planets

Planets are bodies orbiting a star that are not stars themselves, and that are not too small. How small a body can be and still deserve to be called a planet is somewhat arbitrary. Small objects without atmospheres have been called minor planets, or more commonly, asteroids. Pluto has a diameter of 2,300 kilometers; Ceres, which used to be called the largest of the asteroids, has a diameter of 940 kilometers.

Gaspra

Courtesy NASA

The asteroid Gaspra. Its greatest dimension is only 19 km, so its gravity is too weak to pull it into a spherical shape.

Because of their size, all planets are roughly spherical. Even if it is made of a relatively strong material like Earth’s silicate rocks, any body more than 400 kilometers in diameter will be pulled into a roughly spherical shape by its own gravity.

Planets cannot be larger than about 1.33 × 1029 kilograms, about 70 times the size of Jupiter. The force of gravity on a body larger than that is so strong that it compresses the body’s interior so much that the temperature rises to the point at which nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms begins, and the body ignites to become a star.

Is Pluto a planet?

Not any more. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union General Assembly decided (Resolutions 5A and 6A), that besides orbiting the sun and being big enough for its gravity to make it round, a planet had to have swept all the miscellaneous debris out of its orbit.1 By this definition, Pluto does not qualify as a planet, and it became a “dwarf planet”, along with Ceres and Eris (née Xena). 

In 2008, the IAU Executive Committee decided that an object orbiting the sun beyond the orbit of Neptune, with enough gravity to make it round but which had not cleared its orbit of debris, would be called a “plutoid”.2 Pluto and Eris thus became plutoids. In 2008 Makemake (née Easterbunny) was added to the list of plutoids. 

Ceres, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, was left in an unnamed class by itself. Astronomers think more objects like Pluto and Eris will be discovered, but nothing else like Ceres. 

1. The IAU press release describing the introduction of the term “dwarf planet”: www.iau.org/public_press/news/release/iau0603/

2. The IAU press release describing the introduction of the term “plutoid”: www.iau.org/public_press/news/release/iau0804/

Relative diameters

drawing showing relative diameters of planets


Diameters, masses and satellites

Planet Average diameter
at the equator, km
Mass,
kilograms
Satellites
Mercury
Mercury
4 878 3.3022 × 1023 none
Venus
Venus
12 104 4.8690 × 1024 none
Earth
Earth
12 756 5.9742 × 1024 the Moon
Mars
Mars
6 787 6.4191 × 1023 Deimos, Phobos
Jupiter
Jupiter (and Ganymede)
143 800 1.8988 × 1027 63 satellites. The four largest, seen by Galileo in 1610, are called the Galilean satellites. They are Callisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io. For a complete list and plot of their orbits, visit Scott Sheppard's page at

www.dtm.ciw.edu/sheppard/satellites/jupsatdata.html and

http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Display=Moons&Object=Jupiter 

For Galileo's role:

http://galileo.rice.edu/sci/observations/jupiter_satellites.html 

If you have a telescope or binoculars and want to see the Galilean satellites for yourself, these web sites will draw a diagram to help you look for them:

http://pds-rings.seti.org/tools/viewer2_jup.html or

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/javascript/3307071.html# 

Saturn and 2 moons
Saturn (and Tethys and Dione)
120 660 5.6850 × 1026 60 satellites. The biggest are Rhea and Titan. Visit

www.dtm.ciw.edu/sheppard/satellites/satsatdata.html 

Uranus
Uranus
52 290 8.6625 × 1025 27 satellites, the biggest being Ariel, Miranda, Oberon, Titania and Umbriel. Visit

www.dtm.ciw.edu/sheppard/satellites/urasatdata.html 

Neptune
Neptune
49 500 1.0278 × 1026 13 satellites, the biggest being Triton. Visit

www.dtm.ciw.edu/sheppard/satellites/nepsatdata.html

Pluto
Pluto

Eliot Young (SwRI) et al, NASA

2302 1.5 × 1022 3 satellites, the biggest being Charon. Since 2008 a plutoid, not a planet.

Surface gravity and orbit relative to Earth

Planet Surface
gravity
Length
of day
(note 4)
Length
of year
(note 5)
Distance
to sun
(note 6)
Mercury 0.38 58.65 0.24 0.38
Venus 0.91 243.01* 0.61 0.72
Earth 1 1.00 1.00 1.00
Mars 0.38 1.03 1.88 1.52
Jupiter 2.53 0.41 11.86 5.20
Saturn 1.07 0.44 29.46 9.53
Uranus 0.92 0.65* 84.07 19.19
Neptune 1.19 0.77 64.82 30.06
Pluto 0.09 6.39* 248.6 35.53

Notes

4. The length of the planet's day (the period of rotation, in relation to distant stars) in Earth days. Planets that spin in the opposite direction from Earth's spin are marked with an asterisk. (back)

5. The length of a year (one trip around the sun, in relation to distant stars) in Earth years. (back)

6. The distance to the sun at the point in its orbit at which the planet is farthest from the sun, where Earth is 1. (back)

Resources

F. W. Taylor.
The Cambridge Photographic Guide to the Planets.
Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2002.

 

How the sun's planets got their names: http://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/append7.html 

 

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