Solar System

What is Solar System!?

05.10.2007.

Solar System

Terminology

See also: Definition of planet
Planets and dwarf planets of the Solar System; while the size is to scale, the relative distances from the Sun are not.
Planets and dwarf planets of the Solar System; while the size is to scale, the relative distances from the Sun are not.

Objects orbiting the Sun are divided into three classes: planets, dwarf planets, and small Solar System bodies.

A planet is any body in orbit around the Sun that a) has enough mass to form itself into a spherical shape and b) has cleared its immediate neighbourhood of all smaller objects. There are eight known planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union defined the term "planet" for the first time, excluding Pluto and reclassifying it under the new category of dwarf planet along with ErisCeres.[2] and

A dwarf planet is not required to clear its neighbourhood of other celestial bodies. Other objects that may become classified as dwarf planets are Sedna, Orcus, and Quaoar.

From the time of its discovery in 1930 until 2006, Pluto was considered the Solar System's ninth planet. But in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many objects similar to Pluto were discovered in the outer Solar System, most notably Eris, which is slightly larger than Pluto.

The remainder of the objects in orbit around the Sun are small Solar System bodies[3] (SSSBs).

Natural satellites, or moons, are those objects in orbit around planets, dwarf planets and SSSBs, rather than the Sun itself.

A planet's distance from the Sun varies in the course of its year. Its closest approach to the Sun is called its perihelion, while its farthest distance from the Sun is called its aphelion.

Astronomers usually measure distances within the Solar System in astronomical units (AU). One AU is the approximate distance between the Earth and the Sun, or roughly 149,598,000 kmmi). Pluto is roughly 38 AU from the Sun while Jupiter lies at roughly 5.2 AU. One light year, the best known unit of interstellar distance, is roughly 63,240 AU. (93,000,000 

Informally, the Solar System is sometimes divided into separate zones. The inner Solar System includes the four terrestrial planets and the main asteroid belt. Some define the outer Solar System as comprising everything beyond the asteroids.[4] Others define it as the region beyond Neptune, with the four gas giants considered a separate "middle zone".[5]

Layout and structure

The ecliptic viewed in sunlight from behind the Moon in this Clementine image. From left to right: Mercury, Mars, Saturn.
The ecliptic viewed in sunlight from behind the Moon in this Clementine image. From left to right: Mercury, Mars, Saturn.

The principal component of the Solar System is the Sun, a main sequence G2 star that contains 99.86% of the system's known mass and dominates it gravitationally.[6] Jupiter and Saturn, the Sun's two largest orbiting bodies, account for more than 90% of the system's remaining mass.[b]

Most large objects in orbit around the Sun lie near the plane of Earth's orbit, known as the ecliptic. The planets are very close to the ecliptic while comets and Kuiper belt objects are usually at significantly greater angles to it.

All of the planets and most other objects also orbit with the Sun's rotation in a counter-clockwise direction as viewed from a point above the Sun's north pole. There are exceptions, such as Halley's Comet.

The orbits of the bodies in the Solar System to scale (clockwise from top left)
The orbits of the bodies in the Solar System to scale (clockwise from top left)

Objects travel around the Sun following Kepler's laws of planetary motion. Each object orbits along an approximate ellipse with the Sun at one focus of the ellipse. The closer an object is to the Sun, the faster it moves. The orbits of the planets are nearly circular, but many comets, asteroids and objects of the Kuiper belt follow highly-elliptical orbits.

To cope with the vast distances involved, many representations of the Solar System show orbits the same distance apart. In reality, with a few exceptions, the farther a planet or belt is from the Sun, the larger the distance between it and the previous orbit. For example, Venus is approximately 0.33 AU farther out than Mercury, while Saturn is 4.3 AU out from Jupiter, and Neptune lies 10.5 AU out from Uranus. Attempts have been made to determine a correlation between these orbital distances (see Titius-Bode law), but no such theory has been accepted.

