Solar System

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Solar System
Earth Science & Study Event
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2011 2010 2009
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Division B Champion Hamilton Middle School
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Solar System addresses the Sun, planets and their satellites, comets, asteroids, the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper Belt, meteoroids, meteorites, and meteors.

For this event, one should acquire any and all information regarding the objects in the rules manual and anything regarding ice in our solar system.


Origins of the Solar System

Our solar system was formed about 4.57 billion years ago in a nebula, the center of which was the protosun. Surrounding it were the materials that would be the planets, planetesimals. When the nebula was sent into a spinning motion (possibly by a large star), the heavier, rocky materials gravitated to the center, and the lighter gaseous materials fell to the outer solar system. In the inner solar system, the small planetesimals continued to gather more material becoming the 4 rocky terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars). In the outer solar system the rocky materials gathered to form planets, but the lighter gas materials were attracted by the gravity of the cores to form the Jovian (gaseous) planets(Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). One group of planetesimals that never formed a planet was between Mars and Jupiter. They formed the asteroid belt. The leftover materials on the far edges of the solar system that did not form planets formed the Oort Cloud and Kuiper (kai-per) belt. These two bodies are the source of many comets, the dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake, and the questionable planet or dwarf planet Sedna.

Quick Guide to the Solar System

Planets and Basic Info
Planet Orbit Period Rotation Period Date Discovered Distance From Sun Radius Mass
Mercury 87.97 days 58.6 days Prehistory .39 AU 2,439.7 km 3.302*10^{23}
Venus 224.7 days 243 days Prehistory .72 AU 6,051.9 km 4.869*10^{24}
Earth 365.25 days 1 day Prehistory 1 AU 6,371.0 km 5.9742*10^{24}
Mars 686.98 days 1.03 days Prehistory 1.52 AU 3,389.5 km 6.4191*10^{24}
Jupiter 11.86 years 0.41 days Prehistory 5.2 AU 72,000 km 1.8987*10^{27}
Saturn 29.46 years .4166667 days Prehistory 9.54 AU 60,268 km 5.6851*10^{26}
Uranus 84.01 years .7183333 days March 13, 1781 19.18 AU 25,559 km 8.6849*10^{25}
Neptune 164.9 years .67125 days September 23, 1846 30.06 AU 24,764 km 1.0244*10^{26}

Use this chart to quickly compare some basic info for all the planets.

Bodies of the Solar System

(Please note that all of the largest/smallest classifications of the planets do NOT include Pluto!)

The Sun

Main article: Sun

Diameter 1,392,000 km
Mass 1.989 1030 kg
Luminosity 3.846 1033 erg/s
Composition 74% Hydrogen 25% Helium (Trace amounts of other elements)

The Sun is the largest body in our solar system, and contains 99.8% of the mass. Because it is a globe of gases, it rotates differently depending on the area. The equator takes around 25 days, whereas the polar regions take around 35 days (Earth days). It is 4.6 billion years old and is made up of layers, starting from the outside(with Temperatures), Corona(1,000,000 C), Transitive Region, Chromosphere, Photosphere(6,000 C), Convection Zone(1,000,000 C), Radiative Zone(2,000,000 C),and the Core(15,000,000 C).It produces heat from the fusion of hydrogen atoms. The heat is transferred by the process of convection, through the radiative and the convective zone, where it is radiated out through the photosphere and corona to the planets in the form of rays.

Inner Planets

Main article: Inner Planets

The inner planets of our solar system are those between the Sun and the asteroid belt; Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.

Outer Planets

Main article: Outer Planets

The inner planets of our solar system are those between the Sun and the asteroid belt: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The outer planets are those beyond the asteroid belt: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Dwarf Planets

The definition of a Dwarf Planet is a planet with enough of a gravitational pull to keep a spherical shape, but not strong enough to "clear the neighborhood", which means that any object that comes close to the planet, it either "pushes away" or "pulls into an orbit". In addition to that it cannot be a satellite of a non-stellar body.


The largest object in the Asteroid Belt, containing 30% of its mass. When it was discovered in the early 1800s, Ceres was considered a planet, but was reclassified as an asteroid 50 years later. Since 2006, it has been considered a dwarf planet. Ceres orbits the Sun once every 4.6 Earth years and its day is about 9 hours.


When it was still considered a planet, Pluto was the ninth planet from the Sun and the smallest planet. Very little is known about Pluto and its similarly sized moon, Charon (pronounced "karen"). It was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, and was the only planet discovered in the 20th century. It is a part of the Kuiper belt, and is one of many similar Kuiper Belt objects. The only thing we know about Pluto is that it has a highly eccentric orbit, which crosses Neptune’s orbit every 200 years or so, for 20 years. It also has two smaller moons, Nix and Hydra. It became a dwarf planet in 2006. In July 2011, a fourth satellite was discovered. It has yet to be named.


