The 8 Planets – Part 8: Neptune




The last planet Neptune, is quite a spectacle, essentially a blue marble. As with Uranus, methane (trace amount) gives Neptune its blue coloration. Named after the Roman god of the seas Neptune was noted by Galileo in 1612, but discovered as a planet by Urbain Le Vernier, John Couch Adams and Johann Galle on September 23, 1846. Neptune has a very elliptical orbit, and was further than Pluto between 1979 and 1999. Uranus and Neptune are usually paired together as “ice giants.” Uranus is light blue, named after the god of the sky, while Neptune is dark blue, named after the god of the seas. Unlike Uranus’s bland surfaces, Neptune’s ephemeral storms make up the planet’s active atmosphere. The Great Dark Spot is comparable to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but the Great Dark Spot comes and goes. With the strongest gales in the solar system, winds (rotates opposite of the planet’s rotation direction) on Neptune have speeds up to 2,100 kph— almost reaching supersonic flow! Winds called the scooter that speed across Neptune reach up to 3000 kph! Although Neptune’s atmosphere is one of the coldest places of the solar system, Neptune has a faint, fragmented ring system called arcs discovered during the 1960s and confirmed during the 1989. The rings give off a faint red hue, comprising mainly of ice and carbon-based materials. Like that of Uranus, Neptune’s magnetosphere is also relatively tilted (47º). The pressure on Neptune is so great that it rains diamonds there! On Neptune, that pole facing the Sun is 10ºC hotter than the other pole, so when the seasons change, frozen methane warm up and leak out into space.


Triton and Nereid

Triton and Nereid

Neptune has 13 known moons, the largest are Triton and Nereid. In mythology, Triton and Nereid are Neptune’s sons. Interestingly, Triton has a retrograde orbit (spins east to west), which suggests the Neptune gravitationally pulled Triton into its orbit. In fact, in 3.6 million years, Neptune will pull Triton past the Roche Limit (past this limit, all moons are doomed to crash into the planet), and the moon will crash into Neptune! Neptune’s second largest natural satellite, Nereid, an irregular moon, has one of the most eccentric (elliptical) orbits in the solar system.

MISSIONS: Voyager 2


  • Order in Solar System: #8
  • Number of Moons: 13
  • Orbital Period: 164.8 years
  • Rotational Period: 16.11 hours
  • Mass: 1.0243 x 10^26 kg ( 17.147 Earths)
  • Volume: 6.254 x 10 ^13 km³ (57.74 Earths)
  • Radius: 24,764 km (3.883 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 7.6183 x 10^9 km² (14.98 Earths)
  • Density: 1.638 g/cm³
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.0112
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 72 K
  • Escape Velocity: 23.5 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: 8.02 to 7.78

The 8 Planets – Part 7: Uranus




Unlike any other planet in the solar, Uranus (Ur-uh-nus)’s name derives from Greek mythology, namely the Greek god of the sky. Uranus preceded Jupiter and Saturn in mythology as he and Gaia created the sky and earth. Named planets long after the ancient planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), Uranus (Sir William Herschel, 1781) and Neptune are sometimes in a separate category called the “ice giants.” The two planets’ icy blue coloration comes from a primary composition of more heavier elements, “ices” such as water, ammonia, and methane. Like Venus, Uranus spins in a retrograde motion with a tilt of 97.77°! So, while other planets spin like spinning tops, Uranus spins like a rolling ball. A large object may have knocked Uranus on its side! Uranus’ rings spin parallel to its axis of rotation. Because of its unusual axial tilt, Uranus has unusually long seasons— each pole gets 42 years of sunlight followed by 42 years of darkness. Near the time of equinoxes, however, Uranus’ day-night cycle reaches that of those on other planets. Even Uranus’ magnetic field, with a tilt of 59º, is abnormal and does not line up to Uranus’ axis, with the north side strong and the south side comparatively weak. The second least dense planet, Uranus comprises of a rocky core, icy mantle, and an outer hydrogen and helium envelope. Because Uranus’ atmosphere is mainly methane, the planet is very smelly, like cow pastures. Uranus’ faint rings were mainly formed from scattered moons. Unlike the other gas giants, Uranus radiates hardly any heat; the planet’s core may have been depleted in an high-mass impact. Though Uranus is bland, dark spots like those usually found on Neptune, have recently been found on Uranus.


