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The Earth, man's home, is a planet. It moves around the sun in a regular orbit, as do the eight other  planets in the solar system. Each of the solar planets has special characteristics, some of which arewell known to both scientists and the public in general. Saturn, for example, is surrounded by a set of rings, and Jupiter is famous as the largest planet in the solar system. The Earth also has specialcharacteristics, and these are important to man. It is the only planet known to have the righttemperature and the right atmosphere to support the kind of life man knows. (
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Planets.)The Earth's special characteristics make possible the kinds of environments and natural resources inwhich plants and man and other animals can survive. This fact is so important to man that he hasdeveloped a special science called ecology, which deals with the dependence of all living things uponone another and upon their environments. Ecologists try to find out how the Earth's environments can be preserved so that living things will continue to survive on the planet.Some scientists believe that millions of planets in the Milky Way, the galaxy that contains the Earth,may be able to support life. But no one can predict the forms that such life might take. An indicationof just how difficult such a prediction might be is illustrated by the vast variety of life forms on Earth.Many millions of kinds of plants and animals have developed on the Earth. They range in size frommicroscopic plants and animals to giant trees and mammoth whales. Distinct types of plants or animals may be common in many parts of the world or may be limited to a small area. Some kindsthrive under conditions that are deadly for others. So some persons suggest that forms of life quitedifferent from those known on Earth might possibly survive on planets with conditions that are far different from conditions on Earth.Many persons believe that the Earth is the only planet in the solar system that can support any kindof life. Scientists have theorized that some primitive forms of life may exist on the surface of Mars, but evidence gathered in 1976 by unmanned probes sent to the Martian surface seems to indicate thatthis is unlikely.Scientists at one time also believed that Venus might support life. Clouds always hide the surface of Venus, so it was thought possible that the temperature and atmosphere on the planet's surface might be suitable for living things. But it is now known that the surface of Venus is too hot--an average of 800o F (425o C)--for liquid water to exist there. The life forms man is familiar with could not possibly live on Venus.The Earth has excellent conditions for life. The temperature is cool enough so that liquid water canremain on the Earth's surface. In fact, oceans cover more than two thirds of the surface. But thetemperature is also warm enough so that only a small fraction of this water is permanently frozen--near the North and South Poles and on some mountaintops.The Earth's atmosphere is dense enough for animals to breathe easily and for plants to take up thecarbon dioxide they need for growth. But the atmosphere is not so dense that it blocks out sunlight.Although clouds often appear in the sky, on the average enough sunlight reaches the surface of theEarth so that plants flourish. Growing plants convert the energy of sunlight into the chemical energyof their own bodies. This interaction between plants and the sun is the basic source of energy for virtually all forms of life on Earth. (
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Energy; Plant; Sun.)Extensive exploration of the seafloor since 1977, however, has uncovered the existence of  biological communities that are not based on solar energy. Active areas of seafloor spreading, such asthe centers in the eastern Pacific that lie far below the limit of light penetration, have chimneylikestructures known as smokers that spew mineral-laden water at temperatures of approximately 660o F(350o C).Observations and studies of these active and inactive hydrothermal vents have radically alteredmany views of biological, geological, and geochemical processes that exist in the deep sea. One of themost significant discoveries is that the vents and associated chemical constituents provide the energysource for chemosynthetic bacteria. These bacteria form, in turn, the bottom of the food chain,sustaining the lush biological communities at the hydrothermal vent sites. Chemosynthetic bacteriaare those that use energy obtained from the chemical oxidation of inorganic compounds, such ashydrogen sulfide, for the fixation of carbon dioxide into organic matter (
Deep-Sea Life).Although the atmosphere allows sunlight to reach the Earth's surface, it blocks out certain portionsof solar radiation, especially X rays and ultraviolet light. Such radiation is very harmful, and, if theatmosphere did not filter it out, probably none of the life forms on Earth could ever have developed.So, the necessary conditions for these life forms--water, the right kind of atmosphere, and the rightamount and kind of sunlight--exist on the surface of the Earth. The Earth is the only planet in the solar system known to have all of these "right" conditions.
