High School Earth Science/Outer Planets

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The four planets farthest from the sun—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—are called the outer planets of our solar system. Figure 25.19 shows the relative sizes of the outer planets and the Sun. Because they are much larger than Earth and the other inner planets, and because they are made primarily of gases and liquids rather than solid matter, the outer planets are also called gas giants.

Figure 25.19: This image shows the four outer planets and the Sun, with sizes to scale. From left to right, the outer planets are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

The gas giants are made up primarily of hydrogen and helium, the same elements that make up most of the Sun. Astronomers believe that hydrogen and helium gases were found in large amounts throughout the solar system when it first formed. However, the inner planets didn't have enough mass to hold on to these very light gases. As a result, the hydrogen and helium initially on these inner planets floated away into space. Only the Sun and the massive outer planets had enough gravity to keep hydrogen and helium from drifting away.

All of the outer planets have numerous moons. All of the outer planets also have planetary rings, which are rings of dust and other small particles encircling a planet in a thin plane. Only the rings of Saturn can be easily seen from Earth.

Lesson Objectives[edit]

  • Describe key features of the outer planets and their moons.
  • Compare the outer planets to each other and to Earth.

Jupiter[edit]

Jupiter, shown in Figure 25.20, is the largest planet in our solar system, and the largest object in the solar system besides the Sun. Jupiter is named for the king of the gods in Roman mythology. Jupiter is truly a giant! It is much less dense than Earth—it has 318 times the mass of Earth, but over 1,300 times Earth's volume. Because Jupiter is so large, it reflects a lot of sunlight. When it is visible, it is the brightest object in the night sky besides the Moon and Venus. This brightness is all the more impressive, since Jupiter is quite far from the Earth—5.20 AUs away. It takes Jupiter about 12 Earth years to orbit once around the Sun.

Figure 25.20: This image of Jupiter was taken by Voyager 2 in 1979. The colors were later enhanced to bring out more details.

A Ball of Gas and Liquid[edit]

If a spaceship were to try to land on the surface of Jupiter, the astronauts would find that there is no solid surface at all! Jupiter is made mostly of hydrogen, with some helium, and small amounts of other elements. The outer layers of the planet are gas. Deeper within the planet, pressure compresses the gases into a liquid. Some evidence suggests that Jupiter may have a small rocky core at its center.

A Stormy Atmosphere[edit]

The upper layer of Jupiter's atmosphere contains clouds of ammonia (NH3) in bands of different colors. These bands rotate around the planet, but also swirl around in turbulent storms. The Great Red Spot, shown in Figure 25.21, is an enormous, oval-shaped storm found south of Jupiter's equator. It is more than three times as wide as the entire Earth! Clouds in the storm rotate in a counterclockwise direction, making one complete turn every six days or so. The Great Red Spot has been on Jupiter for at least 300 years. It is possible, but not certain, that this storm is a permanent feature on Jupiter.

Figure 25.21: This image of Jupiter's Great Red Spot (upper right) was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. The white storm just below the Great Red Spot is about the same diameter as Earth.

Jupiter's Moons and Rings[edit]

Figure 25.22: This composite image shows the four Galilean moons and Jupiter. From top to bottom, the moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Jupiter's Great Red Spot is in the background. Sizes are to scale.

Jupiter has a very large number of moons. As of 2008, we have discovered over 60 natural satellites of Jupiter. Of these, four are big enough and bright enough to be seen from Earth, using no more than a pair of binoculars. These four moons—named Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—were first discovered by Galileo in 1610, so they are sometimes referred to as the Galilean moons.

Figure 25.22 shows the four Galilean moons and their sizes relative to the Great Red Spot. The Galilean moons are larger than the dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, and Eris. In fact, Ganymede, which is the biggest moon in the solar system, is even larger than the planet Mercury!