Uranus' moons

Uranus’ moons

Uranus has 27 known moons named after characters from Shakespeare’s and Alexander Pope’s masterpieces. Uranus’ five main moons are Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon. These moons are comparatively and dull (brightness), comprising of 50% rock and 50% ice. Of the satellites, Ariel is the youngest with few impact craters and Umbriel is the oldest. Miranda has canyons, layers, and many variations in surface features caused by tidal heating (push and pull of the moon’s interior caused by gravitational pull) within the moon.

MISSIONS: Voyager 2


  • Order in Solar System: #7
  • Number of Moons: 27
  • Orbital Period: 84 years
  • Rotational Period: 17 hours
  • Mass: 8.6810 x 10^25 kg (14.536 Earths)
  • Volume: 6.833 x 10 ^13 km³ (63.086 Earths)
  • Radius: 25,559 km (4.007 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 8.1556 x 10^9 km² (15.91 Earths)
  • Density: 1.27 g/cm³
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.044405586
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 76 K
  • Escape Velocity: 21.3 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: 5.9 to 5.32

The 8 Planets – Part 6: Saturn



Poor Saturn is neither the largest nor the most massive. But this planet may be most eccentric— memorable in its appearance and properties. Named after the Titan of Time, Saturn was the Roman king of the Titans and father of Jupiter. Saturn is the least dense planet, even less dense than water! How does this happen? Saturn is only 1/8 the density of Earth, but with its large volume, is over 95 times more massive than Earth. Comprising mainly of the lightest element, hydrogen, Saturn is very “light” for its size. Saturn’s mass is 95 times that of Earth, but its volume is 764 times that of Earth. Since density = mass/ volume, Saturn’s large volume and relatively small mass equates to a very small density (0.687). So, if you build an enormous bathtub and fill it with H2O, Saturn would bobble around on the surface like a rubber duckie! In contrast to Jupiter’s myriad of colorful bands and zones, Saturn’s upper atmosphere of mainly ammonia crystals gives the planet a bland yellow-brown coloration. Once every 30 years, Saturn exhibits ephemeral storms on its banded surface, one known as the Great White Spot. At its North Pole, Saturn has a weird hexagon-shaped storm that may be a novel aurora or a wave pattern. Underneath that banal surface, winds reach up to 1,100 mph, faster than those on Jupiter! Unlike its ever-changing gaseous layers, Saturn’s core may be solid iron, nickel, and rock. Reaching up to 11,700 °C at the core, Saturn radiates 2.5 times more energy than received from the Sun by the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism of slow gravitational compression and the “raining out” of droplets of helium in its interior. Accumulating into a helium shell surrounding the core, the helium droplets release heat by friction passing though low density hydrogen. Layers of metallic hydrogen (deep), liquid hydrogen and liquid helium (intermediate), and hydrogen gas (outer) blanket the core. Electrical currents within the metallic hydrogen caused Saturn’s weak magnetic field to form. Effective at deflecting solar wind particles, Saturn’s magnetosphere also produces aurorae. Saturn has magnificent, highly reflective ice rings, perfectly visible with a telescope. All gas giants have rings, but with nine main continuous rings, three discontinuous arcs if ice particles, rock debris, and dust, Saturn and its rings are truly inseparable. In 1655, Christiaan Huygens suggested Saturn was surrounded by a ring. Since then, astronomers have named the main rings from A to G. The Cassini Division is a large gap between rings A and B, and the Roche Division is a gap between rings A and F. Some moons, like Pan and Prometheus, are shepherd moons that prevent Saturn’s rings from expanding.


Saturn has the second most number of moons with 62. Inhabit Saturn’s rings, Saturn’s moons range from the hundreds of “moonlets” to its largest natural satellite Titan. Of its 62 known moons, Saturn has 53 with actual names, 13 with diameters larger than 50 km, 7 with hydrostatic equilibrium due to planetary mass, dense rings, and complex orbits of their own, 24 regular satellites (prograde orbits not greatly inclined) named after Titans and Titanesses, and 38 irregular satellites with farther orbits and high inclination orbits and named after Inuit, Norse, and Gallic mythological characters. There can be no objective boundary for the classification of Saturn’s moons, for Saturn’s rings contain objects from the microscopic to the largest object Titan.