The Earth's Place in Space
 Despite its own special conditions, the Earth is in some ways similar to the other inner planets--thegroup of planets nearer to the sun. Of these planets, Mercury is the closest to the sun; Venus issecond; the Earth is third; and Mars is fourth. All of these planets, including the Earth, are basically balls of rock. Mercury is the smallest in size. Its diameter is about two thirds the greatest width of theAtlantic Ocean. Mars is larger than Mercury, but its diameter is only a little more than half that of theEarth. Venus, with a diameter of roughly 7,600 miles (12,000 kilometers), is almost as large as theEarth.Four of the five outer planets are much bigger than any of the inner planets. The largest, Jupiter, hasa diameter more than 11 times as great as that of the Earth. These four outer planets are also much lessdense than the inner planets. They seem to be balls of substances that are gases on Earth but chieflysolids at the low temperatures and high pressures that exist on the outer planets.The exact size or mass of Pluto, the most distant planet, is not known. Its composition is also amystery. All that is known for sure about Pluto is its orbit. Pluto's average distance from the sun isalmost 40 times that of the Earth.At the outer reaches of the solar system are the comets. A comet consists of a nucleus of frozengases called ices, water and mineral particles; and a coma of gases and dust particles. Some cometsalso have tails. A comet's tail consists of gases and particles of dust from the coma. As the cometapproaches the sun, light from the sun and the solar wind cause tails to form. For this reason the tails point generally away from the sun.
Movements of the Planets
 Each planet, including the Earth, travels around the sun in a regular orbit. Ancient astronomersthought that the orbits of the planets were circular. It is now known that the orbits are elliptical,though the orbits of most planets are almost circular. The Earth's orbital eccentricity--the extent towhich it departs from a perfectly circular path--is very slight. The orbits of Mercury and Mars aremore eccentric. But Pluto is the only planet that has a markedly elliptical orbit.The planets nearest to the sun move faster than do those farther away. Mercury, the closest, orbitsthe sun in about three months. Pluto, the most distant, takes 248 years to make one trip around thesun.To man, the Earth seems steady and immovable. It gives no sensation of motion, so it is hard torealize how rapidly the Earth moves through space in its orbit around the sun. It takes a whole year tomake one round trip, which seems rather slow. But on the average, the Earth moves in its orbit at 18.5miles (29.78 kilometers) per second, or 66,600 miles per hour.
Size and Movement of the Milky Way
 While the Earth and the other planets move around the sun, the sun itself moves through a galaxy, or large group of stars, called the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a collection of about a hundred billionstars. They are arranged in a disklike shape with a bulge at the center. This central bulge containsabout three quarters of all the stars in the galaxy. No one has made exact measurements of the Milky Way. Clouds of dust block much of it fromview, and many stars between the Earth and the center of the galaxy obscure the center from sight.Scientists, however, can see other galaxies in the sky. By comparing what they see with what theyknow about the Milky Way, they can make rough guesses about its size and shape and the number of stars it contains.The Milky Way is almost 100,000 light-years in diameter, and its central bulge is about 10,000light-years across. A light-year is an astronomer's measurement. It is a unit of length equal to thedistance light travels in one year. Light travels 186,300 miles (299,800 kilometers) per second. So onelight-year equals almost 5,880 billion miles (9,460 billion kilometers).The Milky Way contains millions of stars similar to the sun. Among all stars, the sun rates asaverage in size and temperature. But the sun is much larger than any of the planets in the solar system.It has a diameter of 865,000 miles, and a volume more than a million times as great as that of theEarth. The star system closest to the solar system is the triple star system Alpha and ProximaCentauri, 4.3 light-years away. The two nearest stars that resemble the sun in size and brilliance are11 light-years away.The whole Milky Way seems to be slowly rotating. The stars near the center probably move aroundthe hub faster than those near the edge, just as the planets nearest to the sun move faster in their orbitsthan do those farther away. The sun is 30,000 light-years, or about two thirds of the way out, from the

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