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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.

This dramatic view of Jupiter's <a href="/jupiter/atmosphere/J_clouds_GRS.html&edu=elem">Great Red Spot</a> and its surroundings was obtained by <a href="/space_missions/voyager.html&edu=elem">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&edu=elem">Lutetia</a> is a medium-sized <a href="/our_solar_system/asteroids.html&edu=elem">asteroid</a>. It orbits the <a href="/sun/sun.html&edu=elem">Sun</a> in the main asteroid belt between the planets <a href="/mars/mars.html&edu=elem">Mars</a> and <a href="/jupiter/jupiter.html&edu=elem">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&edu=elem">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>Have you ever seen the <a href="/earth/Magnetosphere/aurora.html&edu=elem">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&edu=elem">aurora</a>". Aurora have been seen at both <a href="/saturn/saturn_polar_regions.html&edu=elem">poles of Saturn</a>, too, as well as at the poles of <a href="/jupiter/magnetosphere/jupiter_aurora.html&edu=elem">Jupiter</a>.  These "<a href="/earth/Magnetosphere/tour/tour_earth_magnetosphere_09.html&edu=elem">curtains of light</a>" sometimes rise 1,200 miles (2,000 km) above the <a href="/saturn/atmosphere/S_clouds_overview.html&edu=elem">cloud tops</a> near Saturn's poles. The <a href="/space_missions/HST.html&edu=elem">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>Lunar eclipses are special events that only occur when certain conditions are met. First of all, the Moon must be in <a href="/the_universe/uts/moon3.html&edu=elem">full phase</a>. Secondly, the <a href="/sun/sun.html&edu=elem">Sun</a>, <a href="/earth/earth.html&edu=elem">Earth</a> and <a href="/earth/moons_and_rings.html&edu=elem">Moon</a> must be in a perfectly straight line. If both of these are met, then the Earth's shadow can block the Sun's light from hitting the Moon.  The reddish glow of the Moon is caused by light from the Earth's limb scattering toward the Moon, which is reflected back to us from the Moon's surface.<p><small><em>Image credit - Doug Murray, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida</em></small></p>Comets are <a href="/comets/comet_nucleus.html&edu=elem">lumps</a> of ice
and dust that periodically come into the center of the solar system from
its <a href="/comets/Oort_cloud.html&edu=elem">outer
reaches</a>.
Some comets make <a href="/comets/perihelion_pass.html&edu=elem">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&edu=elem">evaporate</a>.
Jets of gas and dust form long
<a href="/comets/tail.html&edu=elem">tails</a> that we can see from
Earth. 
This photograph shows <a href="/comets/comets_table.html&edu=elem">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&edu=elem">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 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