mercury Venus earth mars jupiter saturn uranus neptune pluto

Introduction and FAQ

The Nine Planets is a collection of information about our Solar System intended for a general audience with little technical background. No special expertise or knowledge is needed; all technical and astronomical terms and proper names are defined in the glossary. The bulk of this material should be familiar to planetary scientists and astronomers but they may find a few interesting tidbits, too.

This site consists of about pages, one page for each major body in the Solar System. Each page has:

To truly justify the title of "Multimedia Tour", I've also included:

There are also a few miscellaneous pages: on planetary science spacecraft, the glossary, a list of some of the planetary images available elsewhere on the Net, some bits of history, several pages of data and a special plea for your support of the space program.

The pages of this document are organized in a hierarchy based on the primary-satellite relationship. In addition, there are many hyperlinks enabling the interactive viewer to jump around and view the pages in many ways. If you "get lost" you can always jump back to the table of contents by clicking the NinePlanets icon at the bottom left of each page. And many pages have a Google search box where you can search for keywords in this site (or the whole web).

At the bottom of each page is a set of links to other related pages. To visit the next body in an ordered traversal of the solar system choose the link immediately to the right of the name of the current page. You can also go back to the previous page, the "parent" page, the table of contents or to the detailed data page.

I've chosen ten of the most interesting bodies and linked them into an Express Tour. If you don't have time for the full tour, don't miss these.

And if you want to read offline or just explore in more depth, visit The Nine Planets Bookstore or the "Hardcopy" links found at the right side of some pages.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q: May I use your pictures for my class project?
A: Yes. For other uses, please see my copyright page.


Q: May I make a link to your site?
A: Yes. You may make links to the whole site or any of the individual pages.


Q: I want to see all this for myself. What kind of telescope should I buy?
A: The best advice for new amateur astronomers is to find your local amateur astronomy club. They will have lots of scopes you can look thru and lots of knowledgeable people you can talk to. Here's some more info and here's a description of my telescopes and other goodies. All the planets and many of the larger moons can be seen with a modest telescope but it takes a little effort. (And the results don't look like NASA's; if they did, then we wouldn't need NASA, after all :-)


Q: When will the planets next line up? Will there be a disaster?
A: Never. It can't happen. And even if it did it would be no problem. The planets are too small to have a significant gravitational effect on the Earth. See the following for more information:
Harmonic Con(game)vergence
Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy: Review: Tomb Raider
Planets Alignments in 2000 - Griffith Observatory
Planets Alignments: Fact or Fiction?
An excellent article from the National Solar Observatory


Q: Is there a tenth planet (Planet X)? Will it destroy the Earth?
A: No. It is remotely possible that there might be a body out there beyond Pluto that is large enough to be called a planet but we have no evidence for such a thing nor any reason to suspect one might be there. Careful searches have been made and nothing has been found. If there's a large planet out there it must be very far out. (There are lots of smaller bodies, though, see my page about the Kuiper Belt).

For more interesting stories about this topic see the Hypothetical Planets page by Paul Schlyter.


Q: Is Pluto a really planet?
A: Yes. The official arbiter of such questions is the IAU and they have decided that Pluto should be classified as a planet. There are good arguments on both sides of this issue, however.


Q: What's the definition of "planet", anyway?
A: There is no good generally accepted definition of the term "planet". As far as our own solar system is concerned there are good historical reasons to just define "planet" as "one of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto". Clearly, this isn't very scientific. But any more scientific definition that isn't totally arbitrary is likely to result in a different set of objects included as "planets" and thus confuse the traditional use of the word. And it just gets worse when we consider the planet-sized objects we've recently discovered orbiting other stars.

It's not really very important how we classify the various objects out there. What's important is to learn about their physical nature and their origins.

Here are a few links about this topic:

news report from UC Berkeley
Extrasolar planets
IAU extra solar planet definition
Dr. Basri's links

Q: What about Sedna?
A: The newly discovered object 2003 VB12 aka "Sedna" has a diameter of about 1800 kilometers, slightly smaller than Pluto (2300km). (This number has a pretty large uncertainty, we are as yet unable to measure its diameter directly.) This is clearly not big enough to qualify as a "planet" by most definitions.

It is nevertheless a very interesting object. For more information see here.


Q: Where can I buy calendars, large prints and posters with astronomical images?
A: Try online stores of The Planetary Society or the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.


Q: What's the mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets?
A: I know of three in English:

"My very excellent mother just sent us nine pizzas."
"Most voters earn money just showing up near polls!"
"My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets."
and one in German:
"Mein Vater erklaert mir jeden Sonntag unsere neun Planeten."
(My father explains me every sunday our nine planets.)

Q: What does the "e" in some of your numbers mean?
A: "times ten to the power". So "1.2e3" means "1.2 times ten to the power 3" or "1200". Or you can think of it as moving the decimal place to the right the number of digits after the "e". You can see why we use this notation when the number after the "e" is large: "1.23e18" means "1230000000000000000".