Formation

Main articles: Formation and evolution of the Solar System, Stellar evolution, and Nebular hypothesis
Artist's conception of a protoplanetary disk
Artist's conception of a protoplanetary disk

The Solar System is believed to have formed according to the nebular hypothesis, first proposed in 1755 by Immanuel Kant and independently formulated by Pierre-Simon Laplace.[7]molecular cloud. This initial cloud was likely several light-years across and probably birthed several stars.[8] Studies of ancient meteorites reveal traces of elements only formed in the hearts of very large exploding stars, indicating that the Sun formed within a star cluster, and in range of a number of nearby supernovae explosions. The shock wave from these supernovae may have triggered the formation of the Sun by creating regions of overdensity in the surrounding nebula, allowing gravitational forces to overcome internal gas[9] This theory holds that 4.6 billion years ago the Solar System formed from the gravitational collapse of a giant pressures and cause collapse.

The region that would become the Solar System, known as the pre-solar nebula,[10] had a diameter of between 7000 and 20,000 AU[8][11] and a mass just over that of the Sun (by between 0.1 and 0.001 solar masses).[12] As the nebula collapsed, conservation of angular momentum made it rotate faster. As the material within the nebula condensed, the atoms[8] As gravity, gas pressure, magnetic fields, and rotation acted on the contracting nebula, it began to flatten into a spinning protoplanetary disk with a diameter of roughly 200 AU[8] and a hot, dense protostar at the center.[13][14] within it began to collide with increasing frequency. The centre, where most of the mass collected, became increasingly hotter than the surrounding disc.

Studies of T Tauri stars, young, pre-fusing solar mass stars believed to be similar to the Sun at this point in its evolution, show that they are often accompanied by discs of pre-planetary matter.[12] These discs extend to several hundred AU and reach only a thousand kelvins at their hottest.[15]

Hubble image of protoplanetary disks in the Orion Nebula, a light-years-wide "stellar nursery" likely very similar to the primordial nebula from which our Sun formed.
Hubble image of protoplanetary disks in the Orion Nebula, a light-years-wide "stellar nursery" likely very similar to the primordial nebula from which our Sun formed.

After 100 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the centre of the collapsing nebula became great enough for the protosun to begin thermonuclear fusion. This increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved, with the thermal energy countering the force of gravitational contraction. At this point the Sun became a full-fledged star.[16]

From the remaining cloud of gas and dust (the "solar nebula"), the various planets formed. They are believed to have formed by accretion: the planets began as dust grains in orbit around the central protostar; then gathered by direct contact into clumps between one and ten metres in diameter; then collided to form larger bodies (planetesimals) of roughly 5 km in size; then gradually increased by further collisions at roughly 15 cm per year over the course of the next few million years.[17]

The inner Solar System was too warm for volatile molecules like water and methane to condense, and so the planetesimals which formed there were relatively small (comprising only 0.6% the mass of the disc)[8] and composed largely of compounds with high melting points, such as silicates and metals. These rocky bodies eventually became the terrestrial planets. Farther out, the gravitational effects of Jupiter made it impossible for the protoplanetary objects present to come together, leaving behind the asteroid belt.[18]

Farther out still, beyond the frost line, where more volatile icy compounds could remain solid, Jupiter and Saturn became the gas giants. Uranus and Neptune captured much less material and are known as ice giants because their cores are believed to be made mostly of ices (hydrogen compounds).[19][20]

Once the young Sun began producing energy, the solar wind (see below) blew the gas and dust in the protoplanetary disk into interstellar space and ended the growth of the planets. T Tauri stars have far stronger stellar winds than more stable, older stars.[21][22]

Sun

Main article: Sun
The Sun as seen from Earth
The Sun as seen from Earth

The Sun is the Solar System's parent star, and far and away its chief component. Its large mass gives it an interior density high enough to sustain nuclear fusion, which releases enormous amounts of energy, mostly radiated into space as electromagnetic radiation such as visible light.

