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The Solar System

The Sun, nine planets, and their satellites, make up the Solar System, but only five of these bodies, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon, make ideal telescope targets. The Inner Planets, Mercury and Venus, are so classified because they are inside the orbit of the earth. The remaining planets are classified as Outer Planets because of their position outside the earth's orbit.

Planetary observing is one of the most accessible of observing pursuits for amateur astronomers, now that most of us live in light polluted urban centers. Because of their brightness, planets can be seen on any clear night from inside the limits of any large city, even when the bright stars are not visible.

Planetary observing can be done either visually or with optical equipment, such as binoculars or a telescope. With the unaided eye, it is easily possible for anyone to note the movements of the five brighter planets across the sky from day to day and from month to month. With binoculars, it is possible to see the satellites of Jupiter and locate the positions of Uranus and Neptune. Using a telescope, the interested observer can note the changing positions of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, and make regular observations of changing features on the surface of any of the bright planets.

Seeing conditions rather than telescope aperture are more important in planetary observing than in deep sky work, due to the need to use higher powers at the eyepiece. If there is a high degree of atmospheric turbulence, images in the field of view will become distorted and blurry, making fine detail impossible to detect. For this reason, it is best to try to avoid looking over the tops of high buildings or the roof of your house, which may be radiating heat upward.

Use this page as a reference to basic data on the planets and their satellites as you persue your observations.

Earn The Astronomical League's Award 
for Observing the Solar System

Planetary Club Rules and Regulations

The Origin of the Solar System

A. The Solar Nebula Theory: Our solar system was probably formed out of a spinning ball of gas. When the sun became luminous enough, the remaining dust and gas were blown away into space, leaving the planets orbiting the sun This happened about 4.5 billion years ago.

B. The planets move around the sun in orbits that lie nearly in a common plane, and they all revolve about the sun in the same direction (counter-clockwise as seen from the North Pole).

C. By the process of condensation, the heavier elements condensed toward the hotter, inner parts of the nebula, and the lighter, more volatile elements condensed further out. Therefore two distinct types of planets exist. The Terrestrial (Earth-like) planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, are small, dense and rocky. The Jovian (Jupiter-like) outer planets, Jupiter, Saturn,. Uranus, and Neptune, are enormous gas giants, and are larger, less dense, and much colder.

D. As the solar nebula cooled, small aggregates of material called planetesimals began to accrete mass. The inner planetesimals accrued heavier material through condensation and the fact that the lighter material had been swept away by the solar wind. The planetesimals further out accrued lighter material. As the planetesimals grew larger, they began to act as vacuum cleaners, ridding the solar system of debris and eventually becoming the current planets.

E. The solar system is left with three types of debris from the solar nebula: asteroids, comets, and meteoroids.

1. Asteroids are small rocky worlds. Most asteroids orbit the sun in a region between Mars and Jupiter called the Asteroid Belt. This belt is thought to be the remains of a planet that failed to form at a distance of 2.8 AU from the sun. There are about 200 asteroids larger than 60 miles in diameter, about 200 larger than 6 miles, and 500,000 larger than 0.6 miles.

2. Comets are large dirty snowballs. They consist of three parts. The nucleus is a ball of frozen water and carbon dioxide, and is usually a few dozen Km in diameter. The coma is the bright area surrounding the nucleus, and may be as large as Neptune. The tail is a luminous trail of debris left behind as the comet melts. As a comet falls into the sun from the Oort Cloud or the Kuiper Belt, it steadily becomes warmer. At about the same distance from the sun as Jupiter (about 5 AU), it begins to melt. The debris it leaves behind behaves similarly to exhaust from a car on a windy day. If there is no wind, the exhaust trails out behind the car. But if it is very windy, the exhaust will go in the direction of the wind, no matter how fast the car is going. A comet travels at about 30 Km/s. The Solar wind, which is continuously emitted from the sun, gusts from 300 to 800 Km/s. The tail of the comet is therefore always blown away from the sun by the solar wind, which also causes it to be luminous

3. A meteorite is a space object (a piece of debris. a pebble, or a grain of sand) that survives its plunge through the atmosphere to hit the Earth. Before it hits the Earth, it is called a meteoroid. A meteor is the streak of light across the night sky that one sees as the object burns up in the atmosphere. Meteor showers are events that feature many meteors impinging on the Earth at one time. The usual cause for these showers are events that feature many meteors impinging on the Earth at one time. The usual cause for these showers are the trails of debris left by comets. The showers tend to occur at the same time every year, and have their greatest concentration at the same point in the sky. They are therefore often designated by a name referring to the constellation in which they appear to emanate. For instance, the meteor shower Taurids has its greatest concentration of meteors in the constellation Taurus between November 1-7, and is caused by the Comet Encke.

