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