The Sun is classified as a moderately large yellow dwarf, but this name is misleading as, compared to stars in our galaxy, the Sun is rather large and bright. Stars are classified by the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a graph which plots the brightness of stars against their surface temperatures. Generally, hotter stars are brighter. Stars following this pattern are said to be on the main sequence; the Sun lies right in the middle of it. However, stars brighter and hotter than the Sun are rare, while stars dimmer and cooler are common.[23]

The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram; the main sequence is from bottom right to top left.
The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram; the main sequence is from bottom right to top left.

It is believed that the Sun's position on the main sequence puts it in the "prime of life" for a star, in that it has not yet exhausted its store of hydrogen for nuclear fusion. The Sun is growing brighter; early in its history it was 75 percent as bright as it is today.[24]

Calculations of the ratios of hydrogen and helium within the Sun suggest it is halfway through its life cycle. It will eventually move off the main sequence and become larger, brighter, cooler and redder, becoming a red giant in about five billion years.[25] At that point its luminosity will be several thousand times its present value.

The Sun is a population I star; it was born in the later stages of the universe's evolution. It contains more elements heavier than hydrogen and helium ("metals" in astronomical parlance) than older population II stars.[26] Elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were formed in the cores of ancient and exploding stars, so the first generation of stars had to die before the universe could be enriched with these atoms. The oldest stars contain few metals, while stars born later have more. This high metallicity is thought to have been crucial to the Sun's developing a planetary system, because planets form from accretion of metals.[27]

Interplanetary medium

Main article: Interplanetary medium
The heliospheric current sheet
The heliospheric current sheet

Along with light, the Sun radiates a continuous stream of charged particles (a plasma) known as the solar wind. This stream of particles spreads outwards at roughly 1.5 million kilometres per hour,[28] creating a tenuous atmosphere (the heliosphere) that permeates the Solar System out to at least 100 AU (see heliopause). This is known as the interplanetary medium. The Sun's 11-year sunspot cycle and frequent solar flares and coronal mass ejections disturb the heliosphere, creating space weather.[29] The Sun's rotating magnetic field acts on the interplanetary medium to create the heliospheric current sheet, the largest structure in the solar system.[30]

Aurora australis seen from orbit.
Aurora australis seen from orbit.

Earth's magnetic field protects its atmosphere from interacting with the solar wind. Venus and Mars do not have magnetic fields, and the solar wind causes their atmospheres to gradually bleed away into space.[31] The interaction of the solar wind with Earth's magnetic field creates the aurorae seen near the magnetic poles.

Cosmic rays originate outside the Solar System. The heliosphere partially shields the Solar System, and planetary magnetic fields (for planets which have them) also provide some protection. The density of cosmic rays in the interstellar medium and the strength of the Sun's magnetic field change on very long timescales, so the level of cosmic radiation in the Solar System varies, though by how much is unknown.[32]

The interplanetary medium is home to at least two disc-like regions of cosmic dust. The first, the zodiacal dust cloud, lies in the inner Solar System and causes zodiacal light. It was likely formed by collisions within the asteroid belt brought on by interactions with the planets.[33] The second extends from about 10 AU to about 40 AU, and was probably created by similar collisions within the Kuiper belt.[34][35]

Inner Solar System

The inner Solar System is the traditional name for the region comprising the terrestrial planets and asteroids. Composed mainly of silicates and metals, the objects of the inner Solar System huddle very closely to the Sun; the radius of this entire region is shorter than the distance between Jupiter and Saturn. This region was, in old parlance, denoted inner space; the area outside the asteroid belt was denoted outer space.

Inner planets

Main article: Terrestrial planet
The inner planets. From left to right: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars (sizes to scale)
The inner planets. From left to right: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars (sizes to scale)

The four inner or terrestrial planets have dense, rocky compositions, few or no moons, and no ring systems. They are composed largely of minerals with high melting points, such as the silicates which form their solid crusts and semi-liquid mantles, and metals such as iron and nickel, which form their cores. Three of the four inner planets (Venus, Earth and Mars) have substantial atmospheres; all have impact craters and tectonic surface features such as rift valleys and volcanoes. The term inner planet should not be confused with inferior planet, which designates those planets which are closer to the Sun than Earth is (i.e. Mercury and Venus).