The most prominent is Titan. Larger than Mercury, Titan is the only moon to retain a substantial atmosphere. Titan produces white convective clouds in cold nitrogen and methane atmosphere. Its surface is relatively young with few impact craters, dark regions of frozen hydrocarbons, flow channels, volcanoes, and sand of frozen water or hydrocarbons. The only moon with large bodies of methane/ ethane lakes, Titan, like Ganymede and Europa (Jupiter’s moons) may have a subsurface ocean of water and ammonia. The largest lake on Titan, Kraken Mare, is larger than the Caspian Sea.


Saturn’s moons

MIMAS: smallest and least massive of inner round moons, large impact crater called Herschel, no known geologic activity

ENCELADUS: one of the smallest of Saturn’s spherical moons, smallest known body geologically active, diverse surface that includes ancient heavily cratered terrain and younger smoother areas, south pole unusually warm and emits jets of water vapor and dust that replenishes material in Saturn’s E Ring and is the main source of ions in Saturn’s magnetosphere, may have liquid water under south pole, pure ice and high reflective surface

TETHYS: third largest inner moon, large impact crater called Odysseus, cast canyon system called Ithaca Chasma, composed of mainly water ice with little rock

DIONE: second largest inner moon, heavily cratered old terrain, extensive system of troughs and lineaments named “wispy terrain” indicates tectonic activity

RHEA: second largest moon, only moon that has rings, two large impact basins called Tirawa and Inktomi (“The Splat”), a young crater which has butterfly-shaped bright rays, geologically dead

HYPERION: closest moon to Titan (when Titan makes four revolutions, Hyperion makes three), very irregular shape, sponge-like tan-colored icy surface, numerous impact craters, no well-defined poles or equator (chaotic rotation) which makes its rotational behavior unpredictable

IAPETUS: third largest moon, most distant large moon, greatest orbital inclination (orbits at a greater altitude, at 14.72°), one hemisphere is pitch-black (Iapetus’s leading hemisphere collides with dust and ice particles as it rotates, darkening its surface) and the other is bright as snow

MISSIONS: Cassini-Huygens, Pioneer 11, Voyager


  • Order in Solar System: #6
  • Number of Moons: 62
  • Orbital Period: 29.5 years
  • Rotational Period: 10.5 hours
  • Mass: 5.6846 x 10^26 kg (95.152 Earths)
  • Volume: 8.2713 x 10 ^14 km³ (763.59 Earths)
  • Radius: 60,268 km (9.4492 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 4.27 x 10^10 km² (83.703 Earths)
  • Density: 0.687 g/cm³ (less than water!)
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.056
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 134 K
  • Escape Velocity: 35.5 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: +1.47 to -0.24

The “Zombie” Planet Rises

The Zombie Planet

World War Z? Certainly looks like it. A planet though to be buried has come back alive… undead, some might say. Coincidentally, the analysis of Hubble Space Telescope’s observations came  right before Halloween. The massive alien zombie planet, called the Fomalhaut b (the name even sounds creepy, if you ask me), orbits the star Fomalhaut, which is 25 light years from the constellation Piscis Austrinus. These recent discoveries, however, contradict conclusions in November 2008 that indicated Fomalhaut b as a giant dust cloud. Fomalhaut b, three times smaller than Jupiter, was the first planet directly imaged in visible light. The planet seems to be inside a vast debris ring. Because the scientists did not discover any brightness variations in the 2004 and 2006 Hubble observations, they concluded that Fomalhaut b must be a massive planet. Watch the Halloween-themed video below on the Zombie Planet!

References “Massive ‘zombie’ alien planet rises from the dead.”, 28 2012. Web. 28 Oct 2012.

