Monday, 14 March 2011

CASE 236 - Our Solar system

Our solar system is filled with a wide assortment of celestial bodies - the Sun itself, our eight planets, dwarf planets, and asteroids - and on Earth, life itself! The inner solar system is occasionally visited by comets that loop in from the outer reaches of the solar system on highly elliptical orbits. In the outer reaches of the solar system, we find the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud. Still farther out, we eventually reach the limits of the heliosphere, where the outer reaches of the solar system interact with interstellar space. Solar system formation began billions of years ago, when gases and dust began to come together to form the Sun, planets, and other bodies of the solar system.

Heliocentric vs Helical motion through the galaxy

The principal component of the Solar System is the Sun, a main sequence G2 star that contains 99.86 percent of the system's known mass and dominates it gravitationally. The Sun's four largest orbiting bodies, the gas giants, account for 99 percent of the remaining mass, with Jupiter and Saturn together comprising more than 90 percent.
Most large objects in orbit around the Sun lie near the plane of Earth's orbit, known as the ecliptic. The planets are very close to the ecliptic while comets and Kuiper belt objects are frequently at significantly greater angles to it. All the planets and most other objects also orbit with the Sun's rotation (counter-clockwise, as viewed from above the Sun's north pole). There are exceptions, such as Halley's Comet. The overall structure of the charted regions of the Solar System consists of the Sun, four relatively small inner planets surrounded by a belt of rocky asteroids, and four gas giants surrounded by the outer Kuiper belt of icy objects. Astronomers sometimes informally divide this structure into separate regions. The inner Solar System includes the four terrestrial planets and the main asteroid belt. The outer Solar System is beyond the asteroids, including the four gas giant planets. Since the discovery of the Kuiper belt, the outermost parts of the Solar System are considered a distinct region consisting of the objects beyond Neptune.

Kepler's laws of planetary motion describe the orbits of objects about the Sun. According to Kepler's laws, each object travels along an ellipse with the Sun at one focus. Objects closer to the Sun (with smaller semi-major axes) travel more quickly, as they are more affected by the Sun's gravity. On an elliptical orbit, a body's distance from the Sun varies over the course of its year. A body's closest approach to the Sun is called its perihelion, while its most distant point from the Sun is called its aphelion. The orbits of the planets are nearly circular, but many comets, asteroids and Kuiper belt objects follow highly elliptical orbits.
Due to the vast distances involved, many representations of the Solar System show orbits the same distance apart. In reality, with a few exceptions, the farther a planet or belt is from the Sun, the larger the distance between it and the previous orbit. For example, Venus is approximately 0.33 astronomical units (AU)[d] farther out from the Sun than Mercury, while Saturn is 4.3 AU out from Jupiter, and Neptune lies 10.5 AU out from Uranus. Attempts have been made to determine a correlation between these orbital distances (for example, the Titius–Bode law), but no such theory has been accepted.

Most of the planets in the Solar System possess secondary systems of their own, being orbited by planetary objects called natural satellites, or moons (two of which are larger than the planet Mercury), or, in the case of the four gas giants, by planetary rings; thin bands of tiny particles that orbit them in unison. Most of the largest natural satellites are in synchronous rotation, with one face permanently turned toward their parent.

The objects of the inner Solar System are composed mostly of rock, the collective name for compounds with high melting points, such as silicates, iron or nickel, that remained solid under almost all conditions in the protoplanetary nebula. Jupiter and Saturn are composed mainly of gases, the astronomical term for materials with extremely low melting points and high vapor pressure such as molecular hydrogen, helium, and neon, which were always in the gaseous phase in the nebula. Ices, like water, methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, have melting points up to a few hundred kelvins, while their phase depends on the ambient pressure and temperature. They can be found as ices, liquids, or gases in various places in the Solar System, while in the nebula they were either in the solid or gaseous phase. Icy substances comprise the majority of the satellites of the giant planets, as well as most of Uranus and Neptune (the so-called "ice giants") and the numerous small objects that lie beyond Neptune's orbit. Together, gases and ices are referred to as volatiles.

The IAU has changed the definition of "planet" so that Pluto no longer qualifies. There are now officially only eight planets in our solar system. Of course this change in terminology does not affect what's actually out there. In the end, it's not very important how we classify the various objects in our solar system. What is important is to learn about their physical nature and their histories.

Read more about venus by


The Solar System formed from the gravitational collapse of a giant molecular cloud 4.568 billion years ago. This initial cloud was likely several light-years across and probably birthed several stars. As the region that would become the Solar System, known as the pre-solar nebula, collapsed, conservation of angular momentum made it rotate faster. The centre, where most of the mass collected, became increasingly hotter than the surrounding disc. As the contracting nebula rotated, it began to flatten into a spinning protoplanetary disc with a diameter of roughly 200 AU and a hot, dense protostar at the centre. At this point in its evolution, the Sun is believed to have been a T Tauri star. Studies of T Tauri stars show that they are often accompanied by discs of pre-planetary matter with masses of 0.001–0.1 solar masses, with the vast majority of the mass of the nebula in the star itself.The planets formed by accretion from this disk. Within 50 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the centre of the protostar became great enough for it to begin thermonuclear fusion. The temperature, reaction rate, pressure, and density increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved, with the thermal energy countering the force of gravitational contraction. At this point the Sun became a full-fledged main sequence star. The Solar System as we know it today will last until the Sun begins its evolution off of the main sequence of the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram. As the Sun burns through its supply of hydrogen fuel, the energy output supporting the core tends to decrease, causing it to collapse in on itself. This increase in pressure heats the core, so it burns even faster. As a result, the Sun is growing brighter at a rate of roughly ten percent every 1.1 billion years. Around 5.4 billion years from now, the hydrogen in the core of the Sun will have been entirely converted to helium, ending the main sequence phase. As the hydrogen reactions shut down, the core will contract further, increasing pressure and temperature, causing fusion to commence via the helium process. Helium in the core burns at a much hotter temperature, and the energy output will be much greater than during the hydrogen process. At this time, the outer layers of the Sun will expand to roughly up to 260 times its current diameter; the Sun will become a red giant. Because of its vastly increased surface area, the surface of the Sun will be considerably cooler than it is on the main sequence (2600 K at the coolest). Eventually, helium in the core will exhaust itself at a much faster rate than the hydrogen, and the Sun's helium burning phase will be but a fraction of the time compared to the hydrogen burning phase. The Sun is not massive enough to commence fusion of heavier elements, and nuclear reactions in the core will dwindle. Its outer layers will fall away into space, leaving a white dwarf, an extraordinarily dense object, half the original mass of the Sun but only the size of the Earth. The ejected outer layers will form what is known as a planetary nebula, returning some of the material that formed the Sun to the interstellar medium.

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