Immense and dynamic, our Solar System is comprised of the Sun, eight major planets, scores of moons and untold numbers of dwarf planets, asteroids and other worldlets! (1.6.x)
The eight major planets all orbit the Sun, and most significant moons orbit their parent planets, in the same direction—counter-clockwise if viewed from above the Solar System! (1.6.x)
The Inner Planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth & Mars) orbit "relatively" near the Sun. But the orbits of the planets are huge compared to the planets themselves! (1.6.x)
Right Drag with your mouse after you run the links above that display the planetary orbits to get a good sense of their 3-dimensional aspects.
Are you unfamiliar with our 1.6.x and 1.4.1 links? For an explanation click here.
SOLAR SYSTEM ORRERY
Here's a link to an engaging animation page. Although it doesn't show the planets or their orbits to scale, it does correctly show the planets' changing angular positions around the Sun. Look at it closely; there is far more to this than you might suspect at first glance! Solar System Orrery. (Note: the Vernal Equinox direction is toward the left, i.e. toward 9 o'clock, in this animation.)
INFERIOR & SUPERIOR PLANETS
A planet's status as Inferior or Superior depends on the size of its orbit. The Inferior Planets, Mercury and Venus, are those with smaller orbits than Earth's; the Superior Planets are those with larger orbits. Likewise, Earth thus is often called the Reference Planet. The diagrams below illustrate the configurations (also called "alignments") that can occur with Inferior versus Superior Planets.
As you may gather from the above view, Inferior Planets exhibit phases to us like the Moon's. But there are basic differences. Although lunar phases appear to progress eastward across the Moon (relative to our sky, that is) the Inferior Planets' phases appear to progess westward or backward in comparison! So Inferior Planets "appear" New at Inferior Conjunction, in First Qtr at Max Western Elongation, Full at Superior Conjunction and in Last Qtr at Max Eastern Elongation. Consequently, the intervals between an Inferior Planet's main phases are much less uniform than those between our Moon's main phases. In addition, from our terrestrial perspective Inferior Planets never stray very far from the Sun and are invisible in its glare in parts of their orbits.
Moving beyond Earth's orbit the Superior Planets travel completely around our home planet. Therefore, unlike an Inferior Planet, any Superior Planet is visible at midnight in part of its orbit. Moreover one never exhibits less than a gibbous phase to us here on Earth. Plus, whenever a Superior Planet is visible to us, it is considerably more than "half-illuminated." At conjunction and opposition, it exhibits essentially a Full phase, and at quadrature it exhibits its minimum phase.
Here's the link to a superb page from UNL that further describes Elongations and Configurations.
The following will help you enjoy this page's 1.6.x and 1.4.1 links that run events directly in CELESTIA. If you're new to the program, these tips will also help you learn to use it.
You'll find more information about many of CELESTIA's controls on our Learning Center page.
Courtesy: Fourmilab Switzerland
OUR SOLAR SYSTEM
Diagram above: when Earth is in the top half of its orbit, the Sun is "south" of the Celestial Equator in our skies; when Earth is in the bottom half of its orbit, the Sun is "north" of the Celestial Equator in our skies. The Vernal (March) Equinox () is in the "3 o'clock" direction.
CURRENT SUN AND MAJOR PLANET
VIEWS AND CONDITIONS FROM EARTH
MAJOR COMPONENTS OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM
Dominant Body: the Sun (Sol, our nearest star)
Major Planets: 8
As we'll see below, our Solar System is composed of far more than just the Sun and the major planets. Here is a link to a presentation that begins to show that the Solar System is more complex than once suspected. All Known Bodies of the Solar System Larger than 200 Miles (320 Kilometers) in Diameter
OTHER COMPONENTS AND THE
EXTENT OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM
Our Solar System is composed of far more than just the Sun and the major planets! Likewise, it extends much further than the orbit of Neptune, the farthest major planet! Millions of smaller objects populate two major bands: the Asteroid and Kuiper Belts! And, far beyond these, billions (and perhaps trillions) of worldlets may exist in that great repository of comets, the Oort Cloud!
Dwarf Planets: 5 (hundreds suspected)
Names: (in order from the Sun)
Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris
Asteroids: 500,000+ (millions suspected)
Names of Largest:
Pallas, Vesta, Hygiea, Interamnia
Types: C, S, M
Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO's): 1,000+ (millions susp.)
Names of Some of the Largest:
Quaoar, Makemake, Haumea, Sedna, Orcus, Varuna
Comets: 4,000+ (billions suspected)
Names of Some Notables:
Halley, Hale-Bopp, Swift-Tuttle, Shoemaker-Levy 9
From NASA / JPL, here's a link to Keeping an Eye on Space Rocks, a nice intro to some of the smaller worlds, including comets, of our Solar System and how they may affect us here on Earth.