Eris is in the scattered disc, a region beyond the Kuiper Belt. Since Eris is larger than Pluto, its discovery led the IAU (International Astronomical Union) to define "planet" and reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet. Its only known satellite is Dysnomia.


An "egg-shaped" dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt. The odd shape is believed to come from a high rotational speed, which flattens the poles and creates a bulge around the equator. Haumea has a year of about 283 earth years. It also has two moons, Hi'iaka and Namaka. These are believed to be fragments of the KBO - early in its history, it was hit by something, breaking off Hi'iaka and Namaka.


Makemake has no moons, making it unique among the larger Kuiper Belt objects. It orbits the sun every 310 years. Like most KBOs, it has an highly eccentric orbit - it's perihelion (distance closest to sun), is 38.5 AU(5,760,000,000 km). It's aphelion (distance farthest from sun), is 53.1 AU (7,939,000,000 km). It has a mass of 3 × 10^21 kg.


To be considered a Plutoid, a dwarf planet must have a semi-major axis greater than that of Neptune. In other words, it must orbit outside of Neptune. Any Dwarf planet that orbits within Neptune is considered still considered a dwarf planet. As of right now, there are four official Plutoids. They are Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

Plutoid Candidates

Some objects in the solar system are not officially considered dwarf planets or plutoids, but are large enough to be prime candidates for plutoid status.


Sedna is a plutoid candidate with an orbit lasting about 11,518 Earth years. Its orbit is also highly eccentric, with a perihelion in the outer Kuiper Belt and an aphelion possibly in the inner Oort Cloud. Sedna's diameter is 995 miles, or about 1,600 kilometers. This object has no known natural satellites. Its discovery was mostly luck, as it was near its perihelion and at a (barely) detectable magnitude. Should it have been at the aphelion, it would remain unknown for thousands more years. This great distance is a potential reason that no natural satellites have been found; they would be way too dim.

Small Solar System Bodies


A small solar system body orbiting the sun composed mainly of rock. They are larger than meteoroids but smaller than planets. Size ranges from 10 meters across to thousands of kilometers. The main difference between asteroids and comets is that comets have a tail of gases while asteroids do not. Comets can become asteroids if they burn off the ice on their surfaces. In fact, asteroids with eccentric orbits are most likely former comets. Most asteroids in the solar system orbit within the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.


A "sand- to boulder-size" piece of space debris. The official definition from the IAU is "a solid object moving in interplanetary space, of a size considerably smaller than an asteroid and considerably larger than an atom". Traditionally, anything smaller than 10 meters across is considered a meteoroid, while anything larger than 10 meters is an asteroid. Once a meteoroid enters the atmosphere of Earth or another planet, it is considered a meteor. If it reaches the ground and stays (more or less) intact, it's called a meteorite. A method to remember this is meteoroid is in the void of space and a meteorite is right here.


A small solar system body that has a coma (the dust particles gathered around the comet's nucleus that give it an "atmosphere") and/or a tail. The nucleus itself is made up of water ice, dust, frozen gases and small rocky particles. The nuclei range from 100 meters across to more than 40 kilometers. As the comet approaches the sun, solar radiation cause the gases inside to vaporize and carry the dust with them. The gases also become excited by sunlight and emit electromagnetic radiation. Comets leave a trail of solid particles behind them, and if a comet crosses earth's path, there will most likely be meteor showers when earth passes through the debris field. For example, Halley's Comet causes the Orionid Showers and the Swift-Tuttle Comet causes the Perseid showers.

Short-Period Comets- Comets with an orbital period of less than 200 years. Their orbits are in the same direction as the planets, close to the ecliptic, and their aphelion is generally in the area of the outer planets. They are divided into the Jupiter family (orbital period less than 20 years) and the Halley family (orbital periods between 20 and 200 years).

Long-Period Comets- Comets with orbital periods of more than 200 years, sometimes even thousands or millions of years. Their orbits are very eccentric, often don't lie near the ecliptic, and their aphelion is far beyond the outer planets. However, all long-period comets are still gravitationally bound to the sun; comets that have been ejected from the solar system by the gravity of the outer planets are no longer considered to have an orbital period.