Scientists are particularly interested in Europa, the smallest of the Galilean moons, because it may be a likely place to find extraterrestrial life. The surface of Europa is a smooth layer of ice. Evidence suggests that there is an ocean of liquid water under the ice. Europa also has a continual source of energy—it is heated as it is stretched and squashed by tidal forces from Jupiter. Because it has liquid water and a continual heat source, astrobiologists surmise that life might have formed on Europa much as it did on Earth. Numerous missions have been planned to explore Europa, including plans to drill through the ice and send a probe into the ocean. However, no such mission has yet been attempted.

In 1979, two spacecraft (Voyager 1 and Voyager 2) visited Jupiter and its moons. Photos from the Voyager missions showed that Jupiter has a ring system. This ring system is very faint, so it is very difficult to observe from Earth.

Saturn[edit]

Saturn, shown in Figure 25.23, is famous for its beautiful rings. Saturn's mass is about 95 times the mass of Earth, and its volume is 755 times Earth's volume, making it the second largest planet in the solar system. Despite its large size, Saturn is the least dense planet in our solar system. It is less dense than water, which means if there could be a bathtub big enough, Saturn would float. In Roman mythology, Saturn was the father of Jupiter. So, it is an appropriate name for the next planet beyond Jupiter. Saturn orbits the Sun once about every 30 Earth years.

Figure 25.23: This image of Saturn and its rings is a composite of pictures taken by the Cassini orbiter in 2004.

Saturn's composition is similar to Jupiter. It is made mostly of hydrogen and helium, which are gases in the outer layers and liquids at deeper layers. It may also have a small solid core. The upper atmosphere has clouds in bands of different colors. These rotate rapidly around the planet, but there seems to be less turbulence and fewer storms on Saturn than on Jupiter.

A Weird Hexagon[edit]

There is a strange feature at Saturn's north pole—the clouds form a hexagonal pattern, as shown in the infrared image in Figure 25.24. This hexagon was viewed by Voyager 1 in the 1980s, and again by the Cassini Orbiter in 2006, so it seems to be a long-lasting feature. Though astronomers have hypothesized and speculated about what causes these hexagonal clouds, no one has yet come up with a convincing explanation.

Figure 25.24: This infrared image taken of Saturn’s north pole shows that the clouds are in a hexagon (six-sided) shape.

Saturn's Rings[edit]

The rings of Saturn were first observed by Galileo in 1610. However, he could not see them clearly enough to realize they were rings; he thought they might be two large moons, one on either side of Saturn. In 1659, the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens was the first to realize that the rings were in fact rings. The rings circle Saturn's equator. They appear tilted because Saturn itself is tilted about 27 degrees to the side. The rings do not touch the planet.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft visited Saturn in 1980, followed by Voyager 2 in 1981. The Voyager probes sent back detailed pictures of Saturn, its rings, and some of its moons. From the Voyager data, we learned that Saturn's rings are made of particles of water and ice, with a little bit of dust as well. There are several gaps in the rings. Some of the gaps have been cleared out by moons that are within the rings. Scientists believe the moons' gravity caused ring dust and gas to fall towards the moon, leaving a gap in the rings. Other gaps in the rings are caused by the competing gravitational forces of Saturn and of moons outside the rings.

Saturn's Moons[edit]

As of 2008, over 60 moons have been identified around Saturn. Most of them are very small. Some are even found within the rings. In a sense, all the particles in the rings are like little moons, too, because they orbit around Saturn. Only seven of Saturn's moons are large enough for gravity to have made them spherical, and all but one are smaller than Earth's moon.

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is about one and a half times the size of Earth's Moon and is also larger than the planet Mercury. Figure 25.25 compares the size of Titan to Earth. Scientists are very interested in Titan because it has an atmosphere that is similar to what Earth's atmosphere might have been like before life developed on Earth. Titan may have a layer of liquid water under a layer of ice on the surface. Scientists now believe there are also lakes on the surface of Titan, but these lakes contain liquid methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6) instead of water! Methane and ethane are compounds found in natural gas, a mixture of gases found naturally on Earth and often used as fuel.

Figure 25.25: This composite image compares Saturn's largest moon, Titan (right) to Earth (left). Titan has an atmosphere similar to what Earth's might have been like before life formed on Earth.

