Dark, cold and whipped by supersonic winds, Neptune is the last of the hydrogen and helium gas giants in our solar system. More than 30 times as far from the sun as Earth, the planet takes almost 165 Earth years to orbit our sun. In 2011 Neptune completed its first orbit since its discovery in 1846.
Friday, 23 November 2012
Uranus is the only giant planet whose equator is nearly at right angles to its orbit. A collision with an Earth-sized object may explain Uranus' unique tilt. Nearly a twin in size to Neptune, Uranus has more methane in its mainly hydrogen and helium atmosphere than Jupiter or Saturn. Methane gives Uranus its blue tint.
Friday, 2 November 2012
Adorned with thousands of beautiful ringlets, Saturn is unique among the planets. All four gas giant planets have rings -- made of chunks of ice and rock -- but none are as spectacular or as complicated as Saturn's. Like the other gas giants, Saturn is mostly a massive ball of hydrogen and helium.
Jupiter, the most massive planet in our solar system -- with dozens of moons and an enormous magnetic field -- forms a kind of miniature solar system. Jupiter does resemble a star in composition, but it did not grow big enough to ignite. The planet's swirling cloud stripes are punctuated by massive storms such as the Great Red Spot, which has raged for hundreds of years.
Jupiter's appearance is a tapestry of beautiful colors and atmospheric features. Most visible clouds are composed of ammonia. Water vapor exists deep below and can sometimes be seen through clear spots in the clouds. The planet's "stripes" are dark belts and light zones created by strong east-west winds in Jupiter's upper atmosphere.
Mars is a cold desert world. It is half the diameter of Earth and has the same amount of dry land. Like Earth, Mars has seasons, polar ice caps, volcanoes, canyons and weather, but its atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to exist for long on the surface. There are signs of ancient floods on Mars, but evidence for water now exists mainly in icy soil and thin clouds.
Our Moon makes Earth a more livable planet by moderating our home planet's wobble on its axis, leading to a relatively stable climate, and creating a rhythm that has guided humans for thousands of years. The Moon was likely formed after a Mars-sized body collided with Earth and the debris formed into the most prominent feature in our night sky.
Earth is an ocean planet. Our home world's abundance of water -- and life -- makes it unique in our solar system. Other planets, plus a few moons, have ice, atmospheres, seasons and even weather, but only on Earth does the whole complicated mix come together in a way that encourages life -- and lots of it.