Sungrazing Comets- Comets that have a parabolic or hyperbolic trajectory, i.e. their trajectories only let them enter the solar system once (hence the name). Other than that, they are very similar to long-period comets. The large sungrazers often break up into chunks while smaller ones can disintegrate (e.g. comet ISON)

Other Features of the Solar System

Oort Cloud

The Oort cloud is an immense cloud at the outer limits of the solar system. This is believed to be the farthest reaches of the Sun's gravitational pull that measurably affects other objects. This cloud is so vast that comets within it can be tens of millions of kilometers apart. It is believed that the cloud is denser along the elliptical plane. The estimated mass of all the bodies in the Oort cloud is about 40 times Earth's mass. These comets are easily influenced by other stars, and often a star that comes to close to another star's Oort cloud can fling these comets out into deep space or into the solar system. It is believed that this is where many of the comets and asteroids in our solar system originated from.


Kuiper Belt

The Kuiper belt is similar to the Asteroid belt. It lies beyond Neptune, about 30-50 AU from the Sun. It is believed that these are the remains of when the Solar System was first created. When the solar system was created, most space debris was condensed to form planets. The debris that did not form planets slowly drifted outwards to form the Kuiper Belt. No spacecraft has ever reached the Kuiper Belt, but the New Horizons spacecraft should drift past it sometime in 2015.

Moons of the Solar System

Mercury: No moons

Venus: No moons

Earth's Moons
Name Year discovered Discoverer Distance from Planet (km) Diameter (km) Orbital Period (days)
Moon prehistory prehistory 384,400 3476 27.322
Mars' Moons
Name Year discovered Discoverer Distance from Planet (km) Diameter (km) Orbital Period (days)
Deimos 1877 A. Hall 23,460 16x12x10 1.263
Phobos 1877 A. Hall 9,270 28x23x2 .319
Jupiter's Moons
Name Year discovered Discoverer Distance from Planet (km) Diameter (km) Orbital Period (days)
Callisto 1610 Galileo 188300 4800 16.689
Europa 1610 Galileo 670900 3126 3.551
Ganymede 1610 Galileo 1070000 5276 7.155
Io 1610 Galileo 421600 3629 1.769

There are 63 moons of Jupiter, but only the most famous ones were listed here.

Saturn's Moons
Name Year discovered Discoverer Distance from Planet (km) Diameter (km) Orbital Period (days)
Atlas 1980 R. Terrile 137640 37 0.602
Mimas 1789 Herschel 185520 392 .942
Enceladus 1789 Herschel 238020 444 1.370
Tethys 1684 G. Cassini 294660 1060 1.888
Dione 1684 Cassini 377400 1120 2.737
Rhea 1672 G. Cassini 527040 1520 4.518
Titan 1655 C. Huygens 1221850 5150 15.945
Hyperion 1848 Bond 1481100 410x260x220 21.277
Iapetus 1671 Cassini 3561300 1436 79.330
Phoebe 1898 Pickering 12952000 220 550.56

There are 60 moons of Saturn, but only the most famous ones were listed here.

Uranus- 27 moons

Neptune- 14 moons

Pluto's Moons
Name Year discovered Discoverer Distance from Planet (km) Diameter (km) Orbital Period (days)
Charon 1978 J. Christy 19571 1207 6.387
Nix 2005 H.A. Weaver 48675 137 42.856
Hydra 2005 H.A. Weaver 64780 167 38.206

In July 2011, a fourth moon was discovered. Not much is known about it yet.


Lunar Eclipses

A type of eclipse that occurs when the Earth passes directly between the moon and sun, which means that the moon is in Earth's shadow. Since Earth is in the middle of the moon and sun, it must always be a full moon for a lunar eclipse to occur. There are several types of lunar eclipses:

Penumbral Eclipse- The moon passes through Earth's penumbra, causing its surface to darken slightly.

Total Penumbral Eclipse- The moon passes "exclusively" through Earth's penumbra. The area of the moon closest to the umbra can appear darker than the rest of it.

Partial Lunar Eclipse- A portion of the moon passes through Earth's umbra.

Total Lunar Eclipse

Total Lunar Eclipse- The whole moon passes through Earth's umbra. Totality can last up to 107 minutes, depending on the distance of the moon (at apogee, the moon's speed is slower, meaning a longer eclipse).

Selenehelion- Also known as a "horizontal eclipse", this is when the sun and the eclipsed moon can be seen at the same time. It can only occur right after sunrise or just before sunset. Technically, the moon and sun shouldn't be visible at the same time, but Earth's atmosphere refracts light and things near the horizon appear higher in the sky than they really are. The name is derived from the Greek goddess of the Moon (Selene) and their word for Sun, helios.

Total Solar Eclipse, not to scale.

Solar Eclipses

The moon passes between the Earth and sun so that the sun's light is partially or completely blocked. Solar Eclipses can only occur during a new moon, when the moon is between the earth and the sun. However, since the moon's orbit around the earth is inclined at about 5°, solar eclipses can only happen when the moon's orbit crosses the ecliptic. There are four types of solar eclipses:

Total Eclipse- The sun is completely blocked by the moon. A total eclipse often happens near perigee because the moon is closer to the earth and its apparent size is larger. When earth is close to aphelion, total eclipses are also more likely to occur. The sun's disk is obscured and its corona is visible. Total eclipses are only visible from the path of totality in the moon's umbra.

Annular Eclipse- The sun and moon are in line, but the moon's apparent size is smaller than the sun because the moon is close to apogee. Annular eclipses are more likely to occur during earth's perihelion. The sun appears as a bright ring around the moon's outline. Annular eclipses are only visible in the antumbra.

Hybrid Eclipse- A hybrid eclipse is visible as a total eclipse from some places on earth and is visible as an annular eclipse from other places. This kind of eclipse is rare compared to the other kinds.

Partial Eclipse- The moon only obscures part of the sun. Partial eclipses can be seen from "a large part of earth" (the moon's penumbra) outside the path of totality for a total or annular eclipse. Some eclipses are only visible as a partial eclipse because the umbra passes above the poles.

Newton's Laws of Motion and Gravitational Attraction

Laws of motion

1. An object at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an outside force. An object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an outside force.

2. F=ma. Force equals mass times acceleration.

3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Law of Gravitational Attraction

Every object attracts every other object with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance.

F = G \frac{m_1 m_2}{r^2}


F is the magnitude of the gravitational force between the two point masses,

G is the gravitational constant,

m1 is the mass of the first point mass,

m2 is the mass of the second point mass, and

r is the distance between the two point masses.

Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion

Quick Overview

  1. The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the sun at a focus.
  2. A line joining a planet and the sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time.
  3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.

See here for more info.


Many of the pictures and diagrams used in this section are from here

Law 1

The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the sun at a focus.

To understand this law, you must first understand ellipses. You can think of an ellipse as a flatten circle, with two axes. There is the major axis, which is the longer one, and the minor axis, which is the shorter one. There are always two focuses, which are on the major axis. There is also a semi-major axis, which is half the major axis, and a semi-minor axis, or half the minor axis. The sum of the distance to both of the foci is constant.


What the law states is that the sun is at one of the foci, and the planet orbits around it in an ellipse. Most of the time the ellipse is close to a circle in shape, but is never a circle.

Law 2

A line joining a planet and the sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. This one is harder to envision. So we've established that the orbit is elliptical, right? Two lines extending out of the sun will always have the same area, and the planet we are talking about will always travel this distance in equal time. Look at this picture:


Make sense now? The blue sections have the same area, and the Earth will travel the distance the blue area covers in the same time. So when the blue is wider, the Earth moves faster. The blue is wider closer to the sun, so the closer to the sun you are, the faster the planet will orbit around the sun.

Law 3

The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit. This is purely math. \frac{P_1^2}{P_2^2} = \frac{R_1^3}{R_2^3}

So what this means is that these two fractions are equal. Remember in the first law, we defined the major and minor axes? The semi-major axis is half of the major axis. So that shows that the minor axis defines the orbital period! You can use this law to find either the semi-major axis, which can then be used to find the major axis, or the orbital period. Since p^2 = a^3, we can use the formula p = a^{3/2} to find the orbital period, or a = p^{2/3} to find the semi-major axis.

Escape Velocity

Escape Velocity is the velocity something must reach in order to escape the gravitational pull of a planet. You can calculate the escape velocity using this formula: E_v = \sqrt{\frac{M*2*G}{R}}

Where, Ev is the escape velocity, M is the mass (in km) of the planet, G is the gravitational constant (equal to 6.67*10^{-13}), and R is equal to the radius of your planet in meters.

This is a strange form of measurement for a planet, so watch out. It can change your answer dramatically.

Here is a simple, easy to use Escape Velocity calculator made with Microsoft Excel. To use it, you fill in each box in a row with the mass and radius of your planet, respectively. You usually use meters for the radius, but this calculator converts it for you, so fill in the radius in kilometers. The first two boxes are used for the mass, so that a*10^b = mass, you would fill in "a" in the first box and "b" in the second box. Just look at the examples to figure out how to use it. Escape Velocity Calculator (.xls)

Effects of Planets/Satellites

Tidal locking- when one side of an astronomical object always faces another astronomical body. For example, the Moon takes just as long to rotate one time as it does to revolve around Earth one time. Two objects of a similar size (like Pluto and Charon) may both become tidally locked to each other.

