Planets in Our Solar System
Note: The following text indicates that Pluto is a planet. It was written before the matter of Pluto being defined as a planet became unsettled in the scientific community. The associated questions are answerable based on the content in the text.
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.
The Jovian planets have very thick atmospheres consisting of varying amounts of hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia. By comparison, the terrestrial planets have meager atmospheres at best. A planet's ability to retain an atmosphere depends on its temperature and mass. Simply stated, a gas molecule can "evaporate" from a planet if it reaches a speed known as the escape velocity. For Earth, this velocity is 11 kilometers per second. Any material, including a rocket, must reach this speed before it can leave Earth and go into space. The Jovian planets, because of their greater masses and thus higher surface gravities, have higher escape velocities (21–60 kilometers per second) than the terrestrial planets. Consequently, it is more difficult for gases to "evaporate" from them. Also, because the molecular motion of a gas depends on temperature, at the low temperatures of the Jovian planets even the lightest gases are unlikely to acquire the speed needed to escape.On the other hand, a comparatively warm body with a small surface gravity, like Earth's moon, is unable to hold even the heaviest gas and thus lacks an atmosphere. The slightly larger terrestrial planets Earth, Venus, and Mars retain some heavy gases like carbon dioxide, but even their atmospheres make up only an infinitesimally small portion of their total mass.
The orderly nature of our solar system leads most astronomers to conclude that the planets formed at essentially the same time and from the same material as the Sun. It is hypothesized that the primordial cloud of dust and gas from which all the planets are thought to have condensed had a composition somewhat similar to that of Jupiter. However, unlike Jupiter, the terrestrial planets today are nearly void of light gases and ices. The explanation may be that the terrestrial planets were once much larger and richer in these materials but eventually lost them because of these bodies' relative closeness to the Sun, which meant that their temperatures were relatively high.