Uranus[edit]

Uranus, shown in Figure 25.26, is named for the Greek god of the sky. In Greek mythology, Uranus was the father of Cronos, the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Saturn. By the way, astronomers pronounce the name "YOOR-uh-nuhs".

Figure 25.26: This image of Uranus was taken by Voyager 2 in 1986.

Uranus was not known to ancient observers. It was first discovered by the astronomer William Herschel in 1781. Uranus can be seen from Earth with the unaided eye, but it was overlooked for centuries because it is very faint. Uranus is faint because it is very far away, not because it is small. It is about 2.8 billion kilometers (1.8 billion miles) from the Sun. Light from the Sun takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes to reach Uranus. Uranus orbits the Sun once about every 84 Earth years.

An Icy Blue-Green Ball[edit]

Figure 25.27: This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the faint rings of Uranus. The planet is tilted on its side, so the rings are nearly vertical.

Like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium. It has a thick layer of gas on the outside, then liquid further on the inside. However, Uranus has a higher percentage of icy materials, such as water, ammonia (NH3), and methane (CH4), than Jupiter and Saturn do. When sunlight reflects off Uranus, clouds of methane filter out red light, giving the planet a blue-green color. There are bands of clouds in the atmosphere of Uranus, but they are hard to see in normal light, so the planet looks like a plain blue ball.

Uranus is the lightest of the outer planets, with a mass about 14 times the mass of Earth. Even though it has much more mass than Earth, it is much less dense than Earth. At the "surface" of Uranus, the gravity is actually weaker than on Earth's surface. If you were at the top of the clouds on Uranus, you would weigh about 10% less than what you weigh on Earth.

The Sideways Planet[edit]

Most of the planets in the solar system rotate on their axes in the same direction that they move around the Sun. Uranus, though, is tilted on its side so its axis is almost parallel to its orbit. In other words, it rotates like a top that was turned so that it was spinning parallel to the floor. Scientists think that Uranus was probably knocked over by a collision with another planet-sized object billions of years ago.

Rings and Moons of Uranus[edit]

Uranus has a faint system of rings, as shown in Figure 25.27. The rings circle the planet's equator, but because Uranus is tilted on its side, the rings are almost perpendicular to the planet's orbit.

Uranus has 27 moons that we know of. All but a few of them are named for characters from the plays of William Shakespeare. The five biggest moons of Uranus—Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon—are shown in Figure 25.28.

Figure 25.28: These Voyager 2 photos have been resized to show the relative sizes of the main moons of Uranus. From left to right: Puck, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon.

Neptune[edit]

Neptune, shown in Figure 25.29, is the eighth planet from the Sun. It is the only major planet that can't be seen from Earth without a telescope. Scientists predicted the existence of Neptune before it was actually discovered. They noticed that Uranus did not always appear exactly where it should appear. They knew there must be another planet beyond Uranus whose gravity was affecting Uranus' orbit. This planet was discovered in 1846, in the position that had been predicted, and it was named Neptune for the Roman god of the sea due to its blue-ish color.

This image of Neptune was taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. The Great Dark Spot seen on the left center in the picture has since disappeared, but a similar dark spot has appeared on another part of the planet.

Neptune has slightly more mass than Uranus, but it is slightly smaller in size. In many respects, it is similar to Uranus. Uranus and Neptune are often considered "sister planets". Neptune, which is nearly 4.5 billion kilometers (2.8 billion miles) from the Sun, is much farther from the Sun than even distant Uranus. It moves very slowly in its orbit, taking 165 Earth years to complete one orbit around the Sun.

Extremes of Cold and Wind[edit]

Neptune is blue in color, with a few darker and lighter spots. The blue color is caused by atmospheric gases, including methane (CH4). When Voyager 2 made its closest encounter with Neptune in 1989, there was a large dark-blue spot south of the equator. This spot was called the Great Dark Spot. However, when the Hubble Space Telescope took pictures of Neptune in 1994, the Great Dark Spot had disappeared. Instead, another dark spot had appeared north of the equator. Astronomers believe both of these spots represent gaps in the methane clouds on Neptune.

