. In this way, planet formation is postulated to be a natural consequence of star formation.
The solar nebula hypothesis is not a new scientific proposal. Indeed, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant first discussed the idea in 1755. Later, the French mathematician, Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749827) developed the model in his text, The System of the World, published in 1796.
The key postulate in the solar nebula hypothesis is that once a rotating interstellar gas cloud has commenced gravitational collapse, then the conservation of angular momentum will force the cloud to develop a massive, central condensation that is surrounded by a less massive flattened ring, or disk of material. The nebula hypothesis asserts that the Sun forms from the central condensation, and that the planets accumulate from the material in the disk. The solar nebula model naturally explains why the Sun is the most massive object in the solar system, and why the planets rotate about the Sun in the same sense, along nearly circular orbits and in essentially the same plane.
During the gravitational collapse of an interstellar cloud, the central regions become heated through the release of gravitational energy. This means that the young solar nebular is hot, and that the gas and (vaporized) dust in the central regions is well mixed. By constructing models to follow the gradual cooling of the solar nebula, scientists have been able to establish a chemical condensation sequence. Near to the central proto-sun, the nebular temperature will be very high, and consequently no solid matter can exist. Everything is in a gaseous form. Farther away from the central proto-sun, however, the temperature of the nebula falls off. At distances beyond 0.2 AU from the proto-sun, the temperature drops below 3,100°F (1,700°C). At this temperature, metals and oxides can begin to form. Still further out (at about 0.5 AU), the temperature will drop below 1,300°F (730°C), and silicate rocks can begin to form. Beyond about 5 AU from the protosun, the temperature of the nebula will be below 00°F (3°C), and ices can start to condense. The temperature and distance controlled sequence of chemical condensation in the solar nebula correctly predicts the basic chemical make-up of the planets.
Perhaps the most important issue to be resolved in future versions of the solar nebula model is that of the distribution of angular momentum. The problem for the solar nebula theory is that it predicts that most of the mass and angular momentum should be in the Sun. In other words, the Sun should spin much more rapidly than it does. A mechanism is therefore required to transport angular momentum away from the central proto-sun and redistribute it in the outer planetary disk. One proposed transport mechanism invokes the presence of a magnetic field in the nebula, while another mechanism proposed the existence of viscous stresses produced by turbulence in the nebular gas.
Precise dating of meteorites and lunar rock samples indicate that the solar system is 4.6 to 5.1 billion years old. The meteorites also indicate an age spread of about 20 million years, during which time the planets themselves formed.
The standard solar nebula model suggests that the planets were created through a multi-step process. The first important step is the coagulation and sedimentation of rock and ice grains in the mid-plain of the nebula. These grains and aggregates, 0.4 in (1 cm) to 3 ft (1 m) in size, continue to accumulate in the mid-plain of the nebula to produce a swarm of some 10 trillion larger bodies, called planetesimals, that are some 0.6 mi (1 km), or so in size. Finally, the planetesimals themselves accumulate into larger, self-gravitating bodies called proto-planets. The proto-planets were probably a few hundred kilometers in size. Finally, growth of proto-planet-sized objects results in the planets.
The final stages of planetary formation were decidedly violentt is probable that a collision with a Mars-sized proto-planet produced Earth's Moon. Likewise, it is thought that the retrograde rotations of Venus and Uranus may have been caused by glancing proto-planetary impacts. The rocky and icy planetesimals not incorporated into the proto-planets now orbit the Sun as asteroids and cometary nuclei. The cometary nuclei that formed in the outer solar nebula were mostly ejected from the nebula by gravitational encounters with the large Jovian gas giants and now reside in the Oort cloud.
One problem that has still to be worked-out under the solar nebula hypothesis concerns the formation of Jupiter. The estimated accumulation time for Jupiter is about 100 million years, but it is now known that the solar nebula itself probably only survived for 100,000 to 10 million years. In other words, the accumulation process in the standard nebula model is too slow by at least a factor of 10 and maybe 100.
Of great importance to the study of solar systems was the discovery in 1999 of an entire solar system around another star. Although such systems should be plentiful and common in the cosmos, this was the first observation of another solar system. Forty-four light-years from Earth, three large planets were found circling the star Upsilon Andromedae. Astronomers suspect the planets are similar to Jupiter and Saturnuge spheres of gas without a solid surface.
See also Astronomy; Big Bang theory; Celestial sphere: The apparent movements of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars; Cosmology; Dating methods; Earth (planet); Earth, interior structure; Geologic time; Revolution and rotation