|Mercury||4879 km||0.387098 AU||0.2408 yr|
|Venus||12104 km||0.723327 AU||0.6152 yr|
|Earth||12756 km||1 AU||1.0000 yr|
|Mars||6792 km||1.52368 AU||1.8808 yr|
|Mean Diameter||4879 km|
|Mean Distance||0.387098 AU|
|Mean Density||5427 kg/m³|
|Mean Orbit Velocity||47.87 km/s|
|Escape velocity||4.3 m/s|
|Atmosphere||traces of hydrogen and helium|
|Composition||basaltic and anorthositic rocks and regolith|
Mercury's eccentric orbit takes the small planet as close as 47 million km (29 million miles) and as far as 70 million km (43 million miles) from the sun. If one could stand on the scorching surface of Mercury when it is at its closest point to the sun, the sun would appear more than three times as large as it does when viewed from Earth. Temperatures on Mercury's surface can reach 800 degrees Fahrenheit (430 degrees Celsius). Because the planet has no atmosphere to retain that heat, nighttime temperatures on the surface can drop to -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-180 degrees Celsius).
Because Mercury is so close to the sun, it is hard to directly observe from Earth except during dawn or twilight. Mercury makes an appearance indirectly -- 13 times each century, observers on Earth can watch Mercury pass across the face of the sun, an event called a transit. These rare transits fall within several days of 8 May and 10 November. The first two transits of Mercury in the 21st century occurred 7 May 2003, and 8 November 2006. The next are 9 May 2016, and 11 November 2019.
Mercury speeds around the sun every 88 days, traveling through space at nearly 50 km (31 miles) per second, faster than any other planet. One Mercury solar day (one day-night cycle) equals 175.97 Earth days.
Instead of an atmosphere, Mercury possesses a thin exosphere made up of atoms blasted off the surface by the solar wind and striking micrometeoroids. Because of solar radiation pressure, the atoms quickly escape into space and form a tail of neutral particles. Though Mercury's magnetic field at the surface has just one percent the strength of Earth's, it interacts with the magnetic field of the solar wind to episodically create intense magnetic tornadoes that funnel the fast, hot solar wind plasma down to the surface. When the ions strike the surface, they knock off neutrally charged atoms and send them on a loop high into the sky.
Mercury's surface resembles that of Earth's Moon, scarred by many impact craters resulting from collisions with meteoroids and comets. Very large impact basins, including Caloris (1,550 km, or 960 miles, in diameter) and Rachmaninoff (306 km, or 190 miles), were created by asteroid impacts on the planet's surface early in the solar system's history. While there are large areas of smooth terrain, there are also lobe-shaped scarps or cliffs, some hundreds of miles long and soaring up to a mile high, formed as the planet's interior cooled and contracted over the billions of years since Mercury formed.
Mercury is the second densest planet after Earth, with a large metallic core having a radius of about 2,000 km (1,240 miles), about 80 percent of the planet's radius. In 2007, researchers used ground-based radars to study the core, and found evidence that it is partly molten (liquid). Mercury's outer shell, comparable to Earth's outer shell (called the mantle and crust), is only about 400 km (250 miles) thick.
The first spacecraft to visit Mercury was Mariner 10, which imaged about 45 percent of the surface. NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission flew by Mercury three times in 2008-2009 and has been in orbit around the planet since 18 March 2011. Almost the entire planet has now been imaged, revealing a surface that has been shaped both by extensive volcanism and impacts.
Data from MESSENGER's scientific instruments have provided a trove of scientific discoveries. These include the identification of a new landform known as hollows, measurements indicating that Mercury has a remarkably high abundance of the volatile elements sulfur and potassium, and the discoveries that Mercury's magnetic field is offset relative to the planet's equator and that the planet has a highly unusual internal structure. In 1991, astronomers on Earth using radar observations showed that Mercury may have water ice at its north and south poles inside deep craters. MESSENGER observations have shown that the materials identified by radar are present only in regions of permanent shadow, consistent with the idea that they are cold enough to preserve water ice, despite the extreme high temperatures experienced by sunlit parts of the planet.
