Space & Time

Solar System

Solar System, the Sun and everything that orbits the Sun, including the nine planets and their satellites; the asteroids and comets; and interplanetary dust and gas. The term may also refer to a group of celestial bodies orbiting another star (see Extrasolar Planets). In this article, solar system refers to the system that includes Earth and the Sun.

The dimensions of the solar system are specified in terms of the mean distance from Earth to the Sun, called the astronomical unit (AU). One AU is 150 million km (about 93 million mi). The most distant known planet, Pluto, orbits about 39 AU from the Sun. Estimates for the boundary where the Sun’s magnetic field ends and interstellar space begins—called the heliopause—range from 86 to 100 AU.

The most distant known planetoid orbiting the Sun is Sedna, whose discovery was reported in March 2004. A planetoid is an object that is too small to be a planet. At the farthest point in its orbit, Sedna is about 900 AU from the Sun. Comets known as long-period comets, however, achieve the greatest distance from the Sun; they have highly eccentric orbits ranging out to 50,000 AU or more.

The solar system was the only planetary system known to exist around a star similar to the Sun until 1995, when astronomers discovered a planet about 0.6 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. Jupiter is the most massive planet in our solar system. Soon after, astronomers found a planet about 8.1 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting the star 70 Virginis, and a planet about 3.5 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting the star 47 Ursa Majoris. Since then, astronomers have found planets and disks of dust in the process of forming planets around many other stars. Most astronomers think it likely that solar systems of some sort are numerous throughout the universe. See Astronomy; Galaxy; Star.