Although most of us are trapped on planet Earth, we are lucky enough to have an atmosphere that is relatively clear. This allows us to look up into the sky and watch changes.
The ancients observed planets roaming across the sky, with occasional guests: comets. Thousands of years ago most believed our fate was governed by the stars. Now, however, on the planets, asteroids and comets close to the earth, we can see science at work.
With its alien planets, strange moons and weird phenomena that are so out-of-this-world they elude explanation, a solar system is an odd place. Scientists have discovered ice-spewing volcanoes on Pluto, while Mars is home to a truly “huge” canyon equal the size of the U.S.
In this article
- Facts about The Solar System
- 1. Pluto is Smaller in Diameter than the United States
- 2. Uranus is Tilted Sideways
- 3. Asteroids and Comets are Leftovers
- 4. George Lucas Knows Very Little About Asteroid Fields
- 5. The Biggest Volcano is in Mars
- 6. All the Planets Orbit in the Same Direction and Follow the Same Path
- 7. The Biggest Ocean is in Jupiter
- 8. Venus Has Super-mighty Winds
- 9. We aren’t Anywhere Near the Centre of Our Galaxy
- 10. Water ice is Everywhere
- 11. Solar System is Bigger Than We Think
- 12. Spacecraft Have Explored Every Planet
- 13. The Sun is Massive
- 14. There Could be Life Elsewhere in the Solar System
Facts about The Solar System
A massive, undiscovered world might also be hidden somewhere beyond Neptune. Read on to find out some of the interesting facts about planets, dwarf planets, meteors and other fascinating objects that are around the solar system.
1. Pluto is Smaller in Diameter than the United States
Nearly 2,900 miles (about 4,700 km) is the largest distance in the contiguous United States – from Northern California to Maine. Due to the 2015 New Horizons mission, we now know Pluto is 1,473 miles (2,371 km) long, less than half the US diameter. It is certainly much smaller in size than any major planet, perhaps making it a little easier to understand why. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union changed the status of Pluto from a major planet to a dwarf planet.
2. Uranus is Tilted Sideways
Uranus appears to be a featureless blue ball at first glance, but after closer inspection, this gas giant from the outer solar system is quite weird. Next, for reasons that scientists have not yet worked out, the earth is rotating on its side. The most probable explanation is that, in the ancient past, it suffered some sort of one or more titanic collisions. The tilt makes Uranus unique among the planets of the solar system anyway.
Uranus also has tiny rings, which were confirmed when the planet passed before a star (from the viewpoint of Earth) in 1977; when the light of the star winked on and off repeatedly, astronomers noticed that there was more than just a planet blocking its starlight. More recently, observers detected storms many years after its closest approach to the sun in the atmosphere of Uranus, when the atmosphere would have been the most heated.
3. Asteroids and Comets are Leftovers
Actually, we don’t mean leftovers to eat, we mean leftovers of what used to look like the Solar system. And while it’s easy to distract yourself from the weather and craters and life chances on planets and moons, it’s important to note that we do have to pay attention to the smaller bodies. For example, comets and asteroids may have carried organics and water ice to our own planet providing what we need for existence.
4. George Lucas Knows Very Little About Asteroid Fields
Spacecraft are also endangered by pesky fields of asteroids in many science fiction films. Actually, the only asteroid belt we are aware of remains between Mars and Jupiter, and while it includes tens of thousands of asteroids (maybe more), they are very distributed and the possibility of collision with one is low.
In reality, to have a chance of even photographing one, spacecraft must be purposely and carefully guided into asteroids. It is extremely unlikely that spacefarers would ever encounter asteroid swarms or fields in deep space, due to the alleged manner of creating asteroids.
5. The Biggest Volcano is in Mars
Although Mars now seems quiet, we know that gigantic volcanoes formed and erupted in the past. This includes Olympus Mons, the largest volcano ever located in the solar system. The volcano is equivalent to the size of Arizona, at 602 km (374 miles) across. It is 16 miles (25 km) high, or triple the height of the Earth’s highest peak: Mount Everest.
Volcanoes on Mars can expand to such an enormous scale, as gravity on the Red Planet is much weaker than it is on the Earth. But it is not known how those volcanos came to be in the first place. There is indeed a debate as to whether Mars has a global tectonic plate system and whether it is active.
6. All the Planets Orbit in the Same Direction and Follow the Same Path
People come up with eight when contemplating the concept of planets by the IAU: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. You will find that these bodies appear to follow the same celestial path (called the ecliptic) and orbit the Sun in the same direction. Which supports the leading theory for the formation of the Solar System, that is, the planets, moons, and the Sun originated from a vast cloud of gas and dust that condensed and spun.