Mercury is appropriately named for the swiftest of the ancient Roman gods. Mercury, the god of commerce, is the Roman counterpart to the ancient Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods.
|Mean Diameter||12104 km|
|Mean Distance||0.723327 AU|
|Mean Density||5243 kg/m³|
|Mean Orbit Velocity||35.02 km/s|
|Escape velocity||10.36 m/s|
|Atmosphere||96% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 0.1% water vapor|
|Composition||basaltic rock and altered materials|
Venus is the second planet from the sun and our closest planetary neighbor. Similar in structure and size to Earth, Venus spins slowly in the opposite direction most planets do. Its thick atmosphere traps heat in a runaway greenhouse effect, making it the hottest planet in our solar system with surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead. Glimpses below the clouds reveal volcanoes and deformed mountains.
Venus' rotation and orbit are unusual in several ways. Venus is one of just two planets that rotate from east to west. Only Venus and Uranus have this "backwards" rotation. It completes one rotation in 243 Earth days -- the longest day of any planet in our solar system, even longer than a whole year on Venus. But the sun doesn't rise and set each "day" on Venus like it does on most other planets. On Venus, one day-night cycle takes 117 Earth days because Venus rotates in the direction opposite of its orbital revolution around the sun.
Venus makes a complete orbit around the sun (a year in Venusian time) in 225 Earth days or slightly less than two Venusian day-night cycles. Its orbit around the sun is the most circular of any planet -- nearly a perfect circle. Other planet's orbits are more elliptical, or oval-shaped.
With an axial tilt of just 3 degrees, Venus spins nearly upright, and so does not experience noticeable seasons. When the solar system settled into its current layout about 4.5 billion years ago, Venus formed when gravity pulled swirling gas and dust in to become the second planet from the sun. Like its fellow terrestrial planets, Venus has a central core, a rocky mantle and a solid crust.
Venus is in many ways similar to Earth in its structure. It has an iron core that is approximately 2,000 miles (3,200 km) in radius. Above that is a mantle made of hot rock slowly churning due to the planet's interior heat. The surface is a thin crust of rock that bulges and moves as Venus' mantle shifts and creates volcanoes.
From space, Venus is bright white because it is covered with clouds that reflect and scatter sunlight. At the surface, the rocks are different shades of grey, like rocks on Earth, but the thick atmosphere filters the sunlight so that everything would look orange if you were standing on Venus.
Venus has mountains, valleys, and tens of thousands of volcanoes. The highest mountain on Venus, Maxwell Montes, is 20,000 feet high (8.8 km), similar to the highest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest. The landscape is dusty, and surface temperatures reach a scalding 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471°C).
It is thought that Venus was completely resurfaced by volcanic activity 300 to 500 million years ago. Venus has two large highland areas: Ishtar Terra, about the size of Australia, in the north polar region; and Aphrodite Terra, about the size of South America, straddling the equator and extending for almost 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers).
Venus is covered in craters, but none are smaller than 0.9 to 1.2 miles (1.5 to 2 kilometers) across. Small meteoroids burn up in the dense atmosphere, so only large meteoroids reach the surface and create impact craters.
Almost all the surface features of Venus are named for amazing Earth women. A volcanic crater is named for Sacajawea, the Native American woman who guided Lewis and Clark's exploration. A deep canyon is named for Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt.
Venus' atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid droplets. The thick atmosphere traps the sun's heat, resulting in surface temperatures higher than 880 degrees Fahrenheit (470 degrees Celsius). The atmosphere has many layers with different temperatures. At the level where the clouds are, about 30 miles up from the surface, it's about the same temperature as on the surface of the Earth.
