Welcome to your solar system
We are going to explore each of the planets that form part of our solar system to discover the differences and similarities with our own home planet, Earth.
Mercury is the smallest of the planets and the closest to the Sun. It takes 88 days to travel around the Sun, however due to the slow rotation on its own axis one day is almost 2 Mercury years long.
Mercury has almost no atmosphere so the view would be quite similar as standing on Earth’s moon.
On the surface of Mercury the Sun only looks 3 times bigger than the view on Earth. It's a good illustration of how big our Solar System is. Mercury is 36 million miles (57 million kilometres) away from the Sun.
As Mercury has no atmosphere to protect it from asteroids the surface is heavily cratered.
Mercury’s temperature varies widely depending on which side of the planet is facing the Sun. During the day the surface can reach 788℉ (420℃) but the night side temperature averages at -280℉ (-173℃).
The probe Venera, developed by the Soviet Union was the first human made object to land on another planet. In 1967 Venera 4 landed on the surface of Venus and gave humans a look at what it was like on our closest neighbour.
Venus atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide and is the densest atmosphere of the four terrestrial planets. The pressure on the surface is extremely high, the equivalent of being under 3,000 feet of water (900 metres).
Venus is the hottest planet in the Solar System due to its dense atmosphere with an average temperature of 863℉ (462℃).
The sky of Venus is filled with clouds made up of sulphuric acid. These clouds are so thick that the sky cannot be seen through them on the surface.
The surface of Venus is quite smooth due to ancient volcanic activity. Venus has a large amount of volcanoes with 167 massive volcanoes, each one at least 62 miles (100 kilometres) across. All seems to now be dormant or extinct.
Thanks to the work of the Mars Rovers we have a very good idea of what the surface is like on Mars. Fun fact - every year the Mars Curiosity Rover sings ‘Happy birthday’ to itself to celebrate the anniversary of its landing.
Mars has quite a thin atmosphere and due to the high amount of dust in the atmosphere the sky appears orangey red. Interestingly when the sun sets on Mars the sky turns blue as the red dust filters out the red light wavelengths.
The temperature on Mars varies widely. Mars is very similar to Earth in that it experiences seasons so daytime temperatures range from -131℉ (-55℃) in winter to 95℉ (35℃) in summer. Temperature also varies between the equator and the poles.
The surface of Mars is rocky, dry and red in color. There are various landmarks including craters and volcanoes. Mars has a large, extinct volcano called Olympus Mons which is around three times the height of Mount Everest.
There is water on Mars located in the polar ice cap, however liquid water hasn’t been found. If the ice cap was to melt Mars would be completely covered in water to a depth of 115 feet (35 metres).
Between Mars and Jupiter there is a group of asteroids on their own orbit around the Sun. The largest of the asteroids is Ceres at 559 miles (900 kilometers) long and most of the asteroids are simply dust specks.
If all the asteroids were squished together they would only be half the size of our Moon. Spacecrafts have passed through the belt with no incidences thanks to the great distance between larger asteroids.
This is the view from Ceres, the largest of the asteroids in the asteroid belt. It is classified as a dwarf planet (like Pluto).
Even though Ceres is located in the asteroid belt it is unlikely it would encounter another asteroid. In order to even spot another asteroid while standing on the surface of Ceres would require a strong telescope.
Within some of the craters on Ceres appear bright ‘spots’. Scientists are still not clear about what the bright spots are made out of but the leading theory is that is a type of highly reflective salt.
Ceres is made up of rock and ice and some scientists think that under the icy mantle lies an ocean. Plumes of water vapour has also been observed.
We are standing on the surface of Metis, Jupiter’s innermost moon (one of 67 known moons). Jupiter is a gas planet so there are no solid surfaces for anything to land on. However, Jupiter is not a light, airy gas bubble.
Due to its massive size much of the gas is liquefied and scientists believe that the core of Jupiter may be made out of extremely dense metal.
The pressure on Jupiter is enormous. If something was to travel just under the clouds pressure would exceed 2,000 times what is experienced in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of our ocean.
As no human made object has attempted to go into Jupiter scientists can only theorise what the ‘sky’ would look like from within the gas giant. It is thought the sky would appear a dull blue with red and brown patches.
The sky from Metis looks like a darker version of our night sky thanks to the lack of atmosphere. Being the closest moon to Jupiter it would have a spectacular view of the largest planet in our Solar System.
LIFE Photo Collection
Jupiter’s stripes are made up of ammonia and water. Its famous Red Spot is a giant storm that has raged for at least 350 years, so large that three Earth sized planets could fit inside the storm.
Saturn is another gas giant and technically has no surface. However these rings need to be seen up close so we are currently floating very high up in Saturn’s atmosphere looking out.
Saturn is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium. The visible streaks seen on Saturn are clouds of ammonia which stretch down over 105 miles (170 kilometres).
An object floating near the equator of Saturn would have trouble seeing the rings at all. Although they stretch out over 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometres) the rings are very thin. Made up of rock and ice, scientists are still unsure about how the rings formed in the first place.
Saturn experiences the second highest winds in the Solar System with the Voyager spacecraft recording speeds of 1118 miles (1800 kilometres) an hour.
Saturn’s temperature varies; the toppmost atmosphere is a chilly - 482℉ (-250℃) while the lowest layer sits at 32℉ (-0℃). The core of Saturn is thought to be extremely hot, hotter even than the Sun.
Although Uranus is also made out of gas it is often referred to as an ice giant due to the high amount of frozen gases. It is also the only planet that has an equator that is nearly at a right angle to its orbit.
Finishing off its unique status, Uranus is the only planet in the Solar System named for a Greek god instead of a Roman god.
The atmosphere of Uranus is predominately made out of helium and hydrogen. The small amount of methane present gives Uranus its distinctive blue colour.
Uranus has 15 thin rings which were only discovered in 1977. They are very dark and most of the rings are only a few miles wide. The rings are mainly made out of ice and radioactive material.
Uranus doesn’t have a surface to land on, but liquid gases roil around and gradually turn to ice. The pressure would be enormous and destroy any human made object travelling through.
Uranus is extremely cold, one of the coldest places in the Solar System. Temperatures are a minimum -435℉ (-224℃)
Neptune is the farthest known planet in our Solar System (sorry Pluto, you are still classified as a dwarf planet). Like its neighbour Uranus it is an ice giant and takes 164 years to orbit around the Sun.
It is the only planet in the Solar System invisible to the naked eye. Due to its distance from the Earth it wasn’t until the twentieth century and the advent of powerful telescopes that scientists were able to study Neptune in detail.
Neptune’s striking coloration is due to the amount of methane in its atmosphere. Like the other gas planets Neptune’s atmosphere is primarily made of hydrogen and helium. Its atmosphere is very active with large storms often observed, similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.
Neptune’s sky would have Triton, its moon, as a feature. Triton is almost the same size as our Moon. Interestingly, Triton is the only moon in the Solar System that orbits in the opposite direction to the planet.
Neptune has 14 moons, all of which could be seen from the ‘surface’ at some stage.
Like Uranus, Neptune has no real surface. The gases liquefy and freeze the further into the planet. Its core is probably nickel and ice.
Scientists have recorded the strongest winds in the Solar System on Neptune. In 2012 a storm produced winds travelling at 1300 miles per hour (2100 kilometres).