The solar system consists of the Sun; the eight official planets, at least three "dwarf planets", more than 130 satellites of the planets, a large number of small bodies (the comets and asteroids), and the interplanetary medium. (There are probably also many more planetary satellites that have not yet been discovered.)


The solar system consists of the Sun; the eight official planets, at least three "dwarf planets", more than 130 satellites of the planets, a large number of small bodies (the comets and asteroids), and the interplanetary medium. (There are probably also many more planetary satellites that have not yet been discovered.)

The inner solar system contains the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars:

inner solar system

The main asteroid belt (not shown) lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The planets of the outer solar system are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet):

outer solar system

The first thing to notice is that the solar system is mostly empty space. The planets are very small compared to the space between them. Even the dots on the diagrams above are too big to be in proper scale with respect to the sizes of the orbits.

The orbits of the planets are ellipses with the Sun at one focus, though all except Mercury are very nearly circular. The orbits of the planets are all more or less in the same plane (called the ecliptic and defined by the plane of the Earth's orbit). The ecliptic is inclined only 7 degrees from the plane of the Sun's equator. The above diagrams show the relative sizes of the orbits of the eight planets (plus Pluto) from a perspective somewhat above the ecliptic (hence their non-circular appearance). They all orbit in the same direction (counter-clockwise looking down from above the Sun's north pole); all but Venus, Uranus and Pluto also rotate in that same sense.

(The above diagrams show correct positions for October 1996 as generated by the excellent planetarium program Starry Night; there are also many other similar programs available, some free. You can also use Emerald Chronometer on your iPhone or Emerald Observatory on your iPad to find the current positions. This information is also useful for designing a solar panel system.)


The above composite shows the eight planets and Pluto with approximately correct relative sizes (see another similar composite and a comparison of the terrestrial planets or Appendix 2 for more).

One way to help visualize the relative sizes in the solar system is to imagine a model in which everything is reduced in size by a factor of a billion. Then the model Earth would be about 1.3 cm in diameter (the size of a grape). The Moon would be about 30 cm (about a foot) from the Earth. The Sun would be 1.5 meters in diameter (about the height of a man) and 150 meters (about a city block) from the Earth. Jupiter would be 15 cm in diameter (the size of a large grapefruit) and 5 blocks away from the Sun. Saturn (the size of an orange) would be 10 blocks away; Uranus and Neptune (lemons) 20 and 30 blocks away. A human on this scale would be the size of an atom but the nearest star would be over 40000 km away.

Not shown in the above illustrations are the numerous smaller bodies that inhabit the solar system: the satellites of the planets; the large number of asteroids (small rocky bodies) orbiting the Sun, mostly between Mars and Jupiter but also elsewhere; the comets (small icy bodies) which come and go from the inner parts of the solar system in highly elongated orbits and at random orientations to the ecliptic; and the many small icy bodies beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt. With a few exceptions, the planetary satellites orbit in the same sense as the planets and approximately in the plane of the ecliptic but this is not generally true for comets and asteroids. The classification of these objects is a matter of minor controversy. Traditionally, the solar system has been divided into planets (the big bodies orbiting the Sun), their satellites (a.k.a. moons, variously sized objects orbiting the planets), asteroids (small dense objects orbiting the Sun) and comets (small icy objects with highly eccentric orbits). Unfortunately, the solar system has been found to be more complicated than this would suggest:

Other classifications based on chemical composition and/or point of origin can be proposed which attempt to be more physically valid. But they usually end up with either too many classes or too many exceptions. The bottom line is that many of the bodies are unique; the actual situation is too complicated for simple categorization. In the pages that follow, I will use the conventional categorizations.

The eight bodies officially categorized as planets are often further classified in several ways:


Note: most of the images in The Nine Planets are not true color. Most of them were created by combining several black and white images taken thru various color filters. Though the colors may look "right" chances are they aren't exactly what your eye would see.

More General Overview

The Big Questions

What is the origin of the solar system? It is generally agreed that it condensed from a nebula of dust and gas. But the details are far from clear.

How common are planetary systems around other stars? (Updated June 2014)
The number of planets around other stars has increased dramatically since the first discoveries of HD 1144762 b in 1989 and gamma Cephei b in 1988 (confirmed in 2003). lists 1,811 planets up to 25 July 2014, including over 400 multiple planet systems. Plus there are over 3,000 additional potential planets indicated by the Kepler spacecraft according to the NASA Exoplanet Archive. The reader will note there may be differences in the reported numbers between the two sites referenced.

What conditions allow the formation of terrestrial planets? It seems unlikely that the Earth is totally unique but we still have no direct evidence one way or the other.

Is there life elsewhere in the solar system? If not, why is Earth special? (Updated June 2014)
We do not yet know of life elsewhere. One of the things that makes Earth special of particular interest to the exoplanet search is our location with respect to our Sun -- the habitable or so-called “goldilocks zone”. The “goldilocks zone” the area around a star where water would be a liquid on the surface of a planet. The location and extent of which would depend on a number of criteria such as the parent star size and temperature. Once planets in these habitable zones are found the size of the planet is taken into account. The size is what may enable a suitable atmosphere for our familiar life forms. The Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo maintains the Habitable Exoplanet Catalog

Is there life beyond the solar system? Intelligent life?

Is life a rare and unusual or even unique event in the evolution of the universe or is it adaptable, widespread and common?

Answers to these questions, even partial ones, would be of enormous value. Answers to the lesser questions on the pages that follow may help answer some of these big ones.