The Solar System consists of the sun, together with the planets, comets, and meteors which revolve around it as the center of their motions. The planets all move round the sun in the same direction, from west to east. Their motions are nearly circular, and also nearly in the same plane.
However, all representations of the solar system by maps and planetariums must give an erroneous view either of the magnitudes or distances of its various members. If the earth, for instance, be denoted by a ball half an inch in diameter, the diameter of the sun, according to the same scale (16,000 miles to the inch), will be between four and five feet; that of the earth's orbit, about 1000 feet; while that of Neptune's orbit will be nearly six miles. To give an accurate representation of the solar system at a single view is therefore plainly impracticable.
The distances between the different members of our planetary system, vast as they may seem, sink into insignificance when compared with the intervals which separate us from the so-called fixed stars. Alpha Centauri, the nearest of those twinkling luminaries, is 7000 times more distant than Neptune from the sun. Even light itself, which moves 185,000 miles in a second, is more than three years in traversing the mighty interval.
The sun is the great controlling orb of this system, and the source of light and heat to its various members. Its magnitude is one million three hundred thousand times greater than that of the earth, and it contains more than seven hundred times as much matter as all the planets put together. The Sun is primarily composed of hydrogen (about 74% by mass) and helium (about 24% by mass). Trace amounts of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, make up the remaining percentage.
Mercury is the nearest planet to the sun; it's mean distance being about 35,400,000 miles. Its diameter is 3000 miles, and it completes its orbital revolution in 88 days.
Venus, the next member of the system, is sometimes our morning and sometimes our evening star. Its magnitude is almost exactly the same as that of the earth. It revolves round the sun in 225 days.
The Earth is the third planet from the sun in the order of distance; the radius of its orbit being about 92,000,000 miles. It is attended by one satellite,—the moon,—the diameter of which is 2160 miles.
Earth's Moon is the only place beyond Earth where humans have set foot. The brightest and largest object in our night sky, the Moon makes Earth a more livable planet by moderating our home planet's wobble on its axis, leading to a relatively stable climate. It also causes tides, creating a rhythm that has guided humans for thousands of years. The Moon was likely formed after a Mars-sized body collided with Earth.
Mars is the first planet exterior to the earth's orbit. Mars is a cold desert world. It is half the size of Earth. Mars is sometimes called the Red Planet. It is considerably smaller than the earth, and has no satellite. It revolves round the sun in 687 days.
The Asteroids are extremely small bodies immediately exterior to the orbit of Mars; some of them probably containing less matter than the largest mountains on the earth's surface. Hundreds of the group are known at present, and the number is annually increasing.
Jupiter, the first planet exterior to the asteroids, is nearly 500,000,000 miles from the sun, and revolves round it in a little less than 12 years. This planet is 86,000 miles in diameter, and contains more than twice as much matter as all the other planets, primary and secondary, put together. Jupiter is attended by four moons or satellites.
Saturn is the sixth of the principal planets in the order of distance. Its orbit is about 400,000,000 miles beyond that of Jupiter. This planet is attended by eight satellites, and is surrounded by three broad flat rings. Saturn is 73,000 miles in diameter, and its mass or quantity of matter is more than that of all the other planets except Jupiter.
Uranus is at double the distance of Saturn, or nineteen times that of the earth. Its diameter is about 34,000 miles, and its period of revolution 84 years. It is attended by at least four satellites.
Neptune is the most remote known member of the system; its distance being 2,800,000,000 miles. It is somewhat larger than Uranus; has certainly one satellite, and probably several more. Its period is about 165 years. A cannon-ball flying outward from the sun at the uniform velocity of 500 miles per hour would not reach the orbit of Neptune in less than 639 years.
Pluto is a complex and mysterious world with mountains, valleys, plains, craters, and maybe glaciers. Discovered in 1930, Pluto was long considered our solar system's ninth planet. But after the discovery of similar intriguing worlds deeper in the distant Kuiper Belt, icy Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet.
Comets are frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system composed of dust, rock, and ices. They range from a few miles to tens of miles wide, but as they orbit closer to the Sun, they heat up and spew gases and dust into a glowing head that can be larger than a planet. This material forms a tail that stretches millions of miles.