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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.
Voyager 2 showing Neptune's full ring system with the highest sensitivity
The rings of Neptune were first detected in 1980, but only identified in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. The rings are tenuous, faint and dusty, and resemble the rings of Jupiter more closely than those of Saturn or Uranus. Neptune possesses five known rings, each named for an astronomer who contributed important work on the planet: the Galle, Le Verrier, Lassell, Arago and Adams rings. Neptune also has a faint unnamed ring coincident with the orbit of Neptunian moon Galatea. The rings of Neptune are made of extremely dark material, likely organic compounds processed by radiation similar to that found in the rings of Uranus. The proportion of dust in the rings (between 20 and 70%) is high, while their optical depth is low, at less than 0.1. Uniquely, the Adams ring is divided into five discrete arcs, named Fraternité, Égalité 1 and 2, Liberté, and Courage. The arcs occupy a narrow range of orbital longitudes and are remarkably stable, having changed only slightly since their initial detection in 1980. How the arcs maintain stability is still under debate. However, their stability is probably related to the resonant interaction between the Adams ring and its inner shepherd moon, Galatea. (Full article...)
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.
An animation of an eruption by the Tvashtar Paterae volcanic region on the innermost of Jupiter's Galilean moons, Io. The ejecta plume is 330 km (205 mi) high, though only its uppermost half is visible in this image, as its source lies over the moon's limb on its far side. This animation consists of a sequence of five images taken by NASA's New Horizons probe on March 1, 2007, over the course of eight minutes from 23:50 UTC.
"The Blue Marble" is a famous photograph of Earth. NASA officially credits the image to the entire Apollo 17 crew — Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Jack Schmitt — all of whom took photographic images during the mission. Apollo 17 passed over Africa during daylight hours and Antarctica is also illuminated. The photograph was taken approximately five hours after the spacecraft's launch, while en route to the Moon. Apollo 17, notably, was the last manned lunar mission; no humans since have been at a range where taking a "whole-Earth" photograph such as "The Blue Marble" would be possible.
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is a nearly perfect sphere of plasma, heated by nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium in its core, with internal convective motion that generates a magnetic field via a dynamo process. It is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Its diameter is about 1.39 million kilometres (860,000 miles) or 109 times that of Earth, while its mass is about 330,000 times that of Earth. It accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Roughly three-quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen; the rest is mostly helium, with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon and iron.
Astronaut Eugene Cernan makes a short test drive of the lunar rover (officially, Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV) during the early part of the first Apollo 17extravehicular activity. The LRV was only used in the last three Apollo missions, but it performed without any major problems and allowed the astronauts to cover far more ground than in previous missions. All three LRVs were abandoned on the Moon.
The Day the Earth Smiled refers to the date July 19, 2013, on which the Cassini spacecraft turned to image Saturn, its entire ring system, and the Earth from a position where Saturn eclipsed the Sun. Cassini imaging team leader and planetary scientist Carolyn Porco called for all the world's people to reflect on humanity's place in the cosmos, to marvel at life on Earth, and to look up and smile in celebration. The final mosaic, shown here, was released four months later and includes planets Earth, Mars, and Venus, and a host of Saturnian moons.
This false-colorradar image taken by the Cassini orbiter provides convincing evidence for large bodies of liquid methane on Titan. Images taken during a fly-by of the moon on July 22, 2006 show more than 75 large bodies of liquid ranging in diameter from three to 70km (1.9 to 43.6 mi) in the moon's northern hemisphere. Intensity in this colorized image is proportional to how much radar brightness is returned. The lakes, darker than the surrounding terrain, are emphasized here by tinting regions of low backscatter in blue. Radar-brighter regions are shown in tan. Smallest details in this image are about 500 m (1,640 ft) across. On January 3, 2007, NASA announced that scientists have "definitive evidence of lakes filled with methane on Saturn's moon Titan."
Full moon is a lunar phase that occurs when the moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, and when the three celestial bodies are aligned as closely as possible to a straight line. At this time, as seen by viewers on earth, the hemisphere of the moon that is facing the earth (the near side) is fully illuminated by the sun and appears round. Only during a full moon is the opposite hemisphere of the moon, which is not visible from earth (the far side), completely unilluminated.
False-color detail of Jupiter's atmosphere, imaged by Voyager 1, showing the Great Red Spot and a passing white oval. The wavy cloud pattern to the left of the Red Spot is a region of extraordinarily complex and variable wave motion. To give a sense of Jupiter's scale, the white oval storm directly below the Great Red Spot is approximately the same diameter as Earth.