7. The Biggest Ocean is in Jupiter
Jupiter, though made of metallic hydrogen, has the largest ocean on any planet. Orbiting 5 times farther from the sun than Earth in a cold place, Jupiter held far higher amounts of hydrogen and helium than our world did when it formed. Jupiter is in fact predominantly hydrogen and helium.
With the mass and chemical composition of Jupiter, physics needs that way down under the tops of the cold cloud, temperatures increase to the point that the hydrogen has to transform into liquid. Perhaps a deep planetary ocean of liquid hydrogen should exist. Computer simulations reveal that this is not only the largest ocean found in the solar system but it is about 25,000 miles (40,000 km) deep – about as deep as the Earth.
8. Venus Has Super-mighty Winds
Venus is a hellish planet which has a high-temperature and high-pressure environment. Ten of the heavily shielded Venera spacecraft from the Soviet Union only lasted on its surface for a few minutes when they landed there in the 1970s. But the planet does have a strange environment even above its surface.
Scientists have found that the upper winds circulate fifty times faster than the rotation of the earth. The European spacecraft Venus Express (which orbited the planet from 2006 to 2014) monitored the winds over long periods and observed periodic variations. They also noted that the winds of the hurricane-force appeared stronger over time.
9. We aren’t Anywhere Near the Centre of Our Galaxy
By observing objects like “standard candles”—a group of burning stars that appear to have the same luminosity, we can calculate large distances across the universe, which makes it easier to determine how far away they are from us.
At any rate, looking at our neighbourhood, we were able to figure out that we are nowhere near the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. NASA says that we are nearly 165 quadrillion miles from the supermassive black hole in the centre, which is actually a positive thing.
10. Water ice is Everywhere
Water ice was once considered a rare element in space, but now we realize we were just not in the right places looking for it. Water ice still exists in the solar system. For example, Ice is a common constituent of comets and asteroids. But we do know that ice isn’t all the same. For example, the final examination of Comet 67P / Churyumov – Gerasimenko by the Rosetta spacecraft of the European Space Agency revealed a different kind of water ice from what is found on Earth.
We have seen water ice all over the solar system, that being said. It’s on Mercury and the moon in permanently shadowed craters, but we don’t know whether there is enough to sustain colonies in those areas. Mars also has ice at its poles, in frost and probably beneath the dust in the surface. Also, smaller solar system bodies have ice like Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and the dwarf planet Ceres.
11. Solar System is Bigger Than We Think
Beyond Neptune’s orbit (the farthest planet), leaving the Solar System takes a long time. In 2012, some 35 years after leaving Earth on a one-way journey to the outer solar system, Voyager 1 went through the region where the magnetic and gas atmosphere of the Sun gives way to that of the stars, indicating it is interstellar space. It was an amazing 11 billion miles (17 billion kilometres) from Earth, or roughly 118 Earth-sun equivalent distances (astronomical units).
12. Spacecraft Have Explored Every Planet
For more than 60 years, we have been exploring space and have been fortunate enough to get close-up images of hundreds of celestial bodies. Most importantly, we’ve sent spacecraft to all of our solar system’s planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, as well as two dwarf planets: Pluto and Ceres. The majority of the flybys came from NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft, which left Earth in 1977 and still transmits data in interstellar space from beyond the solar system. Through a timely alignment of the outer planets, the Voyagers clocked visits to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
13. The Sun is Massive
How massive? 99.86 per cent of the mass of the Solar System is in our local star, which tells you where the real heavyweight is. The Sun is made up of hydrogen and helium, which tells you that these gasses in our neighbourhood (and the Universe in general) are much more common than the rocks and metals that we are more acquainted with here on Earth.
14. There Could be Life Elsewhere in the Solar System
Scientists have found no evidence to date that there is life elsewhere in the solar system. But as we learn more about how “extreme” microbes live in volcanic underwater vents or in frozen environments, more opportunities are opening up for where they might live on other planets. These aren’t the once suspected aliens dwelling on Mars, but microbial life is a possibility in the solar system.
Microbial life on Mars is now believed so likely that scientists take extra measures to sanitize spacecraft before sending them out there. This, though, is not the only place. For many icy moons distributed across the solar system, bacteria can be found anywhere in Jupiter’s Europa oceans, or even under the ice at the Enceladus of Saturn, among many other locations.