Solar System Planets: Order of the 8 (or 9) Planets

Ever since the discovery of Pluto in 1930, kids grew up learning about the nine planets of our solar system. That all changed starting in the late 1990s, when astronomers began to argue about whether Pluto was a planet. In a highly controversial decision, the International Astronomical Union ultimately decided in 2006 to call Pluto a “dwarf planet,” reducing the list of “real planets” in our solar system to eight.

However, astronomers are now hunting for another planet in our solar system, a true ninth planet, after evidence of its existence was unveiled on Jan. 20, 2016. The so-called “Planet Nine,” as scientists are calling it, is about 10 times the mass of Earth and 5,000 times the mass of Pluto. [The Evidence for ‘Planet Nine’ in Our Solar System (Gallery)]

Did You Know? Three of the planets in the solar system are currently visible in the night sky in June 2017. They are: Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. You can find out how and when to see the brightest planets in June’s night sky here: The Brightest Planets in June’s Night Sky: How to See them (and When)

Here’s the order of the planets, starting nearest the sun and working outward through the solar systemMercuryVenusEarthMarsJupiterSaturnUranusNeptune — and Planet Nine.

Solar System Pictures: A Photo Tour

If you insist on including Pluto, then that world would come after Neptune on the list; Pluto is truly way out there, and on a wildly tilted, elliptical orbit (two of the several reasons it got demoted). Interestingly, Pluto used to be the eighth planet, actually. More on that below.

The inner four worlds are called “terrestrial planets,” because, like Earth, their surfaces are all rocky. Pluto, too, has a solid surface (and a very frozen one) but has never been grouped with the four terrestrials.
The four large outer worlds — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — are known as the “Jovian planets” (meaning “Jupiter-like”) because they are all huge compared to the terrestrial planets, and because they are gaseous in nature rather than having rocky surfaces (though some or all of them may have solid cores, astronomers say). According to NASA, “two of the outer planets beyond the orbit of Mars — Jupiter and Saturn — are known as gas giants; the more distant Uranus and Neptune are called ice giants.” This is because, while the first two are dominated by gas, while the last two have more ice. All four contain mostly hydrogen and helium.

The IAU definition of a full-fledged planet goes like this: A body that circles the sun without being some other object’s satellite, is large enough to be rounded by its own gravity (but not so big that it begins to undergo nuclear fusion, like a star) and has “cleared its neighborhood” of most other orbiting bodies. Yeah, that’s a mouthful.

The problem for Pluto, besides its small size and offbeat orbit, is that it shares its space with lots of other objects in the Kuiper Belt, beyond Neptune. Still, the demotion of Pluto remains controversial.

The IAU planet definition puts other small, round worlds in the dwarf planetcategory, including the Kuiper Belt objects ErisHaumea, and Makemake.

 Also now a dwarf planet is Ceres, a round object in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was actually considered a planet when discovered in 1801 and then later deemed to be an asteroid. Some astronomers like to consider Ceres as a 10th planet (not to be confused with Nibiru or Planet X), but that line of thinking opens up the possibility of there being 13 planets, with more bound to be discovered.

Below is a brief overview of the eight primary planets in our solar system, in order from the inner solar system outward:

The closest planet to the sun, Mercury is only a bit larger than Earth’s moon. Its day side is scorched by the sun and can reach 840 degrees Fahrenheit (450 Celsius), but on the night side, temperatures drop to hundreds of degrees below freezing. Mercury has virtually no atmosphere to absorb meteor impacts, so its surface is pockmarked with craters, just like the moon. Over its four-year mission, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has revealed views of the planet that have challenged astronomers’ expectations.

  • Discovery: Known to the ancients and visible to the naked eye
  • Named for: Messenger of the Roman gods
  • Diameter: 3,031 miles (4,878 km)
  • Orbit: 88 Earth days
  • Day: 58.6 Earth days

The second planet from the sun, Venus is terribly hot, even hotter than Mercury. The atmosphere is toxic. The pressure at the surface would crush and kill you. Scientists describe Venus’ situation as a runaway greenhouse effect. Its size and structure are similar to Earth, Venus’ thick, toxic atmosphere traps heat in a runaway “greenhouse effect.” Oddly, Venus spins slowly in the opposite direction of most planets.

The Greeks believed Venus was two different objects — one in the morning sky and another in the evening. Because it is often brighter than any other object in the sky — except for the sun and moon — Venus has generated many UFO reports.

  • Discovery: Known to the ancients and visible to the naked eye
  • Named for: Roman goddess of love and beauty
  • Diameter: 7,521 miles (12,104 km)
  • Orbit: 225 Earth days
  • Day: 241 Earth days

The third planet from the sun, Earth is a waterworld, with two-thirds of the planet covered by ocean. It’s the only world known to harbor life. Earth’s atmosphere is rich in life-sustaining nitrogen and oxygen. Earth’s surface rotates about its axis at 1,532 feet per second (467 meters per second) — slightly more than 1,000 mph (1,600 kph) — at the equator. The planet zips around the sun at more than 18 miles per second (29 km per second).

  • Diameter: 7,926 miles (12,760 km)
  • Orbit: 365.24 days
  • Day: 23 hours, 56 minutes

The fourth planet from the sun, is a cold, dusty place. The dust, an iron oxide, gives the planet its reddish cast. Mars shares similarities with Earth: It is rocky, has mountains and valleys, and storm systems ranging from localized tornado-like dust devils to planet-engulfing dust storms. It snows on Mars. And Mars harbors water ice. Scientists think it was once wet and warm, though today it’s cold and desert-like.

Mars’ atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to exist on the surface for any length of time. Scientists think ancient Mars would have had the conditions to support life, and there is hope that signs of past life — possibly even present biology — may exist on the Red Planet.

  • Discovery: Known to the ancients and visible to the naked eye
  • Named for: Roman god of war
  • Diameter: 4,217 miles (6,787 km)
  • Orbit: 687 Earth days
  • Day: Just more than one Earth day (24 hours, 37 minutes)

The fifth planet from the sun, Jupiter is huge and is the most massive planet in our solar system. It’s a mostly gaseous world, mostly hydrogen and helium. Its swirling clouds are colorful due to different types of trace gases. A big feature is the Great Red Spot, a giant storm which has raged for hundreds of years. Jupiter has a strong magnetic field, and with dozens of moons, it looks a bit like a miniature solar system.

  • Discovery: Known to the ancients and visible to the naked eye
  • Named for: Ruler of the Roman gods
  • Diameter: 86,881 miles (139,822 km)
  • Orbit: 11.9 Earth years
  • Day: 9.8 Earth hours

The sixth planet from the sun is known most for its rings. When Galileo Galilei first studied Saturn in the early 1600s, he thought it was an object with three parts. Not knowing he was seeing a planet with rings, the stumped astronomer entered a small drawing — a symbol with one large circle and two smaller ones — in his notebook, as a noun in a sentence describing his discovery. More than 40 years later, Christiaan Huygens proposed that they were rings. The rings are made of ice and rock. Scientists are not yet sure how they formed. The gaseous planet is mostly hydrogen and helium. It has numerous moons.

  • Discovery: Known to the ancients and visible to the naked eye
  • Named for: Roman god of agriculture
  • Diameter: 74,900 miles (120,500 km)
  • Orbit: 29.5 Earth years
  • Day: About 10.5 Earth hours

The seventh planet from the sun, Uranus is an oddball. It’s the only giant planet whose equator is nearly at right angles to its orbit — it basically orbits on its side. Astronomers think the planet collided with some other planet-size object long ago, causing the tilt. The tilt causes extreme seasons that last 20-plus years, and the sun beats down on one pole or the other for 84 Earth-years. Uranus is about the same size as Neptune. Methane in the atmosphere gives Uranus its blue-green tint. It has numerous moons and faint rings.

  • Discovery: 1781 by William Herschel (was thought previously to be a star)
  • Named for: Personification of heaven in ancient myth
  • Diameter: 31,763 miles (51,120 km)
  • Orbit: 84 Earth years
  • Day: 18 Earth hours

The eighth planet from the sun, Neptune is known for strong winds — sometimes faster than the speed of sound. Neptune is far out and cold. The planet is more than 30 times as far from the sun as Earth. It has a rocky core. Neptune was the first planet to be predicted to exist by using math, before it was detected. Irregularities in the orbit of Uranus led French astronomer Alexis Bouvard to suggest some other might be exerting a gravitational tug. German astronomer Johann Galle used calculations to help find Neptune in a telescope. Neptune is about 17 times as massive as Earth.

  • Discovery: 1846
  • Named for: Roman god of water
  • Diameter: 30,775 miles (49,530 km)
  • Orbit: 165 Earth years
  • Day: 19 Earth hours

Once the ninth planet from the sun, Pluto is unlike other planets in many respects. It is smaller than Earth’s moon. Its orbit carries it inside the orbit of Neptune and then way out beyond that orbit. From 1979 until early 1999, Pluto had actually been the eighth planet from the sun. Then, on Feb. 11, 1999, it crossed Neptune’s path and once again became the solar system’s most distant planet — until it was demoted to dwarf planet status. Pluto will stay beyond Neptune for 228 years. Pluto’s orbit is tilted to the main plane of the solar system — where the other planets orbit — by 17.1 degrees. It’s a cold, rocky world with only a very ephemeral atmosphere. NASA’s New Horizons mission performed history’s first flyby of the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. [Related: New Horizons’ Pluto Flyby: Latest News, Images and Video]

  • Discovery: 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh
  • Named for: Roman god of the underworld, Hades
  • Diameter: 1,430 miles (2,301 km)
  • Orbit: 248 Earth years
  • Day: 6.4 Earth day

Planet Nine orbits the sun at a distance that is 20 times farther out than the orbit of Neptune. (The orbit of Neptune is 2.7 billion miles from the sun at its closest point.)  The strange world’s orbit is about 600 times farther from the sun than the Earth’s orbit is from the star.

Scientists have not actually seen Planet Nine directly. Its existence was inferred by its gravitational effects on other objects in the Kuiper Belt, a region at the fringe of the solar system that is home to icy objects left over from the birth of the sun and planets.

‘Planet Nine’: Facts About the Mysterious Solar System World (Infographic)

Scientists Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena described the evidence for Planet Nine in a study published in the Astronomical Journal. The research is based on mathematical models and computer simulations using observations of six other smaller Kuiper Belt Objects with orbits that aligned in a similar matter.



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