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With Explore the Planets, investigate the planets, their moons, and understand the processes that shape them. By G. Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.

Our Solar System

Our solar system is filled with a wide assortment of celestial bodies - the Sun itself, our eight planets, dwarf planets, and asteroids - and on Earth, life itself! The inner solar system is occasionally visited by comets that loop in from the outer reaches of the solar system on highly elliptical orbits. In the outer reaches of the solar system, we find the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud. Still farther out, we eventually reach the limits of the heliosphere, where the outer reaches of the solar system interact with interstellar space. Solar system formation began billions of years ago, when gases and dust began to come together to form the Sun, planets, and other bodies of the solar system.

Neptune's <a href="/neptune/lower_atmosphere.html">atmosphere</a> shows
a striped pattern of
<a href="/neptune/atmosphere/N_clouds_overview.html">clouds</a>.
This cloud pattern is very similar to that of
<a href="/jupiter/jupiter.html">Jupiter</a> and
<a href="/saturn/saturn.html">Saturn</a>.
Neptune even has a <a href="/neptune/atmosphere/N_clouds_GDS.html">Great Dark
Spot</a> similar
to Jupiter's <a href="/jupiter/atmosphere/J_clouds_GRS.html">Great
Red Spot</a>.
The Great Dark Spot of Neptune is thought to be a hole, similar to the hole
in the <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/ozone_layer.html">ozone layer on
Earth</a>,
in the <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/methane.html">methane</a> cloud
deck of Neptune.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA</em></small></p>This dramatic view of Jupiter's <a href="/jupiter/atmosphere/J_clouds_GRS.html">Great Red Spot</a> and its surroundings was obtained by <a href="/space_missions/voyager.html">Voyager 1</a> on Feb. 25, 1979, when the spacecraft was 5.7 million miles (9.2 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Cloud details as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across can be seen here. The colorful, wavy cloud pattern to the left of the Red Spot is a region of extraordinarily complex end variable wave motion.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA</em></small></p><a href="/asteroids/asteroid_lutetia.html">Lutetia</a> is a medium-sized <a href="/our_solar_system/asteroids.html">asteroid</a>. It orbits the <a href="/sun/sun.html">Sun</a> in the main asteroid belt between the planets <a href="/mars/mars.html">Mars</a> and <a href="/jupiter/jupiter.html">Jupiter</a>.  This lumpy object is about 96 km (60 miles) in diameter. It isn't a perfect sphere, though. Lutetia is 132 km (82 miles) across one way, but only about 76 km (47 miles) long in another direction. The European space probe <a href="/space_missions/robotic/rosetta_flyby_asteroid_lutetia_july_2010.html">Rosetta flew past Lutetia</a> in July 2010, and gave us our first good look at the asteroid.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.</em></small></p>New observations by the MESSENGER spacecraft provide  support for the hypothesis that Mercury harbors abundant water ice and other frozen volatile materials in its permanently shadowed (shown in red) polar craters. Areas where polar deposits of ice imaged by Earth-based radar are shown in yellow.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory</em></small></p>The spinning vortex of <a href="https://www.windows2universe.org/saturn/saturn.html">Saturn</a>'s north polar storm resembles a giant deep red rose surrounded by green foliage in this false-color <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/multimedia/pia14944.html">image</a> from NASA's <a href="https://www.windows2universe.org/missions/cassini.html">Cassini spacecraft</a>. The eye is 2,000 kilometers across with cloud speeds as fast as 150 meters per second.
It is not known how long this newly discovered north-polar <a href="https://www.windows2universe.org/earth/Atmosphere/hurricane/hurricane.html">hurricane</a> has been active.
The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 419,000 kilometers from Saturn.<p><small><em>NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI</em></small></p>According to <a href="http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2013-277">NASA scientists</a>, the Voyager 1 spacecraft entered interstellar space in August 2012, becoming the first spacecraft to leave the <a href="/our_solar_system/solar_system.html">solar system</a>. The space probe is about 19 billion km from the <a href="/sun/sun.html">Sun</a>.  <a href="/space_missions/voyager.html">Voyager 1 and 2</a> were launched in 1977 on a <a href="/space_missions/voyager.html">mission</a> that flew them both by <a href="/jupiter/jupiter.html">Jupiter</a> and <a href="/saturn/saturn.html">Saturn</a>, with Voyager 2 continuing to <a href="/uranus/uranus.html">Uranus</a> and <a href="/neptune/neptune.html">Neptune</a>. Voyager 2 is the longest continuously operated spacecraft. It is about 15 billion km away from the <a href="/sun/sun.html">Sun</a>.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA</em></small></p>

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA