In addition to Earth, seven other planets orbit the sun, some of which are visible in the night sky. Venus and Mercury lie closest to the sun, while Neptune and Uranus are the most distant planets. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn make up the remaining known planets and all eight have distinctive characteristics differentiating them from one another. Discovered in 1930, tiny Pluto lost its planet status in 2006 and is now regarded only as a dwarf planet.
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Third nearest to the sun, Earth is the only planet known to sustain life. From space, it appears blue then gradually reveals its white clouds, brown land and oceans. It is also the only planet containing life-maintaining liquid water, which covers three-quarters of its surface. Mostly made of rock and metal, the atmosphere of Earth is predominantly nitrogen, oxygen, and one percent of other gases, according to Solar Space.
The closest planet to the sun, Mercury has no air or atmosphere around it. Extremely hot during the day, by night it becomes freezing cold without an atmosphere to retain warmth. A rocky planet, Mercury is covered in hollow craters but is difficult to view due to its proximity to the sun. However, the BBC Solar System site suggests it is possible to see the planet from earth without a telescope.
Another rocky planet, and second nearest to the sun, Venus is surrounded by a thick layer of clouds but often shines brightly like a star just before sunrise and after sunset. This is due to sunlight reflecting on its clouds, although their density also prevents anyone viewing its rocky surface. Extremely hot with poisonous gas, Venus is unlikely ever to sustain life, according to Explorers Night Sky.
The next planet to the sun after Earth, Mars is known as the red planet due to its red dust, rocks and sky. Although very cold, its surface is the most similar to Earth yet there is no air to enable people or livestock to breathe. In addition to ice caps on its north and south poles, the surface of Mars is pocketed by giant volcanoes, the largest of which is Olympus Mons. The BBC reports that recent six-wheeled rovers confirmed water ice below the surface.
The largest planet of the solar system, Jupiter is composed of hydrogen and helium and has no solid surface. The outer layer has distinctive dark and bright zones and the reflection of sunlight makes it visible as a shining star from Earth. The cloudy layer is freezing cold but the planet becomes hotter towards its rocky metal core. Although it has sixteen moons, only the biggest four are visible from Earth with binoculars. According to National Geographic, “Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field is nearly 20,000 times as powerful as Earth’s.”
The second largest planet, Saturn is also mainly made of gas and liquid and is distinctive for its outer system of rings which stretch for thousands of kilometres. Visible only through a telescope, some of the rings contain large boulders or dust-sized pieces of ice. Saturn has the largest family of moons in the solar system and is the only planet less dense than water.
One of the furthest away planets, Uranus is only visible with a powerful telescope. Voyager 2 brought back some pictures and details of the planet from its visit in 1986. Very cold, it is made up of gas and liquids, its outer layers mostly comprising hydrogen and helium gas. The distinctive blue-green colour of Uranus is caused by methane gas. A system of eleven rings of dark rock circle the planet along with its fifteen moons.
Although made from the same gasses as Uranus, Neptune’s richer blue colouring comes from sunlight reflecting on the methane gas. The outermost and windiest planet in the solar system, light and dark spots are visible on its surface. According to Night Sky, the Great Dark Spot is evidence of a huge storm while white spots are clouds of methane ice. Neptune’s rings are dimmer than those of other planets.
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