The 8 Planets – Part 5: Jupiter



The giant of planets and quite a monstrosity of swirling gases, Jupiter is the king of the planets. Through the asteroid belt, we arrive at Jupiter, fifth planet from the Sun. With bands of red and white falling and rising gases, Jupiter seems like a huge marble on a racetrack. Named for the Roman god of the sky, Jupiter is mighty and dominant in the solar system, with two and a half times the mass of all other planets in the solar system combined. Jupiter is known for its Great Red Spot, though all gaseous planets have storms. The Great Red Spot is an ongoing storm existing for millenia; about three Earths placed side-to-side can fit across the storm. The storm can attract and suck in weaker storms in its neighborhood. Like the other gaseous planets, Jupiter is mainly hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements. With 71% hydrogen and 24% helium, Jupiter has a composition like that of the primordial solar nebula. Because Jupiter is light for its size, it rotates very fast — its day is less than 10 hours! Though Saturn has noticeable ice rings, Jupiter has only faint rings mainly composed of non-reflective, rocky material. With the most mass, Jupiter has a strong magnetosphere. In fact, if Jupiter were seventy-five times larger, it would have enough pressure and heat inside its core to perform nuclear fusion, produce its own energy, and become a star! But the smallest red dwarfs, or the bare cores of stars, is only three times the mass of Jupiter. Jupiter produces heat in excess to the solar radiation it receives by the Kelvin- Helmholtz mechanism (no heat transfer, by contraction) . By this mechanism, Jupiter shrinks 2 cm per day; Jupiter was actually twice as its current diameter and much hotter at the time of formation. For its interior, scientists are not sure whether Jupiter has a icy or metallic core or even no core at all. Jupiter, does indeed, have a liquid metallic hydrogen layer about 78% of the radius. Droplets of helium and neon precipitate in this layer, so little to none is found in the atmosphere. The liquid metallic hydrogen layer is surrounded by a transparent, supercritical (between liquid and gas phases) hydrogen layer. Water clouds’ polarity in the atmosphere cause lightning 1000x stronger than on Earth and winds often reach 100 mph in zonal (zones and belts on Jupiter, falling and rising gases) jets. In addition, Jupiter has orange and brown clouds that change color when exposed to the Sun’s UV light. Unlike Earth, Jupiter has a low axial tilt, giving less solar radiation to the poles, but convection distributes heat to the poles, balancing the temperatures.


Jupiter has the most number of moons at 67. All four moons are named after several of many of Zeus’ lovers in Greek Mythology, which seems appropriate since Jupiter is Zeus in Roman form. First discovered in 1610 by Galileo Galilei, Jupiter’s four moons are Io, Europa, Callisto, Ganymede (or I Eat Green Carrots). Galileo’s discovery of the moons, initially called Cosmica Sidera (“Cosimo’s stars”) proved that there were other celestial objects orbiting other planets— that everything did not orbit around the Earth. With a telescope you can easily see the four Galilean moons orbiting the planet. You can usually see three or four of the moons; sometimes the moon is positioned behind Jupiter so it is not visible on some nights. Io, Europa, Ganymede, and some of the largest satellites in the solar system form the Laplace resonance; every time Io orbits Jupiter four times, Europa orbits two times, and Ganymede one time. The resonance invokes the moons’ gravitational effects to distort their orbits to be more elliptical. In contrast, Jupiter tidal force, which keeps the moons in orbit, circularizes the orbits. The push and pull heats the moon’s interiors by friction. The closer the moon, the hotter, more active, and denser the moon is; the further the moon, the colder, unchanging, and less dense the moon is.

Jupiter’s moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto


Io is the innermost of the Galilean moons and fourth largest moon in the solar system. Its surface ever-changing, Io has over 400 active volcanoes. Some of Io’s more than 100 mountains are taller than Mount Everest! Io has a thin atmosphere comprised of sulfur dioxide and silicate rock surrounding a molten iron or iron sulfide core.


Europa is the second Galilean moon and the smallest, slightly larger than Earth’s moon. In contrast to Io, Europa has one of the smoothest surfaces in the solar system, with a layer of ice and water over the mantle of the planet. Scientists hypothesize that water may exist on Europa and that the planet may house extraterrestrials. Heat energy from tidal flexing, or push and pull of Jupiter and its moons’ gravity, keeps the water liquid. Europa has prominent reddish brown markings that may be volcanic water splitting the surface. It also has an atmosphere of oxygen.


Ganymede is the largest natural satellite in the solar system and the third Galilean moon. In fact, Ganymede is larger than even Mercury! Ganymede is icy and the only planet to have a magnetosphere, possibly created by convection with its liquid iron core. Like Europa, Ganymede may also have water (salt), but 200 km below its surface between layers of ice. Its surface comprises of highly cratered dark regions and younger regions with grooves and ridges. Its thin atmosphere includes oxygen, O², and maybe O³ (ozone) and hydrogen.


Callisto is the last and least dense of the Galilean moons. Callisto has an ancient, heavily cratered and unaltered ice surface. It has a homogenous mix of rock and ice.

MISSIONS: Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Cassini, New Horizons, Galileo, Juno (2011), JUICE (2022)


  • Order in Solar System: #5
  • Number of Moons: 67
  • Orbital Period: 11.86 years
  • Rotational Period: 9.925 hours
  • Mass: 1.8986 x 10^27 kg (317.8 Earths)
  • Volume: 1.4313 x 10 ^15 km³ (1321.3 Earths)
  • Radius: 71,492 km (11.209 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 6.1419 x 10^10 km² (121.9 Earths)
  • Density: 1.326 g/cm³
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.048775
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 165 K
  • Escape Velocity: 59.5 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: -1.6 to -2.94

The 8 Planets – Part 4: Mars



A very belligerent planet. Mars. Named after the Roman god of war, Mars appears as a fiery battle-stained planet. Out of the seven planets (excluding Earth), Mars seems to be the most habitable planet. Although much smaller than Earth, Mars has an atmosphere (though thinner), ice caps (though mainly dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide), and evidence that water once flowed on its surface. Astronomers have yet to find life on Mars, but sci-fi authors have long contemplated the possibility of life on Mars in the present or future (e.g. The Martian Chronicles). Don’t let the name fool you. Mars, the god of war, leaves no one alive while Venus, the goddess of love, often has a soft heart. In the solar system, Venus is a deadly planet while Mars is relatively benign.

The fourth planet from the Sun and the last terrestrial planet, Mars, the “Red Planet,” is actually the second smallest planet and the most explored aside from Earth. Distinguishable by its red color from an abundance of iron oxide, Mars has a thin atmosphere blanketing a surface filled with impact craters, volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps. Mars is also home to Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system, and Valles Marineris, a large crack on Mars’ surface and one of the largest canyons. Dark patches on its surface suggest presence of large quantities of liquid water in the past. Though similar to Earth in surface features and climate, Mars is only about half the size of Earth, with 15% of Earth’s volume and 11% of mass. Because of its similar axial tilt, Mars has Earth-like seasons, though with a colder climate. Barren, Mars has the largest dust storms in the solar system. Mars is bigger than Mercury but less dense because of an iron sulfide core composed of lighter elements. The core is surrounded by a silicate mantle and the mantle by a thick crust. With no evidence of a global magnetic field, Mars, however, has some magnetized crust that has reversed polarity like Earth’s ocean floors. Mars’ geological history is split into three periods: Noachian period (4.5 – 3.5 billion years ago, oldest surfaces with impact craters and extensive flooding of water), Hesperian period (3.5 to 2.9 – 3.3 billion years ago, extensive lava plains), Amazonian period (2.9 – 3.3 billion years ago to present, few impact craters, Olympus Mons forms, lava flows). On Martian Soil, light silica-rich streaks appear on steep slopes, perhaps the dark underlying layers of soil exposed after dust avalanches. As Earth speeds Mars, Mars appears to move in a retrograde motion, or backwards with respect to the stars. Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos.


Phobos and Deimos

Mars’ two moons look more like asteroids than Earth’s moon. Named for Mars’ sons and attendants in battle, Phobos and Deimos mean “fear” and “panic,” respectively. Because of their low albedo, carbonaceous chondrite composition, and irregular shapes, scientists have proposed the capture theory. Stray asteroids from the Trojan belt may have been pulled into Mars orbit. Phobos is below synchronous position, so Mars’ tidal forces will eventually cause Phobos to crash into Mars’ surface, either forming an impact crater or a dust ring in 50 million years. On the contrary, Deimos is outside synchronous position, so the moon is slowly spiraling away from Mars. In about 50 million years, Mars may have no moons!

MISSIONS*: Mariner, Mars, Viking, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Spirit, Opportunity, Rosetta, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix, Dawn, Mars Science Laboratory

* Successful Missions


  • Order in Solar System: #4
  • Number of Moons: 2
  • Orbital Period: 687 days
  • Rotational Period: 24 hours, 39 minutes, 35 seconds
  • Mass: 6.4185 x 10^23 kg (0.107 Earths)
  • Volume: 1.6318 x 10^11 km³ (0.151 Earths)
  • Radius: 3,396 km (0.533 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 1.45 x 10^8 km² (0.284 Earths)
  • Density: 3.9335 g/cm
  • Surface Pressure: 0.636 kPa
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.093315
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 210 K
  • Escape Velocity: 5.027 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: +1.6 to -3.0