Earthrise, the first occasion in which humans saw the Earth seemingly rising above the surface of the Moon, taken during the Apollo 8 mission on December 24, 1968. This view was seen by the crew at the beginning of its fourth orbit around the Moon, although the first photograph taken was in black-and-white. Note that the Earth is in shadow here. A photo of a fully lit Earth would not be taken until the Apollo 17 mission.
Victoria Crater, an impact crater at Meridiani Planum, near the equator of Mars. The crater is approximately 800 meters (half a mile) in diameter. It has a distinctive scalloped shape to its rim, caused by erosion and downhill movement of crater wall material. Layered sedimentary rocks are exposed along the inner wall of the crater, and boulders that have fallen from the crater wall are visible on the crater floor. The floor of the crater is occupied by a striking field of sand dunes. The Mars rover Opportunity can be seen in this image, at roughly the "ten o'clock" position along the rim of the crater.
The Planum Boreum's permanent ice cap has a maximum depth of 3 km (1.9 mi). It is roughly 1200 km (750 mi) in diameter, an area equivalent to about 1½ times the size of Texas. The Chasma Boreale is up to 100 km (62.5 mi) wide and features scarps up to 2 km (1.25 mi) high. For a comparison, the Grand Canyon is approximately 1.6 km (1 mi) deep in some places and 446 km (279 mi) long but only up to 24 km (15 mi) wide.
Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, is named after the Roman god of war because of its blood red color. Mars has two small, oddly-shaped moons, Phobos and Deimos, named after the sons of the Greek god Ares. At some point in the future Phobos will be broken up by gravitational forces. The atmosphere on Mars is 95% carbon dioxide. In 2003 methane was also discovered in the atmosphere. Since methane is an unstable gas, this indicates that there must be (or have been within the last few hundred years) a source of the gas on the planet.
Lunar distance is a measurement of the distance from the Earth to the Moon. This diagram shows the distance, averaging 384,400 km (238,900 mi), to scale, as well as the Earth and the Moon (scroll to see the entire image).
Comet Hale-Bopp sails across the sky in the vicinity of Pazin in Istria, Croatia. To the lower right of the comet the Andromeda Galaxy is also faintly visible. The comet was visible to the naked eye for a record 18 months, twice as long as the Great Comet of 1811. At perihelion, it shone brighter than any star in the sky except Sirius, and its two tails stretched 30-40 degrees across the sky. The passage of Hale-Bopp was notable also for inciting a degree of panic about comets not seen for decades. Rumours that the comet was being followed by an alienspacecraft inspired a mass suicide among followers of the Heaven's Gatecult.
A TRACE image of sunspots on the surface, or photosphere, of the Sun from September 2002, is taken in the far ultraviolet on a relatively quiet day for solar activity. However, the image still shows a large sunspot group visible as a bright area near the horizon. Although sunspots are relatively cool regions on the surface of the Sun, the bright glowing gas flowing around the sunspots have a temperature of over one million °C (1.8 million °F). The high temperatures are thought to be related to the rapidly changing magnetic field loops that channel solar plasma.
A solar flare, a sudden flash of brightness observed over the Sun's surface or the solar limb which is interpreted as a large energy release, recorded on August 31, 2012. Such flares are often, but not always, followed by a colossal coronal mass ejection; in this instance, the ejection traveled at over 900 miles (1,400 km) per second.
These images are composites of the complete radar image collection obtained by the Magellan mission. The Magellan spacecraft was launched aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 1989 and began mapping the surface of Venus in September 1990. The spacecraft continued to orbit Venus for four years, returning high-resolution images, altimetry, thermal emissions and gravity maps of 98 percent of the surface. Magellan spacecraft operations ended on October 12, 1994, when the radio contact was lost with the spacecraft during its controlled descent into the deeper portions of the Venusian atmosphere.
This photograph of Pluto is a composite of four near-true color images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The most prominent feature in the image, the bright, youthful, nitrogen ice plains of Sputnik Planitia, the left lobe of heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio, is at right center. This contrasts with the darker, more cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula at lower left.
This natural-color mosaic image, combining thirty photographs, was taken by the Cassini orbiter over the course of approximately two hours on 23 July 2008 as it panned its wide-angle camera across Saturn and its ring system as the planet approached equinox. Six moons are pictured in the panorama, with the largest, Titan, visible at the bottom left.
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).
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
Size comparison of the Sun and the planets (clickable)
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
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 object Arrokoth (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 to mh, 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.