As Venus moves forward in its solar orbit while slowly rotating backwards on its axis, the top level of clouds zips around the planet every four Earth days, driven by hurricane-force winds traveling at about 224 miles (360 kilometers) per hour. Atmospheric lightning bursts light up these quick-moving clouds. Speeds within the clouds decrease with cloud height, and at the surface are estimated to be just a few miles per hour.
On the ground, it would look like a very hazy, overcast day on Earth. And the atmosphere is so heavy it would feel like you were 1 mile (1.6 km) deep underwater. No human has visited Venus, but the spacecraft that have been sent to the surface of Venus do not last very long there. Venus' high surface temperature overheat electronics in spacecraft in a short time, so it seems unlikely that a person could survive for long on the Venusian surface.
There is speculation about life existing in Venus' distant past, as well as questions about the possibility of life in the top cloud layers of Venus' atmosphere, where the temperatures are less extreme. Even though Venus is similar in size to the Earth and has a similarly-sized iron core, Venus' magnetic field is much weaker than the Earth's due to Venus' slow rotation.
The brightest object in the night sky on Earth (besides our moon), Venus has been observed for millennia. As one of just two bodies between Earth and the sun, Venus periodically passes across the face of the sun -- a phenomenon called a transit. Observing transits of Venus has helped astronomers study the nearby planet and better understand the solar system and our place in it. Transits of Venus occur in pairs with more than a century separating each pair, occurring in 1631 and 1639; 1761, 1769; 1874, 1882; and 2004, 2012. The next transit isn't until December 2117. Such long gaps occur between transits because Earth's and Venus' orbits around the sun are inclined differently, so Venus much more often passes between Earth and the sun without crossing the face of the sun from our perspective.
|Mean Diameter||12756 km|
|Mean Distance||1 AU|
|Mean Density||5515 kg/m³|
|Mean Orbit Velocity||29.78 km/s|
|Escape velocity||11.186 m/s|
|Atmosphere||78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen|
|Composition||basaltic rock and water oceans|
Earth is the third planet from the sun and the fifth largest in the solar system. Just slightly larger than nearby Venus, Earth is the biggest of the terrestrial planets. Our home planet is the only planet in our solar system known to harbor living things. The name Earth is at least 1,000 years old. All of the planets, except for Earth, were named after Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. However, the name Earth is an English/German word, which simply means the ground.
With a radius of 3,959 miles (6,371 km), Earth is the biggest of the terrestrial planets, and the fifth largest planet overall. From an average distance of 93 million miles (150 million kilometers), Earth is exactly one astronomical unit away from the sun because one astronomical unit (abbreviated as AU), is the distance from the sun to Earth. This unit provides an easy way to quickly compare planets' distances from the sun. It takes about eight minutes for light from the sun to reach our planet.
As Earth orbits the sun, it completes one rotation every 23.9 hours. It takes 365.25 days to complete one trip around the sun. That extra quarter of a day presents a challenge to our calendar system, which counts one year as 365 days. To keep our yearly calendars consistent with our orbit around the sun, every four years we add one day. That day is called a leap day, and the year it's added to is called a leap year.
Earth's axis of rotation is tilted 23.4 degrees with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun. This tilt causes our yearly cycle of seasons. During part of the year, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and the southern hemisphere is tilted away. With the sun higher in the sky, solar heating is greater in the north producing summer there. Less direct solar heating produces winter in the south. Six months later, the situation is reversed. When spring and fall begin, both hemispheres receive roughly equal amounts of heat from the sun.
When the solar system settled into its current layout about 4.5 billion years ago, Earth formed when gravity pulled swirling gas and dust in to become the third planet from the sun. Like its fellow terrestrial planets, Earth has a central core, a rocky mantle and a solid crust.
