The Solar System Portal
and planets of the solar system (distances not to scale)
The Solar System is the gravitationally bound system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it, either directly or indirectly. Of the objects that orbit the Sun directly, the largest are the eight planets, with the remainder being smaller objects, the dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies. Of the objects that orbit the Sun indirectly—the moons—two are larger than the smallest planet, Mercury.
The Solar System formed 4.6 billion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a giant interstellar molecular cloud. The vast majority of the system's mass is in the Sun, with the majority of the remaining mass contained in Jupiter. The four smaller inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, are terrestrial planets, being primarily composed of rock and metal. The four outer planets are giant planets, being substantially more massive than the terrestrials. The two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are gas giants, being composed mainly of hydrogen and helium; the two outermost planets, Uranus and Neptune, are ice giants, being composed mostly of substances with relatively high melting points compared with hydrogen and helium, called volatiles, such as water, ammonia and methane. All eight planets have almost circular orbits that lie within a nearly flat disc called the ecliptic.
The Solar System also contains smaller objects. The asteroid belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, mostly contains objects composed, like the terrestrial planets, of rock and metal. Beyond Neptune's orbit lie the Kuiper belt and scattered disc, which are populations of trans-Neptunian objects composed mostly of ices, and beyond them a newly discovered population of sednoids. Within these populations, some objects are large enough to have rounded under their own gravity, though there is considerable debate as to how many there will prove to be. Such objects are categorized as dwarf planets. The only certain dwarf planet is Pluto, with another trans-Neptunian object, Eris, expected to be, and the asteroid Ceres at least close to being a dwarf planet. In addition to these two regions, various other small-body populations, including comets, centaurs and interplanetary dust clouds, freely travel between regions. Six of the planets, the six largest possible dwarf planets, and many of the smaller bodies are orbited by natural satellites, usually termed "moons" after the Moon. Each of the outer planets is encircled by planetary rings of dust and other small objects.
The solar wind, a stream of charged particles flowing outwards from the Sun, creates a bubble-like region in the interstellar medium known as the heliosphere. The heliopause is the point at which pressure from the solar wind is equal to the opposing pressure of the interstellar medium; it extends out to the edge of the scattered disc. The Oort cloud, which is thought to be the source for long-period comets, may also exist at a distance roughly a thousand times further than the heliosphere. The Solar System is located in the Orion Arm, 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
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The scattered disc
is a distant region of the Solar System
that is sparsely populated by icy minor planets
, a subset of the broader family of trans-Neptunian objects
. The scattered disc objects have orbital eccentricities
ranging as high as 0.8, inclinations
as high as 40° and perihelia
greater than 30 astronomical units
. These extreme orbits are believed to be the result of gravitational "scattering
" by the gas giants
and the objects continue to be subject to perturbation by the planet Neptune. While the nearest distance to the Sun approached by scattered objects is about 30–35 AU, their orbits can extend well beyond 100 AU. This makes scattered objects "among the most distant and cold objects in the Solar System". The innermost portion of the scattered disc overlaps with a torus-shaped region of orbiting objects known as the Kuiper belt, but its outer limits reach much farther away from the Sun and farther above and below the ecliptic than the belt proper. Due to its unstable nature, astronomers now consider the scattered disc to be the place of origin for most periodic comets observed in the Solar System, with the centaurs, a population of icy bodies between Jupiter and Neptune, being the intermediate stage in an object's migration from the disc to the inner Solar System. (more...)
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Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and by far the largest within the Solar System. It is 318 times more massive than Earth, with a diameter 11 times that of Earth, and with a volume 1300 times that of Earth. Its best known feature is the Great Red Spot, a storm larger than Earth, which was first observed by Galileo four centuries ago. This picture, taken by the Cassini orbiter was one of 26 thousand images taken of Jupiter during the course of its flyby and is the most detailed global color portrait of the planet ever produced.
Relative size of the Sun as it is now (inset) compared to its estimated future size as a red giant
Hubble image of protoplanetary discs in the Orion Nebula, a light-years-wide "stellar nursery" probably very similar to the primordial nebula from which the Sun formed
Schematic of the hypothetical Oort cloud, with a spherical outer cloud and a disc-shaped inner cloud
Meteor Crater in Arizona. Created 50,000 years ago by an impactor about 50 metres (160 ft) across, it shows that the accretion of the Solar System is not over.
Location of the Solar System within the Milky Way
Zooming out the Solar System:
- inner Solar System and Jupiter
- outer Solar System and Pluto
- orbit of Sedna (detached object)
- inner part of the Oort Cloud
Orrery showing the motions of the outer four planets. The small spheres represent the position of each planet on every 100 Julian days, beginning 21 January 2023 (Jovian perihelion) and ending 2 December 2034 (Jovian perihelion).
The geology of the contact binary
(nicknamed Ultima Thule
), the first undisturbed planetesimal
visited by a spacecraft, with comet 67P
to scale. The eight subunits of the larger lobe, labeled ma
, are thought to have been its building blocks. The two lobes came together later, forming a contact binary
. Objects such as Arrokoth are believed in turn to have formed protoplanets
The Ring nebula, a planetary nebula similar to what the Sun will become
Ceres – map of gravity fields: red is high; blue, low.
Neptune and its moon Triton, taken by Voyager 2. Triton's orbit will eventually take it within Neptune's Roche limit, tearing it apart and possibly forming a new ring system.
Andreas Cellarius's illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660)
Simulation showing outer planets and Kuiper belt:
a) Before Jupiter/Saturn 2:1 resonance
b) Scattering of Kuiper belt objects into the Solar System after the orbital shift of Neptune
c) After ejection of Kuiper belt bodies by Jupiter
Orbit of Jupiter
Orbit of Saturn
Orbit of Uranus
Orbit of Neptune
Beyond the heliosphere is the interstellar medium, consisting of various clouds of gases. The Solar System currently moves through the Local Interstellar Cloud.
Orrery showing the motions of the inner four planets. The small spheres represent the position of each planet on every Julian day, beginning 6 July 2018 (aphelion) and ending 3 January 2019 (perihelion).
In the news
Did you know -
- ...that the passing of the Great Comet of 1577 (pictured) caused almost century-long debate, during which Galileo argued that comets were merely optical illusions?
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