Shepherding- Where a moon orbits near the edge of a ring, using its gravitational pull to keep the ring's particles in a tight band and prevent them from spreading out too much.

Planet Shepherd Moons
Jupiter Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe
Saturn Pan, Daphnis, Atlas, Prometheus, Pandora, Aegaeon, and the "moonlets"
Uranus Cordelia and Ophelia

Resonance- A relationship in which the orbital period of one body is related to that of another by a simple integer fraction.

Resonance Astronomical Bodies
2:3 Neptune and Pluto (Neptune's orbital period is 2/3 that of Pluto)
1:2 Mimas and Tethys (Saturn's moons)
1:2 Enceladus and Dione (Saturn's moons)
3:4 Titan and Hyperion (Saturn's moons)
1:2:4 Io, Europa, and Ganymede (Jupiter's moons)*

*Eventually (in a few hundred million years), Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto will be in a 1:2:4:8 resonance with these three moons. Callisto will orbit Jupiter once for every 2 Ganymede orbits, every 4 Europa orbits, or every 8 Io orbits.

Laplace Resonance- Where 3 or more astronomical bodies are in resonance with each other. The only known Laplace resonance is between Jupiter's moons Io, Europa, and Ganymede.

Trojans- A 1:1 resonance between two astronomical bodies where a minor planet or moon shares the same orbital path as a larger body but does not collide with it because it orbits 60° ahead of or behind the larger planet or moon (at the Lagrangian points L₄ or L₅). Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune each share their orbits with Trojan asteroids, while Saturn's moons have smaller Trojan moons (Telesto and Calypso share an orbit with Tethys, Helene and Polydeuces with Dione).

Famous Astronomers


Aristarchus was an ancient Greek astronomer. He was the one to first put forward the idea of a heliocentric Solar System. After observing solar and lunar eclipses, he deduced correctly that the Solar System was heliocentric.

Tycho Brahe


Tycho Brahe was a Danish astronomer that was famous for creating precise measurements of the planets, and also more than 700 stars. He discovered a supernova in 1572 near Cassiopeia. The king of Denmark was so impressed with this discovery that he funded a large observatory on the island of Ven. He also invented his own view of the Universe, the Tychonian System. In it, every planet but Earth orbited the Sun, and the Sun and Moon orbited the Earth.

Galileo Galilei


Galileo Galilei was a very famous astronomer who is sometimes known as "the father of modern observational astronomy". His greatest astronomical achievements include discovering Jupiter's four largest satellites, observing and recording the phases of Venus, improving the design of the telescope, and greatly supporting the theory of a heliocentric solar system.

Galileo was born in Pisa, Italy, but moved to Florence at the age of 8. He later applied to the University of Pisa to get a medical degree, but his interests took a different course (no pun intended) and he ended up studying mathematics.

Aristotle's Universe

This upset the church, who then sentenced him to house arrest. He went blind (most likely from studying the sun), shortly before he died.

Johannes Kepler


Johannes Kepler was a German astronomer most famous for developing the Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion. He began to work on complex math formulas to explain planetary motion, which he mistakenly thought were circular in shape. Later, he became Tycho Brahe's assistant. Kepler and Tycho did not get along, however, and Tycho set Kepler to the task of understanding Mars' orbit. It was just this that allowed him to find the final piece in developing the Laws of Planetary Motion.

Clyde Tombaugh


Clyde Tombaugh is credited for discovering Pluto. He began at home with a nine inch home-made telescope, and used this to draw pictures of Saturn and Jupiter. He sent the pictures to the Lowell Observatory, and was immediately offered a position. His goal was to discover the elusive "planet X", later to be renamed Pluto. Even after this great accomplishment, he went on to discover many more things such as comets, open clusters, and globular clusters.

Nicholas Copernicus


Nicholas Copernicus was a Polish astronomer who developed the Copernicus theory, stating that the sun lies near the center of the Solar System, and the Earth revolves around it, rather than the other way around. This theory was not proven until Galileo, and not widely accepted for many more years. Later in life he went on to lecture in Rome about astronomy.

Edmond Halley


Edmond Halley was a British astronomer who was the first to calculate a comet's orbit. He went to the University of Oxford where he studied the theories of Sir Issac Newton. He published a book in 1705 called Astronomiae Cometicae Synopsis (Synopsis on Cometary Astronomy). His theories were validated when a comet appeared in 1758, just as he predicted. The comet was named after him for his remarkable accuracy, and is now known as Halley's comet.

Extraterrestrial Water

During the 2014 and 2015 seasons, this event is focusing on extraterrestrial water within the solar system.