Planetary Orbital Data

Orbital Data

 

Distance from Sun

Millions of Miles

Average

Average

Distance from Earth

Distance from Earth

Period of Revolution

Period of Revolution

Orbital Speed

Planet

Diameter in Miles

Maximum

Minimum

AU

Millions of KM

Maximum

Minimum

Sidereal

Synodic

Miles/Second

Mercury

2,900

43.3

28.6

0.387

57.9

136

50

88 days

116 days

29.7

Venus

7,600

67.6

66.7

0.723

108.2

161

25

225 days

584 days

21.7

Earth

7,913

94.4

91.3

1.0

149.6

-

-

365 days

-

18.5

Mars

4,200

154.7

128.3

1.524

227.9

248

35

1.9 years

780 days

15

Jupiter

86,800

506.7

459.9

5.203

778.3

600

367

11.9 years

399 days

8.1

Saturn

71,500

936

837

9.555

1429.4

1028

744

29.5 years

378 days

6.0

Saturn's Rings

170,000

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

Uranus

29,400

1867

1699

19.218

2875

1960

1606

84 years

370 days

4.2

Neptune

28,000

2817

2770

30.11

4504.4

2910

2677

165 years

367 days

3.4

Pluto

3,600

4600

2760

39.545

5915.8

4700

2670

248 years

367 days

3.0

SIDERIAL Period: The time for a planet to make one revolution around the sun. It is the planet's "year" in terms of earth days.

SYNODIC Period: The time between successive similar aspects of a planet in the sky. This is equal to one "lap" of the earth as both planets revolve around the sun.

Visual Aspects of Solar System Bodies

Visual Data

Magnitude

Magnitude

Angular Diameter Seconds of Arc

Angular Diameter Seconds of Arc

Angular Diameter Seconds of Arc

Suitable Telescope Power

Planet

Maximum

Mean

Maximum

Average

Minimum

 

Mercury

-1.9

-1.7

12.9

6.7

4.7

40 - 120
Venus

-4.4

-4

64

16

9.9

20 - 120
Earth

-

-

-

-

-

-

Mars

-2.8

-1.8

25.1

6.1

3.5

100 - 300
Jupiter

.2.5

-2.2

49.8

37.9

30.5

20 - 300
Saturn

-0.4

0

20.5

17.3

14.7

40 - 300
Saturn's Rings

-

-

49.2

41.5

35.2

40 - 300
Uranus

5.7

5.7

4.2

3.8

3.4

Any
Neptune

7.6

7.6

2.4

2.3

2.2

Any
Pluto

14

14

0.28

0.2

0.16

10-inch scope or larger

Physical Elements of Solar System Bodies

Physical Data

Equatorial Diameter

 

Mass

 

Gravity

Rotation Period

Inclination

 

Planet

In Kilometers

Oblateness

Earth=1

Density

Earth=1

Earth Days

to Orbit

Albido

Sun

1,392,000

0

332,946.00

1.41

27.9

25 to 35

-

-

Mercury

4,879

0

0.055274

5.43

0.38

58.646

0

0.11

Venus

12,104

0

0.815005

5.24

0.9

243.019

177.4

0.65

Earth

12,756

1/298

1

5.52

1

0.9973

23.4

0.37

Moon

3,475

0

0.0123

3.34

0.17

27.3217

6.7

0.12

Mars

6,794

1/154

0.107447

3.04

0.38

1.026

25.2

0.15

Jupiter

142,980

1/15.4

317.833

1.33

2.53

0.4101

3.1

0.52

Saturn

1,120,540

1/10.2

95.159

0.7

1.06

0.444

25.3

0.47

Uranus

51,120

1/43.6

14.5

1.3

0.9

0.7183

97.9

0.51

Neptune

49,530

1/58.5

17.204

1.76

1.14

0.6712

28.3

0.041

Pluto

2,300

0

0.0025

1.1

0.08

6.3872

123

0.3

Bright Satellites of the Solar System

Planet

Satellite

Diameter in miles

Period

Angular Diameter

Magnitude

Earth Moon

2160

27 days 8 hours

31'

-12

Planet Satellite

Diameter in miles

Period

Angular Separation
from Planet

Magnitude

Jupiter Io

2100

1 day 18 hours

2.3

5.5

 

Europa

1850

3 days 13 hours

3.7

6.1

 

Ganymede

3200

7 days 4 hours

5.9

5.1

 

Callisto

3100

16 days 18 hours

10.3

6.2

Saturn Tethys

800

1 day 21 hours

0.7

10.6

 

Dione

700

2 days 18 hours

1

10.7

 

Rhea

1150

4 days 12 hours

1.3

10

 

Titan

3000

16 days

3.1

8.3

 

Iapetus

1000

80 days

9

10.8

 


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