Q: What's the bright thing I'm seeing in the sky?
A: The easiest way to figure out questions like this is with a "planetarium program". There are lots of good ones. Some of are are fancy and expensive and intended for serious amateur astronomers; some are free; almost all will answer the basic questions. My favorite is Starry Night (for both Mac and PC).


Q: How far away from Earth is Mars (or some other planet) right now?
A: That is difficult to answer without a computer. You cannot simply subtract the average distance from the Sun of the two planets since it's only at one special time when they're both in a line with the Sun. Fortunately, most "planetarium programs" will do the trick.


Q: How do you know that the world is so old?
A: There are many lines of evidence all converging on an age for the whole universe of 13.7 billion years and 4.6 billion years for our solar system and the Earth. A detailed answer is beyond the scope of this FAQ. There's a nice introduction at http://www.astrosociety.org/education/publications/tnl/56/ .


Q: Why are the planets round?
A: Think about what it would mean if a planet were not round (spherical). That would mean that some places on the surface are farther from the center than others (ie there would be mountains). As we know mountains do exist on the planets. But even the largest ones must be small compared to the radius of the planet (the height of tallest mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons on Mars, is less than 1% of Mars's radius). Why? Because if it were very much taller the rocks at the bottom would not be strong enough to hold it up. They would bend like plastic. Rock is simply not strong enough to support a mountain that is large compared to a planet. But on a smaller body, like some of the smaller moons and asteroids, the force of gravity is much weaker and so rock can support relatively large "mountains".


Q: Why do all the planets orbit in (approximately) the same plane?
A: Because the Sun and the planets were originally condensed out of a spinning nebula of gas and dust. As it collapesed, the cloud flattened into a disk with the Sun at the center and the planets formed farther out. But why did all the dust (and gas, the vast majority of the mass) end up in a plane? Because if you start with a rotating irregular blob, which is the usual case, then collisions between the particles tend to average out the motions of the particles. Thus the motions perpendicular to the spin equator get zeroed out and the motions parallel to it get averaged to the general rotation rate.


Q: Who discovered Jupiter (Saturn, Mars, Mercury, Venus)?
A: Lots of people. Jupiter (and the other "classical" planets) have been known since before the beginning of history. This is not surprising since they are so bright and easy to see and so obviously different from the stars (since they move). See my chronology page for more recent discoveries.


Q: Does our solar system have a name? Does our moon have a name? Does our sun have a name?
A: No. No. No. Sorry. They should. But they don't. At least not in English. There are, of course, many words used to refer to the Sun and the Moon in other languages. "Sol" and "Luna" are often thought of as proper names but they're really Latin, not English. So far there hasn't been a need for anything more. Maybe when we start living on other places besides the Earth....


Q: What's the deal with astrology?
A: It's simply nonsense, a way to separate fools from their money. (The worst thing you can do to an astronomer is to call him an astrologer.)

To be fair, in the past astrology was a legitimate field of study. Some of the great men of science, in particuler Johannes Kepler, were astrologers. But in modern times we have come to realize that the basic idea of astrology, that the positions of the planets influence life on Earth, is not true. But due to the vagaries of history some astrological terminology (ie the names of the constellations) has survived in astronomy and in popular culture ("What's your sign?").


Q: What about UFOs?
A: There's a huge amount written and talked about but don't believe everything you read. I have never seen any credible evidence for UFOs.


Q: My question isn't here ...

Google
 
Web www.nineplanets.org
A: If it's a question about terminology, check the glossary. If it's a question about numbers, check the data pages. Try Phil Plait's excellent site, Bad Astronomy, it's actually not bad at all. Or try Google.



Other Solar System Info

Hardcopy

The New Solar System
Summarizes what we've learned from interplanetary explorations in the last 25 years. My primary reference for The Nine Planets.

Bad Astronomy
Print version of Phil Plait's excellent website. Get the straight story on many popular urban legends, myths and misconceptions. Great fun, too!

The Demon-Haunted World
Carl Sagan's plea for reason in an irrational world.

There are many other collections of information about the Solar System available on the World Wide Web:

Most of the inline pictures here come from these sources. Without their efforts and the efforts of all the scientists and engineers at NASA and JPL this website would not be possible.

Other Astronomical Pages

News

Universe Today
News about astronomy and space. Each item is a brief overview with links to sites where you can get more detail.


Where to go next

The full tour continues with the Overview (or if you're in a hurry take the Express Tour). The names at the bottom of each page provide access to the next world in the full tour and a few other related pages; the ikons provide access to the table of contents, the pages of numerical data and this site's "home page".

Home ... Introduction ... Overview ... Sun ... Data


Bill Arnett; last updated: 2005 Feb 2