Water on Mars is very rarely found as a liquid, as the pressure is too low at the surface for it to form. Water is mainly found as solid ice. There is some gaseous water vapor in the thin atmosphere. Ancient Mars could have had a denser atmosphere, allowing liquid water to be present at the surface. Channels eroded by floods, ancient river valley networks, deltas, and lake beds all point to the idea of ancient liquid water. Water has been found in ice form at the bottom of some craters in the mid latitudes, most notably in the Vastitas Borealis crater with the Mars Express orbiter. In the southern Elysium Planitia, there is what appears to be plates of broken ice. The ice is speculated to have been formed from water that had spewed out of the fault Cerberus Fossae about 2 to 10 million years ago. The poles have water ice layers that vary in thickness from summer to winter. In the summer, the amount of water ice decreases in the poles as it sublimates into the atmosphere. The Mars Express using its MARSIS radar sounder targeted the south ice cap and confirmed that ice is present at the cap in 2004. The OMEGA instrument indicated that the ice was separated into three parts; the top, reflective part, the slopes called scarps that fall away to the surrounding plains, and the permafrost that stretches for kilometers away from the cap. The Phoenix lander discovered the presence of water within its landing site near the north ice cap in July 2008. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter two years later found that the volume of ice in the north ice cap was 821,000 cubic kilometers. Patterned grounds characteristic of Earth's periglacial regions have been found on some Martian surfaces. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer on Mars Odyssey and measurements on the surface from the Phoenix lander have pointed to the idea of ground water under Mars's surface. Areas of Mars in mid to high latitudes are thought to have large amounts of water ice. Recent evidence has shown that glaciers could be hidden under insulating rock and/or dust. A radar study in January 2009 looking at lobate debris aprons in Deuteronilus Mensae found evidence for ice lying beneath a few meters of rock. Glaciers have been reported in numerous Martian craters. Evidence found by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have shown that sometime in the past ten years, a liquid had deposited sediment within a gully. This was found in the craters Terra Sirenum and Centauri Montes. In August 2011, a Nepalese student, Lujendra Ojha, found seasonal changes on slopes near crater rims in the Southern hemisphere. These streaks seemed to grow in the summer, and fade the rest of the year. It is thought that salty water (or brines) flow downhill and evaporate, leaving a mineral deposit. These slope lineae are in sync with the heat flux of the Martian surface. The rate of growth with the features are consistent with groundwater flow through a sandy stratum.


Europa is thought to have more water on and under its surface than Earth. Europa has an outer layer of frozen water ice. Below that, it is theorized that there is a liquid salty water ocean. It has been found by the Galileo orbiter that the ocean creates a magnetic field out of Jupiter's. The surface ice floats on top of the ocean and drifts, much like the Earth's lithosphere on the asthenosphere. Tidal heating exerted by Jupiter and the other Galilean moons is the leading explanation for Europa's ocean. Jupiter's large gravitational force slightly stretches the moon and as the moon rotates around the planet, different parts of the moon stretch and compress. The other moons add to this as they pass by. This creates heat within the moon's interior and thus melts the lower layers of Europa's ice sheet. Altogether water on Europa, solid or liquid, creates a layer about 100 km thick. There are two models on how this water layer behaves, the "thick ice" theory and the "thin ice" theory. The thick ice theory states that there is an outer layer comprised of solid ice and plastic "warm ice" layer. The rest of the water layer is liquid ocean. This theory shows that the ocean has rarely interacted with the surface. The thin ice theory states that Europa has a solid outer layer only a few kilometers thick. The model considers only the topmost layer that acts elastically under Jupiter's tides. This model considers the interaction of Europa's surface and the ocean. According to the model, the ocean could interact with the surface through open ridges and form chaotic terrain. Much like the moon of Enceladus, Europa has reoccurring plumes of water around 200 km high. The plumes occur at Europa's aphelion and disappear at perihelion. This is due to the tidal force of Jupiter and its cycle. Europa's ocean has been part of the discussion of life outside of Earth. The abundance of water, energy from tidal heating and possible radioactive decay, and presence of organic elements such as oxygen and hydrogen at these oceans give an ample environment for life. It is thought life could exist on or in the ocean floor (possibly around hydrothermal vents), on the lower surface of the ice sheet, floating freely in the ocean, or even in lakes separate from the ocean within the ice sheet.