Mercury
Mercury (0.4 AU) is the closest planet to the Sun and the smallest planet (0.055 Earth masses). Mercury has no natural satellites, and its only known geological features besides impact craters are "wrinkle-ridges", probably produced by a period of contraction early in its history.[36] Mercury's almost negligible atmosphere consists of atoms blasted off its surface by the solar wind.[37] Its relatively large iron core and thin mantle have not yet been adequately explained. Hypotheses include that its outer layers were stripped off by a giant impact, and that it was prevented from fully accreting by the young Sun's energy.[38][39]
Venus
Venus (0.7 AU) is close in size to Earth (0.815 Earth masses) and, like Earth, has a thick silicate mantle around an iron core, a substantial atmosphere and evidence of internal geological activity. However, it is much drier than Earth and its atmosphere is ninety times as dense. Venus has no natural satellites. It is the hottest planet, with surface temperatures over 400 °C, most likely due to the amount of greenhouse gases[40] No definitive evidence of current geological activity has been detected on Venus, but it has no magnetic field that would prevent depletion of its substantial atmosphere, which suggests that its atmosphere is regularly replenished by volcanic eruptions.[41] in the atmosphere.
Earth
Earth (1 AU) is the largest and densest of the inner planets, the only one known to have current geological activity, and the only planet known to have life. Its liquid hydrosphereplate tectonics has been observed. Earth's atmosphere is radically different from those of the other planets, having been altered by the presence of life to contain 21% free oxygen.[42]Moon, the only large satellite of a terrestrial planet in the Solar System. is unique among the terrestrial planets, and it is also the only planet where It has one satellite, the
Mars
Mars (1.5 AU) is smaller than Earth and Venus (0.107 Earth masses). It possesses a tenuous atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide. Its surface, peppered with vast volcanoes such as Olympus Mons and rift valleys such as Valles Marineris, shows geological activity that may have persisted until very recently.[43] Mars has two tiny natural satellites (Deimos and Phobos) thought to be captured asteroids.[44]

Asteroid belt

Main article: Asteroid belt
Image of the main asteroid belt and the Trojan asteroids
Image of the main asteroid belt and the Trojan asteroids

Asteroids are mostly small Solar System bodies composed mainly of rocky and metallic non-volatile minerals.

The main asteroid belt occupies the orbit between Mars and Jupiter, between 2.3 and 3.3 AU from the Sun. It is thought to be remnants from the Solar System's formation that failed to coalesce because of the gravitational interference of Jupiter.

Asteroids range in size from hundreds of kilometres across to microscopic. All asteroids save the largest, Ceres, are classified as small Solar System bodies, but some asteroids such as Vesta and Hygieia may be reclassed as dwarf planets if they are shown to have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium.

The asteroid belt contains tens of thousands, possibly millions, of objects over one kilometre in diameter.[45] Despite this, the total mass of the main belt is unlikely to be more than a thousandth of that of the Earth.[46] The main belt is very sparsely populated; spacecraft routinely pass through without incident. Asteroids with diameters between 10 and 10-4 m are called meteoroids.[47]

Ceres
Ceres
Ceres
Ceres (2.77 AU) is the largest body in the asteroid belt and its only dwarf planet. It has a diameter of slightly under 1000 km, large enough for its own gravity to pull it into a spherical shape. Ceres was considered a planet when it was discovered in the 19th century, but was reclassified as an asteroid in the 1850s as further observation revealed additional asteroids.[48] It was again reclassified in 2006 as a dwarf planet.
Asteroid groups
Asteroids in the main belt are divided into asteroid groups and families based on their orbital characteristics. Asteroid moons are asteroids that orbit larger asteroids. They are not as clearly distinguished as planetary moons, sometimes being almost as large as their partners. The asteroid belt also contains main-belt comets[49] which may have been the source of Earth's water.