The changing appearance of Neptune is due to its turbulent atmosphere. The winds on Neptune are stronger than on any other planet in the solar system, reaching speeds of 1,100 km/h (700 mi/h), close to the speed of sound. This extreme weather surprised astronomers, since the planet receives little energy from the Sun to power weather systems. Neptune is also one of the coldest places in the solar system. Temperatures at the top of the clouds are about –218°C (–360°F).

Neptune's Rings and Moons[edit]

Like the other outer planets, Neptune has rings of ice and dust. These rings are much thinner and fainter than those of Saturn. Some evidence suggests that the rings of Neptune may be unstable, and may change or disappear in a relatively short time.

Neptune has 13 known moons. Triton, shown in Figure 25.30, is the only one of them that has enough mass to be spherical in shape. Triton orbits in the direction opposite to the orbit of Neptune. Scientists think Triton did not form around Neptune, but instead was captured by Neptune's gravity as it passed by.

Figure 25.30: This image of Triton, Neptune's largest moon, was taken by Voyager 2 in 1989.

Pluto[edit]

Pluto was once considered one of the outer planets, but when the definition of a planet was changed in 2006, Pluto became one of the leaders of the dwarf planets. It is one of the largest and brightest objects that make up this group. Look for Pluto in the next section in the discussion of dwarf planets. Pluto is no longer considered a planet.

Lesson Summary[edit]

The four outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—are all gas giants made primarily of hydrogen and helium. They have thick gaseous outer layers and liquid interiors.

  • All of the outer planets have numerous moons, as well as planetary rings made of dust and other particles.
  • Jupiter is by far the largest planet in the solar system. It has bands of different colored clouds, and a long-lasting storm called the Great Red Spot.
  • Jupiter has over 60 moons. The four biggest were discovered by Galileo, and are called the Galilean moons.
  • One of the Galilean moons, Europa, may have an ocean of liquid water under a layer of ice. The conditions in this ocean might be right for life to have developed.
  • Saturn is smaller than Jupiter, but similar in composition and structure.
  • Saturn has a large system of beautiful rings. Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has an atmosphere similar to Earth’s atmosphere before life formed.
  • Uranus and Neptune were discovered in modern times. They are similar to each other in size and composition. They are both smaller than Jupiter and Saturn, and also have more icy materials.
  • Uranus is tilted on its side, probably due to a collision with a large object in the past.
  • Neptune is very cold and has very strong winds. It had a large dark spot that disappeared, then another dark spot appeared on another part of the planet. These dark spots are storms in Neptune’s atmosphere.
  • Pluto is no longer considered one of the outer planets. It is now considered a dwarf planet.

Review Questions[edit]

  1. Name the outer planets a) in order from the Sun outward, b) from largest to smallest by mass, and c) from largest to smallest by size.
  2. Why are the outer planets called gas giants?
  3. How do the Great Red Spot and Great Dark Spot differ?
  4. Name the Galilean moons, and explain why they are called that.
  5. Why might Europa be a likely place to find extraterrestrial life?
  6. What causes gaps in Saturn's rings?
  7. Why are scientists interested in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan?
  8. What liquid is found on the surface of Titan?
  9. Why is Uranus blue-green in color?
  10. What is the name of Neptune's largest moon?

Vocabulary[edit]

Galilean moons
The four largest moons of Jupiter discovered by Galileo.
gas giants
The four large outer planets composed of the gases hydrogen and helium.
Great Red Spot
An enormous, oval shaped storm on Jupiter.
outer planets
The four large planets beyond the asteroid belt in our solar system.
planetary rings
Rings of dust and rock encircling a planet in a thin plane.

Points to Consider[edit]

  • The inner planets are small and rocky, while the outer planets are large and gaseous. Why might the planets have formed into two groups like they are?
  • We have discussed the Sun, the planets, and the moons of the planets. What other objects can you think of that can be found in our solar system?


Inner Planets · Other Objects in the Solar System