Enceladus, much like Europa, is thought to have an ocean under surface ice. This ocean, unlike Europa's, is located in one location, Enceladus's southern hemisphere. This ocean is thought to have around the same volume of water as Lake Superior. The ocean is thought to be caused by tidal heating from Saturn. It is also speculated that the area has other origins of heat, such as radioactive heating, sublimation of ice, shear heating, and certain chemicals within the ocean (such as ammonia). The chemicals lower the freezing point of water. Enceladus's surface is made of water ice. It is fairly active with its relatively smooth surface. which is especially smooth around the southern tiger stripes. The tiger stripes are areas of high cryovolcanism. Cryovolcanism involves the eruption of water and other volatiles that are not silicate rock. The geysers on Enceladus release mostly water vapor and some other components such as nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. The materials are deposited around the geysers, covering most rugged terrain in the area. The geysers are thought to be created much like geysers here on Earth. They emit from pressurized water chambers that are heated from tidal heating or other heating methods listed above. The eruptions are correlated with Enceladus's orbit and its distance from Saturn. When the moon is at aphelion, more material is erupted from the geysers. At perihelion, the geysers release less material. This is due to the tidal effects of Saturn which pull the tiger stripes open at aphelion and compress them at perihelion. These geysers are thought to be a factor in the formation of Saturn's E ring. Enceladus has a thick atmosphere compared to the other moons of Saturn, besides Titan. The atmosphere could be formed from cryovolcanism or escaped particles from the surface or interior. The atmosphere consists of mostly water vapor (91%) and some nitrogen (4%), carbon dioxide (3.2%), and methane (1.7%). Like Europa, Enceladus is a target in the search for extraterrestrial life. Due to the presence of water, an energy source, and organic elements, the subsurface ocean could support life.


Iapetus is thought to be composed mostly of ice, as it has a low density. The moon is known for its two tone coloration. One side is darker than the other. The dark side is called Cassini Regio and the light side is separated into two parts; Roncevaux Terra in the north and Saragossa Terra in the south. This coloration thought to be caused by sublimation of ice on one side. This ice (now vapor) then deposits on the other, cooler side. As more ice sublimates on the dark side, more dark material is shown and the temperature increases. This in turn kick starts more sublimation and deposition. This cycle occurs on both sides, but more intensely on Cassini Regio. It has been calculated that every billion years at current temperatures, Cassini Regio looses 20 meters of ice while the other side looses 10 centimeters. Ice does move from the light side to the dark side but is soon sublimated again. The sublimation leaves lag (residue) on the dark side, giving the side its characteristic reddish color. The lag consists of organic materials much like on meteorites from the early solar system. It has been found that the lag creates a foot deep layer above a layer of ice. The distribution of sublimation processes (described in the final sentences of the previous paragraphs) is the cause for the thinness of the layer. Cassini Regio also remains dark from the impact sunlight has on the lag. Sunlight darkens the particles as they reside on the surface or travel in orbit around the moon. Iapetus is also known for its equatorial ridge. It resides along the center of Cassini Regio. There is a theory that states that the ridge was formed from an upwelling of icy material below the surface that solidified. Other theories say it was formed from Iapetus's supposed early oblate shape, the deposition of a ring system around the moon, or a convective overturn.


Triton is the largest moon of Neptune and has a surface covered with various ices. Most of the surface is frozen nitrogen (55%) with water ice coming in at second (15-35%). Carbon dioxide is the remaining 10-20%. Water comprises Triton's mantle, which is above a core of rock. Scientist believe that if Triton has a large enough core, radioactive decay and tidal heating could create enough heat for convection to occur in the mantle, or even the ocean proposed above. This means that life could occur in the moon. Water ice is what comprises the cantaloupe terrain on the western hemisphere of the moon. More specifically, the ice is dirty water ice, which is water ice with frozen gases and dust mixed in. This cantaloupe terrain is the oldest terrain on the moon and consists of many depressions that are not impact craters due to their similar size and smoothness. Scientists theorize it could be caused my diapirism, or the rising of lumps of less dense material within denser material. Other theories say the terrain is caused my collapses or flooding from cryovolcanism. On Triton, nitrogen is erupted into the atmosphere through the process of cryovolcanism. It is thought to be caused by the same method as most examples of this on other bodies in the solar system, through some sort of heat source. Tidal heating could heat nitrogen beneath the surface, making it expand and force its way up to the surface through vents. Another source could be a greenhouse effect created my solid materials on the moons icy surface. Solar radiation passes through the ice, heating nitrogen below and within it. Pressure from the nitrogen continues until it erupts. Cryovolcanism on Triton does not release water. But, water can be found in supposed icy lava on the surface. Cipango Planum on the eastern hemisphere is a high plain thought to be caused by the accumulation of icy lava. This lava is thought to be comprised of ammonia and water. Extraterrestrial life is thought to be able to occur on Triton, but the supposed ocean is thought to have a temperature of 176 K (minus 97 C). At this temperature, most biochemical reactions slow down significantly. It is a possibility that the moon host silicon-based life, but we have not seen any such life. Silicon-based life could used the temperatures and limited carbon on the moon to their advantage.


Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt (being the only dwarf planet there) and also one of the listed potential sites of extraterrestrial life (although it has not been considered as much as other bodies). Ceres has an oblate shape that is common with a differentiated body. This points to the idea that Ceres may consist of a rocky core with an icy mantle above. This mantle contains 200 million cubic kilometers of water, more than the amount of fresh water on Earth. This was found by the Keck Telescope in 2002. Characteristics of its surface points to the possibility of volatile materials in the body. Some still speculate that Ceres could only be partially or not differentiated with a porous composition. This theory states that a rock layer on a mantle of ice would sink down and create salt deposits, something not found on Ceres. Theorists say that Ceres doesn't have an ice shell, but has water mixed throughout the body. Ceres's surface has been found to be composed of some hydrated minerals (minerals with water in their chemical structure). This is evidence for water in the interior. Ceres's atmosphere is thin, but is comprised of water vapor. This water vapor is speculated to have been released by the sublimation of water ice that has migrated from the interior. Some evidence for this was found in the 1990s at Ceres's north pole, but was never proven. The IUE spacecraft found hydroxide ions near the pole through ultraviolet observations. These ions are released when water vapor is split apart by solar radiation. It also has been found that there could be a water vapor source(s) at the mid-latitudes. The Herschel Space Observatory in early 2014 found that localized water sources in this area gives off around 3 kilograms of water vapor a second. It is thought that this water is released from sublimation of surface ice or even cryovolcanism created by supposed radioactive energy. All of these theories will have some of their questions answered once the Dawn spacecraft arrives at Ceres in 2015.



Comets consists of a nucleus (a solid, core structure), coma ("atmosphere" around the nucleus), and two tails (a gas tail and a dust tail). The nucleus consists of a conglomerate of rock, dust, water ice, and other frozen gases (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, ect). The nucleus's water ice is hidden under a surface crust around several meters thick. This crust has a low albedo as it is comprised mostly of organic compounds. Solar heating drives off lighter volatiles, leaving heavy dark compounds much like tar or crude oil. This low albedo allows a heavy amount of heat to be absorbed. This enables the process of outgassing to occur. Outgassing is the process by which gases that are trapped, dissolved, frozen, or absorbed are released. Gases on a comet are released as jets off of the nucleus's surface. The jets are formed from the uneven heating of the nucleus's surface. These jets consist of water vapor and ice, carbon dioxide, and other trapped gases within the comet (listed above). The outgassing process creates the coma around the nucleus. The coma consists of water and dust from the comet's nucleus. As the comet travels closer to the sun, more water is released from the nucleus, increasing its amount in the coma. Due to the amount of water in most comets, scientists have theorized that they contributed to the introduction of water to the Earth. But, tests on comets have shown evidence that says otherwise. Water on comets include a higher amount of heavy hydrogen (hydrogen with a neutron with the proton) than Earth's water, around 300 ppm instead of 150 ppm on Earth. Even though some comets have water much like Earth's, most tested comets have the wrong amount. Comets also have been speculated to be what brought amino acids to Earth due to the high amount of organic chemicals in most comet's nuclei. Some even speculate comets brought organisms to early Earth. However, scientists believe that meteorites brought water and organic compounds to Earth. Specifically, meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites have water much like Earth's, leading to theories that say these brought water to Earth. Comets are still not out of the picture, however.


For more information on each individual mission, see Solar System/Missions.

Many missions have been undertaken for the exploration and advancement of knowledge of the celestial bodies described above. In addition, many missions are currently being planned and prepared. Some of the most noteworthy are highlighted in the table below.

Name Start Date End Date Object(s) Objectives
Voyager 1 Sept 5, 1977 Continuing Jupiter and Saturn To explore the solar system. Ended up making groundbreaking discoveries about the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Voyager 2 Aug 20, 1977 Continuing Jupiter and Saturn To explore the solar system. It added to Voyager 1's discoveries by doing more flybys of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Helpful Tips

This event often contains many questions/tasks not listed on the event sheet, so you should study anything that could be interpreted as related to our solar system. If you do this (And have a decent reference book) you should be guaranteed to get a top ten finish. Also, make sure to check information posted on the site - it may be mistaken and/or outdated.

Example Study Guides



The 9 planets

Views of the solar system

Soinc's solar system page

Information on famous astronomers

Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion

Facts about the solar system

Notes on planet characteristics

Formation of Cycloidal Ridges on Europa