Trojan asteroids are located in either of Jupiter's L4 or L5 points (gravitationally stable regions leading and trailing a planet in its orbit); the term "Trojan" is also used for small bodies in any other planetary or satellite Lagrange point. Hilda asteroids are in a 2:3 resonance with Jupiter; that is, they go around the Sun three times for every two Jupiter orbits.

The inner Solar System is also dusted with rogue asteroids, many of which cross the orbits of the inner planets.

Mid Solar System

The middle region of the Solar System is home to the gas giants and their planet-sized satellites. Many short period comets, including the centaurs, also lie in this region. It has no traditional name; it is occasionally referred to as the "outer Solar System", although recently that term has been more often applied to the region beyond Neptune. The solid objects in this region are composed of a higher proportion of "ices" (water, ammonia, methane) than the rocky

Outer planets

Main article: Gas giant
From top to bottom: Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter (not to scale)
From top to bottom: Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter (not to scale)

The four outer planets, or gas giants (sometimes called Jovian planets), collectively make up 99 percent of the mass known to orbit the Sun. Jupiter and Saturn's atmospheres are largely hydrogen and helium. Uranus and Neptune's atmospheres have a higher percentage of “ices”, such as water, ammonia and methane. Some astronomers suggest they belong in their own category, “ice giants.”[50] All four gas giants have rings, although only Saturn's ring system is easily observed from Earth. The term outer planet should not be confused with superior planet, which designates planets outside Earth's orbit (the outer planets and Mars).

Jupiter
Jupiter (5.2 AU), at 318 Earth masses, masses 2.5 times all the other planets put together. It is composed largely of hydrogen and helium. Jupiter's strong internal heat creates a number of semi-permanent features in its atmosphere, such as cloud bands and the Great Red Spot. Jupiter has sixty-three known satellites. The four largest, Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa, show similarities to the terrestrial planets, such as volcanism and internal heating.[51] Ganymede, the largest satellite in the Solar System, is larger than Mercury.
Saturn
Saturn (9.5 AU), famous for its extensive ring system, has similarities to Jupiter, such as its atmospheric composition. Saturn is far less massive, being only 95 Earth masses. Saturn has sixty known satellites (and 3 unconfirmed); two of which, Titan and Enceladus, show signs of geological activity, though they are largely made of ice.[52] Titan is larger than Mercury and the only satellite in the Solar System with a substantial atmosphere.
Uranus
Uranus (19.6 AU), at 14 Earth masses, is the lightest of the outer planets. Uniquely among the planets, it orbits the Sun on its side; its axial tilt is over ninety degrees to the ecliptic. It has a much colder core than the other gas giants, and radiates very little heat into space.[53] Uranus has twenty-seven known satellites, the largest ones being Titania, Oberon, Umbriel, Ariel and Miranda.
Neptune
Neptune (30 AU), though slightly smaller than Uranus, is more massive (equivalent to 17 Earths) and therefore denser. It radiates more internal heat, but not as much as Jupiter or Saturn.[54] Neptune has thirteen known satellites. The largest, Triton, is geologically active, with geysers of liquid nitrogen.[55] Triton is the only large satellite with a retrograde orbit. Neptune is accompanied in its orbit by a number of minor planets in a 1:1 resonance with it, termed Neptune Trojans.

Comets

Main article: Comet
Comet Hale-Bopp
Comet Hale-Bopp

Comets are small Solar System bodies, usually only a few kilometres across, composed largely of volatile ices. They have highly eccentric orbits, generally a perihelion within the orbits of the inner planets and an aphelion far beyond Pluto. When a comet enters the inner Solar System, its proximity to the Sun causes its icy surface to sublimate and ionise, creating a coma: a long tail of gas and dust often visible to the naked eye.

Short-period comets have orbits lasting less than two hundred years. Long-period comets have orbits lasting thousands of years. Short-period comets, such as Halley's Comet, are believed to originate in the Kuiper belt, while long-period comets, such as Hale-Bopp, are believed to originate in the Oort cloud. Many comet groups, such as the Kreutz Sungrazers, formed from the breakup of a single parent.[56] Some comets with hyperbolic orbits may originate outside the Solar System, but determining their precise orbits is difficult.[57] Old comets that have had most of their volatiles driven out by solar warming are often categorised as asteroids.[58]

Centaurs
The centaurs, which extend from 9 to 30 AU, are icy comet-like bodies that orbit in the region between Jupiter and Neptune. The largest known centaur, 10199 Chariklo, has a diameter of between 200 and 250 km.[59] The first centaur discovered, 2060 Chiron, has been called a comet since it develops a coma just as comets do when they approach the Sun.[60] Some astronomers classify centaurs as inward-scattered Kuiper belt objects along with the outward-scattered residents of the scattered disc.[61]

Trans-Neptunian region

The area beyond Neptune, often called the outer Solar System or the "trans-Neptunian region", is still largely unexplored. It appears to consist overwhelmingly of small worlds (the largest having a diameter only a fifth that of the Earth and a mass far smaller than that of the Moon) composed mainly of rock and ice.

Kuiper belt

Main article: Kuiper belt
Plot of all known Kuiper belt objects, set against the four outer planets
Plot of all known Kuiper belt objects, set against the four outer planets

The Kuiper belt, the region's first formation, is a great ring of debris similar to the asteroid belt, but composed mainly of ice. It extends between 30 and 50 AU from the Sun. This region is thought to be the source of short-period comets. It is composed mainly of small Solar System bodies, but many of the largest Kuiper belt objects, such as Quaoar, Varuna, (136108) 2003 EL61, (136472) 2005 FY9 and Orcus, may be reclassified as dwarf planets. There are estimated to be over 100,000 Kuiper belt objects with a diameter greater than 50 km, but the total mass of the Kuiper belt is thought to be only a tenth or even a hundredth the mass of the Earth.[62] Many Kuiper belt objects have multiple satellites, and most have orbits that take them outside the plane of the ecliptic.

Diagram showing the resonant and classical Kuiper belt
Diagram showing the resonant and classical Kuiper belt

The Kuiper belt can be roughly divided into the "resonant" belt and the "classical" belt. The resonant belt consists of objects with orbits linked to that of Neptune (e.g. orbiting twice for every three Neptune orbits, or once for every two). The resonant belt actually begins within the orbit of Neptune itself. The classical belt consists of objects having no resonance with Neptune, and extends from roughly 39.4 AU to 47.7 AU.[63] Members of the classical Kuiper belt are classified as cubewanos, after the first of their kind to be discovered, (15760) 1992 QB1.[64]

Pluto and Charon
Pluto (39 AU average), a dwarf planet, is the largest known object in the Kuiper belt. When discovered in 1930 it was considered to be the ninth planet; this changed in 2006 with the adoption of a formal definition of planet. Pluto has a relatively eccentric orbit inclined 17 degrees to the ecliptic plane and ranging from 29.7 AU from the Sun at perihelion (within the orbit of Neptune) to 49.5 AU at aphelion.
Pluto and its three known moons
Pluto and its three known moons
It is unclear whether Charon, Pluto's largest moon, will continue to be classified as such or as a dwarf planet itself. Both Pluto and Charon orbit a barycenter of gravity above their surfaces, making Pluto-Charon a binary system. Two much smaller moons, Nix and Hydra, orbit Pluto and Charon.
Pluto lies in the resonant belt, having a 3:2 resonance with Neptune (it orbits twice round the Sun for every three Neptunian orbits). Kuiper belt objects whose orbits share this resonance are called plutinos.[65]

Scattered disc

Main article: Scattered disc
Black: scattered; blue: classical; green: resonant
Black: scattered; blue: classical; green: resonant

The scattered disc overlaps the Kuiper belt but extends much further outwards. Scattered disc objects are believed to come from the Kuiper belt, having been ejected into erratic orbits by the gravitational influence of Neptune's early outward migration. Most scattered disc objects (SDOs) have perihelia within the Kuiper belt but aphelia as far as 150 AU from the Sun. SDOs' orbits are also highly inclined to the ecliptic plane, and are often almost perpendicular to it. Some astronomers consider the scattered disc to be merely another region of the Kuiper belt, and describe scattered disc objects as "scattered Kuiper belt objects."[66]

Eris and its moon Dysnomia
Eris and its moon Dysnomia
Eris
Eris (68 AU average) is the largest known scattered disc object, and caused a debate about what constitutes a planet, since it is at least 5% larger than Pluto with an estimated diameter of 2400 km (1500 mi). It is the largest of the known dwarf planets.[67] It has one moon, Dysnomia. Like Pluto, its orbit is highly eccentric, with a perihelion of 38.2 AU (roughly Pluto's distance from the Sun) and an aphelion of 97.6 AU, and steeply inclined to the ecliptic plane.

Farthest regions

The point at which the Solar System ends and interstellar space begins is not precisely defined, since its outer boundaries are shaped by two separate forces: the solar wind and the Sun's gravity. The solar wind is believed to surrender to the interstellar medium at roughly four times Pluto's distance. However, the Sun's Roche sphere, the effective range of its gravitational influence, is believed to extend up to a thousand times farther.

Heliopause

The Voyagers entering the heliosheath
The Voyagers entering the heliosheath

The heliosphere is divided into two separate regions. The solar wind travels at its maximum velocity out to about 95 AU, or three times the orbit of Pluto. The edge of this region is the termination shock, the point at which the solar wind collides with the opposing winds of the interstellar medium. Here the wind slows, condenses and becomes more turbulent, forming a great oval structure known as the heliosheath that looks and behaves very much like a comet's tail, extending outward for a further 40 AU at its stellar-windward side, but tailing many times that distance in the opposite direction. The outer boundary of the heliosphere, the heliopause, is the point at which the solar wind finally terminates, and is the beginning of interstellar space.[68]

The shape and form of the outer edge of the heliosphere is likely affected by the fluid dynamics[69] as well as solar magnetic fields prevailing to the south, e.g. it is bluntly shaped with the northern hemisphere extending 9 AU (roughly 900 million miles) farther than the southern hemisphere. Beyond the heliopause, at around 230 AU, lies the bow shock, a plasma "wake" left by the Sun as it travels through the Milky Way.[70] of interactions with the interstellar medium,

No spacecraft have yet passed beyond the heliopause, so it is impossible to know for certain the conditions in local interstellar space. How well the heliosphere shields the Solar System from cosmic rays is poorly understood. A dedicated mission beyond the heliosphere has been suggested.[71][72]

Oort cloud

Main article: Oort cloud
Artist's rendering of the Kuiper Belt and hypothetical Oort cloud
Artist's rendering of the Kuiper Belt and hypothetical Oort cloud

The hypothetical Oort cloud is a great mass of up to a trillion icy objects that is believed to be the source for all long-period comets and to surround the Solar System at around 50,000 AU, and possibly to as far as 100,000 AU. It is believed to be composed of comets which were ejected from the inner Solar System by gravitational interactions with the outer planets. Oort cloud objects move very slowly, and can be perturbed by infrequent events such as collisions, the gravitational effects of a passing star, or the galactic tide.[73][74]

Telescopic image of Sedna
Telescopic image of Sedna

Sedna and the inner Oort cloud

90377 Sedna is a large, reddish Pluto-like object with a gigantic, highly elliptical orbit that takes it from about 76 AU at perihelion to 928 AU at aphelion and takes 12,050 years to complete. Mike Brown, who discovered the object in 2003, asserts that it cannot be part of the scattered disc or the Kuiper Belt as its perihelion is too distant to have been affected by Neptune's migration. He and other astronomers consider it to be the first in an entirely new population, which also may include the object 2000 CR105, which has a perihelion of 45 AU, an aphelion of 415 AU, and an orbital period of 3420 years.[75] Brown terms this population the "Inner Oort cloud," as it may have formed through a similar process, although it is far closer to the Sun.[76] Sedna is very likely a dwarf planet, though its shape has yet to be determined with certainty.