Earth is composed of four main layers, starting with an inner core at the planet's center, enveloped by the outer core, mantle and crust. The inner core is a solid sphere made of iron and nickel metals about 759 miles (1,221 kilometers) in radius. There the temperature is as high as 9,800 degrees Fahrenheit (5,400 degrees Celsius). Surrounding the inner core is the outer core. This layer is about 1,400 miles (2,300 kilometers) thick, made of iron and nickel fluids. In between the outer core and crust is the mantle, the thickest layer. This hot, viscous mixture of molten rock is about 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) thick and has the consistency of caramel. The outermost layer, Earth's crust, goes about 19 miles (30 kilometers) deep on average on land. At the bottom of the ocean, the crust is thinner and extends about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the sea floor to the top of the mantle.
Like Mars and Venus, Earth has volcanoes, mountains and valleys. Earth's lithosphere, which includes the crust (both continental and oceanic) and the upper mantle, is divided into huge plates that are constantly moving. For example, the North American plate moves west over the Pacific Ocean basin, roughly at a rate equal to the growth of our fingernails. Earthquakes result when plates grind past one another, ride up over one another, collide to make mountains, or split and separate. Earth's global ocean, which covers nearly 70 percent of the planet's surface, has an average depth of about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) and contains 97 percent of Earth's water. Almost all of Earth's volcanoes are hidden under these oceans. Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano is taller from base to summit than Mount Everest, but most of it is underwater. Earth's longest mountain range is also underwater, at the bottom of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. It is four times longer than the Andes, Rockies and Himalayas combined.
Near the surface, Earth has an atmosphere that consists of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and 1 percent other gases such as argon, carbon dioxide and neon. The atmosphere affects Earth's long-term climate and short-term local weather and shields us from much of the harmful radiation coming from the sun. It also protects us from meteoroids, most of which burn up in the atmosphere, seen as meteors in the night sky, before they can strike the surface as meteorites.
Earth has a very hospitable temperature and mix of chemicals that have made life possible here. Most notably, Earth is unique in that most of our planet is covered in water, since the temperature allows liquid water to exist for extended periods of time. Earth's vast oceans provided a convenient place for life to begin about 3.8 billion years ago. Earth is the only planet that has a single moon. Our moon is the brightest and most familiar object in the night sky. In many ways, the moon is responsible for making Earth such a great home. It stabilizes our planet's wobble, which has made the climate less variable over thousands of years. Earth sometimes temporarily hosts orbiting asteroids or large rocks. They are typically trapped by Earth's gravity for a a few months or years before returning to an orbit around the sun. Some asteroids will be in a long "dance" with Earth as both orbit the sun. Some moons are bits of rock that were captured by a planet's gravity, but our moon is likely the result of a collision billions of years ago. When Earth was a young planet, a large chunk of rock smashed into it, displacing a portion of Earth's interior. The resulting chunks clumped together and formed our moon. With a radius of 1,080 miles (1,738 kilometers), the moon is the fifth largest moon in our solar system (after Ganymede, Titan, Callisto and Io). The moon is farther away from Earth than most people realize. The moon is an average of 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) away. That means 30 Earth-sized planets could fit in between Earth and the moon.
Our planet's rapid rotation and molten nickel-iron core give rise to a magnetic field, which the solar wind distorts into a teardrop shape in space. (The solar wind is a stream of charged particles continuously ejected from the sun.) When charged particles from the solar wind become trapped in Earth's magnetic field, they collide with air molecules above our planet's magnetic poles. These air molecules then begin to glow and cause aurorae, or the northern and southern lights. The magnetic field is what causes compass needles to point to the North Pole regardless of which way you turn. But the magnetic polarity of Earth can change, flipping the direction of the magnetic field. The geologic record tells scientists that a magnetic reversal takes place about every 400,000 years on average, but the timing is very irregular. As far as we know, such a magnetic reversal doesn't cause any harm to life on Earth, and a reversal is very unlikely to happen for at least another thousand years. But when it does happen, compass needles are likely to point in many different directions for a few centuries while the switch is being made. And after the switch is completed, they will all point south instead of north.
