Thursday, 4 October 2007

Outer Planets

The four outer planets, or gas giants (sometimes called Jovian planets), collectively make up 99 percent of the mass known to orbit the Sun. Jupiter and Saturn's atmospheres are largely hydrogen and helium. Uranus and Neptune's atmospheres have a higher percentage of “ices”, such as water, ammonia and methane. Some astronomers suggest they belong in their own category, “ice giants.” All four gas giants have rings, although only Saturn's ring system is easily observed from Earth. The term outer planet should not be confused with superior planet, which designates planets outside Earth's orbit (the outer planets and Mars).

Jupiter (5.2 AU), at 318 Earth masses, masses 2.5 times all the other planets put together. It is composed largely of hydrogen and helium. Jupiter's strong internal heat creates a number of semi-permanent features in its atmosphere, such as cloud bands and the Great Red Spot. Jupiter has sixty-three known satellites. The four largest, Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa, show similarities to the terrestrial planets, such as volcanism and internal heating. Ganymede, the largest satellite in the Solar System, is larger than Mercury.

Saturn (9.5 AU), famous for its extensive ring system, has similarities to Jupiter, such as its atmospheric composition. Saturn is far less massive, being only 95 Earth masses. Saturn has sixty known satellites (and 3 unconfirmed); two of which, Titan and Enceladus, show signs of geological activity, though they are largely made of ice.[52] Titan is larger than Mercury and the only satellite in the Solar System with a substantial atmosphere.

[My personal favourite as well as my ruling planet...] Uranus (19.6 AU), at 14 Earth masses, is the lightest of the outer planets. Uniquely among the planets, it orbits the Sun on its side; its axial tilt is over ninety degrees to the ecliptic. It has a much colder core than the other gas giants, and radiates very little heat into space. Uranus has twenty-seven known satellites, the largest ones being Titania, Oberon, Umbriel, Ariel and Miranda. [All are named from Shakespearean characters, by the way... I'm not sure if they ran out of Roman and Greek gods or just went for a change of pace.]

Neptune (30 AU), though slightly smaller than Uranus, is more massive (equivalent to 17 Earths) and therefore denser. It radiates more internal heat, but not as much as Jupiter or Saturn.[54] Neptune has thirteen known satellites. The largest, Triton, is geologically active, with geysers of liquid nitrogen. Triton is the only large satellite with a retrograde orbit. Neptune is accompanied in its orbit by a number of minor planets in a 1:1 resonance with it, termed Neptune Trojans.

No comments: