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
A day-old Moon and a waning Venus crescent appeared very close to each other in the sunset sky on January 2, 2014 (left). Cutting out and comparing the two crescents to each other shows their similar illumination but dissimilar sizes (right). Venus, roughly four times the diameter of the Moon, was near inferior conjunction so about 50 million kilometers away (more than 100 times farther away than the Moon).
Some of the low, sandy ripples observed by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in Meridiani Planum (left) bear a striking resemblance to low, sandy ripples seen in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (right). The scales of these two images are about the same, with the average distance between ripples being 1 to 2 meters.
In 2016, The Planetary Society’s LightSail program will take the technology a step further.