And here's a Windows to the Universe Interactive Comet Animation. Customize your own comet orbit!
More info on the "lesser members" of our Solar System can be found on our Smaller Worlds page.
WHAT IS A PLANET?
video credit: NASA
As a science progresses, new discoveries often require refinements in its systems of classification. Such was the case for astronomy and its classification of Pluto. This NASA video provides a good explanation of why this venerable wanderer at the edge of the "classical" Solar System was "demoted" to "dwarf planet" status.
OUR SOLAR SYSTEM'S HABITABLE ZONE
Because life as we know it requires liquid water to exist, our Solar System's "habitable zone" is the region around the Sun where an Earth-sized planet could be expected to maintain liquid water on its surface. The habitable zone has also been popularly called the "Goldilocks zone", i.e. where it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water, but rather is "just right".
WHERE IS OUR MOON?
To see where our Moon is in its own orbit in relation to the current orbital location of Earth, view our Moon's Orbital Position & Phase video.
DIRECT LINKS TO SOME OTHER VERY COOL SOLAR SYSTEM PAGES
From UNL here's an excellent Flash interactive showing the Effect of the Planets on the Sun's Motion Around the Barycenter!
Discover how a planet's size, appearance and makeup are dependent on its age, its distance to its parent star, and its parent star's type! Prepare to experience NASA's Extreme Planet Makeover!
From LASP at the University of Colorado at Boulder site, here is a page with lots of excellent info, graphics and Flash demos about Solar System Formation.
Learn how our understanding of our own Solar System, as well as other newly discovered solar systems now being studied, has grown throughout history and up to the year 2009 with the NASA JPL PlanetQuest Historic Timeline!
From NASA and JPL, here's a nice graphical synopsis of many firsts in humankind's exploration of the Solar System: Dare Mighty Things.
Trek through NASA's and JPL's own 3-D simulation of our Solar System. Exciting missions and adventures. (Requires JAVA.) Eyes on the Solar System!
You'll find information, activities, games, puzzles, images, "download-able" paper models, and even help with your homework at NASA's Solar System 101!
Here's a link to a nice NASA page: Chronology of Lunar and Planetary Exploration. Lots of good background info here!
Here's a Windows to the Universe page that lets you Create and Customize Your Own Planet's Orbit! Learn how a planet's velocity, and its orbital size and eccentricity, are all related!
Interested in political cartoons and humor?
Check out The HIPPLOMATS™.
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SCALE OF THE COSMOS
SKY-FUN / SKY-GAMES
LATEST & UPCOMING SOLAR SYSTEM EVENTS
The Ecliptic, Earth's orbital plane, is regarded as the plane of our Solar System. It is quite inclined to the plane of the Galaxy, which runs left to right in this diagram.
The planets do not actually orbit the Sun! They (and the Sun also) all orbit the Solar System's center of mass, a point which is called the Solar System Barycenter! The barycenter actually lies outside of the Sun for much of the time!
If all of the asteroids in the Asteroid Belt were gathered together into one body, it would be much smaller than the Moon!
The Oort Cloud is thought to extend out to one quarter of the distance to the nearest star!
The dark portion of Jupiter's shadow, its umbra, has an average length that's greater than the radius of Mercury's orbit!
More than 99¾% of the Solar System's mass is contained in the Sun!
From the NASA site, here's a nice collection of photos and artwork. ATTN: Educators! These make great posters for any classroom! Hi-Res PDF
SOLAR SYSTEM INTERACTIVES
QUICK ACCESS LIST
Note: some links are echoed elsewhere on this page and may include descriptive text.
Solar System Scope (3-D)
NASA's Eyes on the Solar System (3-D. Requi. JAVA.)
NASA's Solar System 101
LASP's The Orbit Simulator
NASA Kids' Club's Your Weight and Age on Other Planets
From NASA: Extreme Planet Makeover
NASA-JPL's Keeping an Eye on Space Rocks
A Windows to the Universe page that incorporates an Interactive Comet Animation
NASA-JPL's PlanetQuest Historic Timeline up to the year 2009.
From NASA: Dare Mighty Things
From Amazing Space-STScI: How Fast Do Objects Move in the Solar System?
A Windows to the Universe page that lets you Create and Customize Your Own Planet's Orbit!
CELESTIA ADD-ONS FEATURING OUR SOLAR SYSTEM
POSTERS FEATURING OUR SOLAR SYSTEM
VIDEOS FEATURING OUR SOLAR SYSTEM