Solar System - Structure and Composition

Structure and Composition

Solar System showing the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun in 3D. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are shown in both panels; the right panel also shows Jupiter making one full revolution with Saturn and Uranus making less than one full revolution.

The principal component of the Solar System is the Sun, a G2 main-sequence 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 the planets and most other objects orbit the Sun in the same direction that the Sun is rotating (counter-clockwise, as viewed from above the Sun's north pole). There are exceptions, such as Halley's Comet.

The overall structure of the charted regions of the Solar System consists of the Sun, four relatively small inner planets surrounded by a belt of rocky asteroids, and four gas giants surrounded by the Kuiper belt of icy objects. Astronomers sometimes informally divide this structure into separate regions. The inner Solar System includes the four terrestrial planets and the asteroid belt. The outer Solar System is beyond the asteroids, including the four gas giants. 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.

Most of the planets in the Solar System possess secondary systems of their own, being orbited by planetary objects called natural satellites, or moons (two of which are larger than the planet Mercury), or, in the case of the four gas giants, by planetary rings; thin bands of tiny particles that orbit them in unison. Most of the largest natural satellites are in synchronous rotation, with one face permanently turned toward their parent.

Kepler's laws of planetary motion describe the orbits of objects about the Sun. Following 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) travel more quickly, as they are more affected by the Sun's gravity. 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. The orbits of the planets are nearly circular, but many comets, asteroids and Kuiper belt objects follow highly elliptical orbits. The positions of the bodies in the Solar System can be predicted using numerical models.

Due to 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 from the Sun 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 relationship between these orbital distances (for example, the Titius–Bode law), but no such theory has been accepted.

The Sun, which comprises nearly all the matter in the Solar System, is composed of roughly 98% hydrogen and helium. Jupiter and Saturn, which comprise nearly all the remaining matter, possess atmospheres composed of roughly 99% of those same elements. A composition gradient exists in the Solar System, created by heat and light pressure from the Sun; those objects closer to the Sun, which are more affected by heat and light pressure, are composed of elements with high melting points. Objects farther from the Sun are composed largely of materials with lower melting points. The boundary in the Solar System beyond which those volatile substances could condense is known as the frost line, and it lies at roughly 4 AU from the Sun.

The objects of the inner Solar System are composed mostly of rock, the collective name for compounds with high melting points, such as silicates, iron or nickel, that remained solid under almost all conditions in the protoplanetary nebula. Jupiter and Saturn are composed mainly of gases, the astronomical term for 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. 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.

A number of Solar System models on Earth attempt to convey the relative scales involved in the Solar System on human terms. Some models are mechanical — called orreries — while others extend across cities or regional areas. The largest such scale model, the Sweden Solar System, uses the 110-metre Ericsson Globe in Stockholm as its substitute Sun, and, following the scale, Jupiter is a 7.5 metre sphere at Arlanda International Airport, 40 km away, while the farthest current object, Sedna, is a 10-cm sphere in Luleå, 912 km away.


Range of selected bodies of the Solar System from the middle of the Sun. The left and right edges of each bar correspond to the perihelion and aphelion of the body, respectively. Long bars denote high orbital eccentricity.

Read more about this topic:  Solar System

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