Solar System Information

Night Skies

From our small world we have gazed upon the cosmic ocean for thousands of years. Ancient astronomers observed points of light that appeared to move among the stars. They called these objects "planets," meaning wanderers, and named them after Roman deities-Jupiter, king of the gods; Mars, the god of war; Mercury, messenger of the gods; Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, and Saturn, father of Jupiter and god of agriculture. The stargazers also observed comets with sparkling tails, and meteors or shooting stars apparently falling from the sky. 

Since the invention of the telescope, three more planets have been discovered in our solar system: Uranus (1781), Neptune (1846), and, now downgraded to a dwarf planet, Pluto (1930). In addition, there are thousands of small bodies such as asteroids and comets. Most of the asteroids orbit in a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, while the home of comets lies far beyond the orbit of Pluto, in the Oort Cloud. 

The four planets closest to the sun-Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars-are called the terrestrial planets because they have solid rocky surfaces. The four large planets beyond the orbit of Mars-Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune-are called gas giants. Tiny, distant, Pluto has a solid but icier surface than the terrestrial planets. 

Nearly every planet-and some of the moons-has an atmosphere. Earth's atmosphere is primarily nitrogen and oxygen. Venus has a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide, with traces of poisonous gases such as sulfur dioxide. Mars's carbon dioxide atmosphere is extremely thin. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are primarily hydrogen and helium. When Pluto is near the sun, it has a thin atmosphere, but when Pluto travels to the outer regions of its orbit, the atmosphere freezes and collapses to the planet's surface. In that way, Pluto acts like a comet.