Boundaries

See also: Hypothetical planet

Much of our Solar System is still unknown. The Sun's gravitational field is estimated to dominate the gravitational forces of surrounding stars out to about two light years (125,000 AU). The outer extent of the Oort cloud, by contrast, may not extend farther than 50,000 AU.[77][78] Objects may yet be discovered in the Solar System's uncharted regions. Despite discoveries such as Sedna, the region between the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud, an area tens of thousands of AU in radius, is still virtually unmapped. There are also ongoing studies of the region between Mercury and the Sun.

Galactic context

Location of the Solar System within our galaxy
Location of the Solar System within our galaxy

The Solar System is located in the Milky Way galaxy, a barred spiral galaxy with a diameter of about 100,000 light years containing about 200 billion stars.[79] Our Sun resides in one of the Milky Way's outer spiral arms, known as the Orion Arm or Local Spur.[80] The Sun lies between 25,000 and 28,000 light years from the Galactic Centre, and its speed within the galaxy is about 220 kilometres per second, so that it completes one revolution every 225–250 million years. This revolution is known as the Solar System's galactic year.[81]

The Solar System's location in the galaxy is very likely a factor in the evolution of life on Earth. Its orbit is close to being circular and is at roughly the same speed as that of the spiral arms, which means it passes through them only rarely. Since spiral arms are home to a far larger concentration of potentially dangerous supernovae, this has given Earth long periods of interstellar stability for life to evolve.[82] The Solar System also lies well outside the star-crowded environs of the galactic centre. Near the centre, gravitational tugs from nearby stars could perturb bodies in the Oort Cloud and send many comets into the inner Solar System, producing collisions with potentially catastrophic implications for life on Earth. The intense radiation of the galactic centre could also interfere with the development of complex life.[82] Even at the Solar System's current location, some scientists have hypothesised that recent supernovae may have adversely affected life in the last 35,000 years by flinging pieces of expelled stellar core towards the Sun in the form of radioactive dust grains and larger, comet-like bodies.[83]

The solar apex, the direction of the Sun's path through interstellar space, is near the constellation of Hercules in the direction of the current location of the bright star Vega.[84]

Neighbourhood

Artist's conception of the Local Bubble
Artist's conception of the Local Bubble

The immediate galactic neighbourhood of the Solar System is known as the Local Interstellar Cloud or Local Fluff, an area of dense cloud in an otherwise sparse region known as the Local Bubble, an hourglass-shaped cavity in the interstellar medium roughly 300 light years across. The bubble is suffused with high-temperature plasma that suggests it is the product of several recent supernovae.[85]

There are relatively few stars within ten light years (95 trillion km) of the Sun. The closest is the triple star system Alpha Centauri, which is about 4.4 light years away. Alpha Centauri A and B are a closely tied pair of Sun-like stars, while the small red dwarf Alpha Centauri C (also known as Proxima Centauri) orbits the pair at a distance of 0.2 light years. The stars next closest to the Sun are the red dwarfs Barnard's Star (at 6 light years), Wolf 359 (7.8 light years) and Lalande 21185 (8.3 light years). The largest star within ten light years is Sirius, a bright blue dwarf star roughly twice the Sun's mass and orbited by a white dwarf called Sirius B. It lies 8.6 light years away. The remaining systems within ten light years are the binary red dwarf system Luyten 726-8 (8.7 light years) and the solitary red dwarf Ross 154 (9.7 light years).[86] Our closest solitary sunlike star is Tau Ceti, which lies 11.9 light years away. It has roughly 80 percent the Sun's mass, but only 60 percent its luminosity.[87] The closest earth-like planet discovered, Gliese 581c, is 20.40 light years away.

[edit] Discovery and exploration

Main articles: Geocentric model and Heliocentrism

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