Compare the Planets
Comparing the physical characteristics of the worlds in our solar system (and beyond)
The worlds of our solar system come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Red-eyed Jupiter, ringed Saturn, and frigid Uranus and Neptune are giant gassy globes containing nearly all of the matter in the solar system. These Jovian planets, or gas giants, are huge worlds of air, clouds, and fluid that may have no solid surfaces no matter how deep you go. Everything else in the solar system is just rock, ice, and dust. The largest rockballs are known as the terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, with our Moon usually considered part of the club, and now Vesta is applying for membership. Earth is the biggest of all the rocky worlds.
But the planets are not the only worlds of the solar system. All but two of the planets are orbited by moons, each of them a world unto itself. The largest moons are bigger than the smallest planets, and 16 or 17 would qualify as dwarf planets if they orbited the Sun. There are more than 100 Kuiper belt dwarf planets, but only one among the asteroids, Ceres.
Six solid worlds -- Venus, Earth, Mars, Titan, Triton, and Pluto -- have atmospheres dense enough to produce weather. Eris likely does, when it is near its perihelion. We have witnessed active geology on four worlds -- Earth, Io, Enceladus, and Triton -- and we suspect it on Venus, Europa, and Titan. Comparing the same processes across many worlds helps us to understand how each planet's unique composition and history influence its present state, and will help us predict what to expect on Earth in the future.
Pretty Pictures with Many Worlds
This 131-frame animation documents a "mutual event" of Phobos and Deimos -- the two appeared to pass by each other as the Mars Express orbiter moved along its own path.
Mars Express captured the 6 images in this animation on its orbit 6128 (October 10, 2008) using the Super Resolution Channel of its High Resolution Stereo Camera (SRC). Mars Express was 10,258 kilometers from Phobos when the series of images was taken. Phobos is visible against the backdrop of Mars. Phobos is much darker than Mars; the dark appearance of Mars suggests Phobos is near Mars' terminator (day-night boundary).
On sol 393 at 9:43 p.m. local time (September 14, 2013), Curiosity watched Phobos and Deimos pass each other in the sky. Like our moon, Deimos orbits Mars more slowly than Mars rotates, so appears to move from east to west across the sky. But Phobos orbits Mars more than three times per Mars day, and thus rises in the west and sets in the east.
The excitement is building! LightSail is counting down to our test launch, set for May 20—and you’re invited.