Worlds of David Darling > Children's
Encyclopedia of Science > The Planets > Chapter 1
a book in the Discovering Our Universe series by David Darling
1. The Kingdom of the Sun
As you read this, several robot spacecraft
are circling the planet Mars or trundling across its desert-like surface.
Another space probe is going around giant Saturn, taking pictures of its
many rings and moons. Yet another spacecraft from Earth is on its way to
the innermost planet, Mercury.
The surface of Mars
Since 1962, several dozen robot explorers have journeyed to the planets
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Only Pluto remains
unvisited. Spacecraft have studied asteroids and comets at close range.
Four are even heading out on long, lonely voyages to the stars. These planetary
probes have begun what promises to be a thrilling adventure – the
exploration of the Sun's kingdom, the Solar System.
What Makes Up the Solar System?
Of all the things within its kingdom, the Sun itself is the most important.
It is a yellow star, 865,000 miles (1,392,000 kilometers) in diameter. The
Sun weighs 500 times more than the rest of the Solar System put together.
Everything else orbits, or moves around the Sun, trapped by its strong pull
After the Sun, the next most important objects in the Solar System are the
planets. There are nine of these, circling the Sun at different distances.
Mercury, the closest planet, is just 36 million miles (58 million kilometers)
away. Pluto, the farthest, is 3.6 billion miles (5.9 billion kilometers)
away, 100 times as far as Mercury. We live on the third planet out from
the Sun, at a distance of 93 million miles (150 million kilometers).
If we could somehow shrink the Solar System down so that the Sun were the
size of a basketball, then Mercury would be the size of a pinhead 11 yards
away from it. Earth would be the size of this O, 28 yards away. Jupiter,
the largest planet, would be the size of a ping-pong ball almost 150 yards
away. Pluto, the smallest and most distant planet, would be the size of
the period at the end of this sentence nearly 2 miles away.
Jupiter and one of its moons
By now you may think the Solar System is a very big place. It's true that
even our fastest spacecraft take quite a few years to reach the outer planets.
But the Sun's kingdom is a tiny speck in space. Even the nearest star to
the Sun, on the same scale as our model, would be 4,300 miles (6,919 kilometers)
Orbiting most of the planets are smaller objects called satellites or moons.
Earth has just one satellite, the Moon. Jupiter and Saturn, on the other
hand, have many satellites – some large, some small.
Along with the Sun and the planets and their moons, countless other objects
orbit the Sun in different ways. There are asteroids – mountains of
rock, most of which are found in a belt around the Sun between Mars and
Jupiter. There are meteors – smaller pieces of rock and dust that
fly everywhere through the Sun's kingdom, often in swarms. And there are
comets – chunks of rock and ice that orbit the Sun in very long, oval
How Can We Group the Planets?
The Solar System is filled with interesting objects. One planet spins on
its side. Another planet has a mysterious red spot big enough to swallow
the earth. The world closest to the Earth has a surface hotter than any
oven and an atmosphere containing burning acid.
Even with all these differences, some planets have important things in common.
The four planets closest to the Sun – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars
– are all "rocky" worlds. In other words, they have surfaces
and insides made mainly of rock. They are also the warmest planets because
they receive the most heat from the Sun.
Along with Pluto – an odd planet at the outpost of the Solar System
– these two groups of planets make up the planetary system of the
Sun. Each planet has something special that sets it apart from the others.