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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.

A near-Earth <a href="/our_solar_system/asteroids.html&dev=1">asteroid</a> - named 2012 DA14 by astronomers  passed within 17,200 miles from Earth on February 15, 2013. On closest approach at about 1:25 p.m. CST on February 15, although it was within the orbit of the <a href="/earth/moons_and_rings.html&dev=1">Moon</a> and even geosynchronous <a href="/space_missions/satellites.html&dev=1">satellites</a>, it didn't strike Earth!  Find out more from <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/asteroids/news/asteroid20130201315144.html">NASA</a>! Fragments of a meteorite hit Chelyabinsk, Russia on 2/15/2013 <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/15/us-russia-meteorite-idUSBRE91E05Z20130215">injuring over 500</a>. Learn about <a href="http://www.windows2universe.org/our_solar_system/meteors/meteors.html">meteors and meteorites</a>.<p><small><em>NASA/JPL-CalTech</em></small></p>This dramatic view of Jupiter's <a href="/jupiter/atmosphere/J_clouds_GRS.html&dev=1">Great Red Spot</a> and its surroundings was obtained by <a href="/space_missions/voyager.html&dev=1">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>Have you ever seen the <a href="/earth/Magnetosphere/aurora.html&dev=1">Southern or Northern Lights</a>? Earth isn't the only planet that puts on these beautiful light shows, which are also called the "<a href="/earth/Magnetosphere/aurora.html&dev=1">aurora</a>". Aurora have been seen at both <a href="/saturn/saturn_polar_regions.html&dev=1">poles of Saturn</a>, too, as well as at the poles of <a href="/jupiter/magnetosphere/jupiter_aurora.html&dev=1">Jupiter</a>.  These "<a href="/earth/Magnetosphere/tour/tour_earth_magnetosphere_09.html&dev=1">curtains of light</a>" sometimes rise 1,200 miles (2,000 km) above the <a href="/saturn/atmosphere/S_clouds_overview.html&dev=1">cloud tops</a> near Saturn's poles. The <a href="/space_missions/HST.html&dev=1">Hubble Space Telescope</a> took this picture in 2004.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA, ESA, J. Clarke (Boston University), and Z. Levay (STScI)</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&dev=1">solar system</a>. The space probe is about 19 billion km from the <a href="/sun/sun.html&dev=1">Sun</a>.  <a href="/space_missions/voyager.html&dev=1">Voyager 1 and 2</a> were launched in 1977 on a <a href="/space_missions/voyager.html&dev=1">mission</a> that flew them both by <a href="/jupiter/jupiter.html&dev=1">Jupiter</a> and <a href="/saturn/saturn.html&dev=1">Saturn</a>, with Voyager 2 continuing to <a href="/uranus/uranus.html&dev=1">Uranus</a> and <a href="/neptune/neptune.html&dev=1">Neptune</a>. Voyager 2 is the longest continuously operated spacecraft. It is about 15 billion km away from the <a href="/sun/sun.html&dev=1">Sun</a>.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA</em></small></p>Comets are <a href="/comets/comet_nucleus.html&dev=1">lumps</a> of ice
and dust that periodically come into the center of the solar system from
its <a href="/comets/Oort_cloud.html&dev=1">outer
reaches</a>.
Some comets make <a href="/comets/perihelion_pass.html&dev=1">repeated
trips</a> to the inner
solar system. When comets get close enough to the Sun, heat
makes them start to <a href="/comets/sublimation.html&dev=1">evaporate</a>.
Jets of gas and dust form long
<a href="/comets/tail.html&dev=1">tails</a> that we can see from
Earth. 
This photograph shows <a href="/comets/comets_table.html&dev=1">Comet
Kohoutek</a>,
which visited the inner solar system in 1973.  It has an
<a href="/physical_science/physics/mechanics/orbit/orbit_shape_interactive.html&dev=1">orbit</a> of
about 75,000 years!<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA</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>

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF