Introduction to the Solar System
Planets of Solar System
Asteroids and Other Objects
Edge of Solar System
Outer Solar System
The outer region of the Solar System is home to the giant planets and their large moons. The centaurs and many short-period comets also orbit in this region. Due to their greater distance from the Sun, the solid objects in the outer Solar System contain a higher proportion of volatiles, such as water, ammonia, and methane than those of the inner Solar System because the lower temperatures allow these compounds to remain solid.
The four outer planets, or giant planets (sometimes called Jovian planets), collectively make up 99% of the mass known to orbit the Sun. Jupiter and Saturn are together more than 400 times the mass of Earth and consist overwhelmingly of hydrogen and helium. Uranus and Neptune are far less massive—less than 20 Earth masses (M⊕) each—and are composed primarily of ices. For these reasons, some astronomers suggest they belong in their own category, ice giants. All four giant planets have rings, although only Saturn’s ring system is easily observed from Earth. The term superior planet designates planets outside Earth’s orbit and thus includes both the outer planets and Mars.
Jupiter (5.2 AU), at 318 M⊕, is 2.5 times the mass of all the other planets put together. It is composed largely of hydrogen and helium. Jupiter’s strong internal heat creates semi-permanent features in its atmosphere, such as cloud bands and the Great Red Spot. Jupiter has 79 known satellites. The four largest, Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa, show similarities to the terrestrial planets, such as volcanism and internal heating. Ganymede, the largest satellite in the Solar System, is larger than Mercury.
Saturn (9.5 AU), distinguished by its extensive ring system, has several similarities to Jupiter, such as its atmospheric composition and magnetosphere. Although Saturn has 60% of Jupiter’s volume, it is less than a third as massive, at 95 M⊕. Saturn is the only planet of the Solar System that is less dense than water. The rings of Saturn are made up of small ice and rock particles. Saturn has 82 confirmed satellites composed largely of ice. Two of these, Titan and Enceladus, show signs of geological activity. Titan, the second-largest moon in the Solar System, is larger than Mercury and the only satellite in the Solar System with a substantial atmosphere.
Uranus (19.2 AU), at 14 M⊕, is the lightest of the outer planets. Uniquely among the planets, it orbits the Sun on its side; its axial tilt is over ninety degrees to the ecliptic. It has a much colder core than the other giant planets and radiates very little heat into space. Uranus has 27 known satellites, the largest ones being Titania, Oberon, Umbriel, Ariel, and Miranda.
Neptune (30.1 AU), though slightly smaller than Uranus, is more massive (17 M⊕) and hence more dense. It radiates more internal heat, but not as much as Jupiter or Saturn. Neptune has 14 known satellites. The largest, Triton, is geologically active, with geysers of liquid nitrogen. Triton is the only large satellite with a retrograde orbit. Neptune is accompanied in its orbit by several minor planets, termed Neptune trojans, that are in 1:1 resonance with it.