7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
Our solar system currently consists of the Sun, eight planets, five dwarf planets, nearly 200 known moons, and a host of smaller objects. The planets can be divided into two groups: the inner terrestrial planets and the outer giant planets. Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake do not fit into either category; as icy dwarf planets, they exist in an ice realm on the fringes of the main planetary system. The giant planets are composed mostly of liquids and gases. Smaller members of the solar system include asteroids (including the dwarf planet Ceres), which are rocky and metallic objects found mostly between Mars and Jupiter; comets, which are made mostly of frozen gases and generally orbit far from the Sun; and countless smaller grains of cosmic dust. When a meteor survives its passage through our atmosphere and falls to Earth, we call it a meteorite.
7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
The giant planets have dense cores roughly 10 times the mass of Earth, surrounded by layers of hydrogen and helium. The terrestrial planets consist mostly of rocks and metals. They were once molten, which allowed their structures to differentiate (that is, their denser materials sank to the center). The Moon resembles the terrestrial planets in composition, but most of the other moons—which orbit the giant planets—have larger quantities of frozen ice within them. In general, worlds closer to the Sun have higher surface temperatures. The surfaces of terrestrial planets have been modified by impacts from space and by varying degrees of geological activity.
7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
The ages of the surfaces of objects in the solar system can be estimated by counting craters: on a given world, a more heavily cratered region will generally be older than one that is less cratered. We can also use samples of rocks with radioactive elements in them to obtain the time since the layer in which the rock formed last solidified. The half-life of a radioactive element is the time it takes for half the sample to decay; we determine how many half-lives have passed by how much of a sample remains the radioactive element and how much has become the decay product. In this way, we have estimated the age of the Moon and Earth to be roughly 4.5 billion years.
7.4 Origin of the Solar System
Regularities among the planets have led astronomers to hypothesize that the Sun and the planets formed together in a giant, spinning cloud of gas and dust called the solar nebula. Astronomical observations show tantalizingly similar circumstellar disks around other stars. Within the solar nebula, material first coalesced into planetesimals; many of these gathered together to make the planets and moons. The remainder can still be seen as comets and asteroids. Probably all planetary systems have formed in similar ways, but many exoplanet systems have evolved along quite different paths, as we will see in Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System.