Earth is made up of complex, interactive systems that create a constantly changing world that we are striving to understand. From the vantage point of space, we are able to observe our planet globally, using sensitive instruments to understand the delicate balance among its oceans, air, land and life. NASA satellite observations help study and predict weather, drought, pollution, climate change, and many other phenomena that affect the environment, economy and society.
|Mean Diameter||6792 km|
|Mean Distance||1.52368 AU|
|Mean Density||3933 kg/m³|
|Mean Orbit Velocity||24.13 km/s|
|Escape velocity||5.03 m/s|
|Atmosphere||95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon|
|Composition||basaltic rock and altered materials|
Though details of Mars' surface are difficult to see from Earth, telescope observations show seasonally changing features and white patches at the poles. For decades, people speculated that bright and dark areas on Mars were patches of vegetation, Mars was a likely place for advanced life forms, and water might exist in the polar caps. When the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars in 1965, photographs of a bleak, cratered surface shocked many - Mars seemed to be a dead planet. Later missions, however, showed that Mars is a complex planet and holds many mysteries yet to be solved. Chief among them is whether Mars ever had the right conditions to support small life forms called microbes.
Mars is a rocky body about half the size of Earth. As with the other terrestrial planets - Mercury, Venus, and Earth - volcanoes, impact craters, crustal movement, and atmospheric conditions such as dust storms have altered the surface of Mars.
Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, that may be captured asteroids. Potato-shaped, they have too little mass for gravity to make them spherical. Phobos, the innermost moon, is heavily cratered, with deep grooves on its surface.
Like Earth, Mars experiences seasons due to the tilt of its rotational axis. Mars' orbit is about 1.5 times farther from the sun than Earth's and is slightly elliptical, so its distance from the sun changes. That affects the length of Martian seasons, which vary in length. The polar ice caps on Mars grow and recede with the seasons. Layered areas near the poles suggest that the planet's climate has changed more than once. Volcanism in the highlands and plains was active more than 3 billion years ago. Some of the giant shield volcanoes are younger, having formed between 1 and 2 billion years ago. Mars has the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, as well as a spectacular equatorial canyon system, Valles Marineris.
Mars has no global magnetic field today. However, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter found that areas of the Martian crust in the southern hemisphere are highly magnetized, indicating traces of a magnetic field from 4 billion years ago that remain.
Scientists believe that Mars experienced huge floods about 3.5 billion years ago. Though we do not know where the ancient flood water came from, how long it lasted, or where it went, recent missions to Mars have uncovered intriguing hints. In 2002, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter detected hydrogen-rich polar deposits, indicating large quantities of water ice close to the surface. Further observations found hydrogen in other areas as well. If water ice permeated the entire planet, Mars could have substantial subsurface layers of frozen water. In 2004, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity found structures and minerals indicating that liquid water once existed at its landing site. The rover's twin, Spirit, also found the signature of ancient water near its landing site, halfway around Mars from Opportunity's location.
The cold temperatures and thin atmosphere on Mars do not allow liquid water to exist at the surface for long. The quantity of water required to carve Mars' great channels and flood plains is not evident today. Unraveling the story of water on Mars is important to unlocking its climate history, which will help us understand the evolution of all the planets. Water is an essential ingredient for life as we know it. Evidence of long-term past or present water on Mars holds clues about whether Mars could ever have been a habitat for life.
In 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars lander was the first mission to touch water ice in the Martian arctic. Phoenix also observed precipitation (snow falling from clouds), as confirmed by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Soil chemistry experiments led scientists to believe that the Phoenix landing site had a wetter and warmer climate in the recent past (the last few million years). NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, with its large rover Curiosity, is examining Martian rocks and soil at Gale Crater, looking for minerals that formed in water, signs of subsurface water, and carbon-based molecules called organics, the chemical building blocks of life. That information will reveal more about the present and past habitability of Mars, as well as whether humans could survive on Mars some day.
Mars was named by the Romans for their god of war because of its red, bloodlike color. Other civilizations also named this planet from this attribute; for example, the Egyptians named it "Her Desher," meaning "the red one."