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Planets in Our Solar System

The Sun is the hub of a huge rotating system consisting of nine planets, their satellites, and numerous small bodies, including asteroids, comets, and meteoroids. An estimated 99.85 percent of the mass of our solar system is contained within the Sun, while the planets collectively make up most of the remaining 0.15 percent. The planets, in order of their distance from the Sun, are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Under the control of the Sun's gravitational force, each planet maintains an elliptical orbit and all of them travel in the same direction.

The planets in our solar system fall into two groups: the terrestrial (Earth-like) planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) and the Jovian (Jupiter-like) planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). Pluto is not included in either category, because its great distance from Earth and its small size make this planet's true nature a mystery.

The most obvious difference between the terrestrial and the Jovian planets is their size. The largest terrestrial planet, Earth has a diameter only one quarter as great as the diameter of the smallest Jovian planet, Neptune, and its mass is only one seventeenth as great. Hence, the Jovian planets are often called giants. Also, because of their relative locations, the four Jovian planets are known as the outer planets, while the terrestrial planets are known as the inner planets. There appears to be a correlation between the positions of these planets and their sizes.

Other dimensions along which the two groups differ markedly are density and composition. The densities of the terrestrial planets average about 5 times the density of water, whereas the Jovian planets have densities that average only 1.5 times the density of water. One of the outer planets, Saturn, has a density of only 0.7 that of water, which means that Saturn would float in water. Variations in the composition of the planets are largely responsible for the density differences. The substances that make up both groups of planets are divided into three groups—gases, rocks, and ices—based on their melting points. The terrestrial planets are mostly rocks: dense rocky and metallic material, with minor amounts of gases. The Jovian planets, on the other hand, contain a large percentage of the gases hydrogen and helium, with varying amounts of ices: mostly water, ammonia, and methane ices.

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