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READ: Gallery — Earth & Solar System

The cosmic beauty of the Sun, our Solar System, and exoplanets.

A Protoplanetary Disk

This illustration of a young solar system shows the swirling disk of gas and dust that may later form planets. The star system depicted, NGC 1333-IRAS 4B, is 1,000 light years away in the constellation Perseus. Its central stellar embryo is still "feeding" off the material collapsing around it and continues to grow. Astronomers cannot tell how large the star will ultimately become or what types of planets will form around it but they’ve identified enough water vapor in the star system to fill Earth’s oceans five times.


NASA/JPL-Caltech/T.Pyle (SSC)
This illustration shows the debris orbiting a star similar to our Sun at about the time Earth started to form.  In the case of our Solar System, planets eventually formed from asteroids similar to those shown here.  Chunks of matter collided and combined in a process called accretion.

Our Sun

This recent image of our Sun shows a huge cloud of relatively cool, dense plasma suspended in the Sun’s corona. The hottest areas of the sun look almost white, while the darker red areas indicate “cooler” temperatures of about 60,000 Kelvin (59,726 degrees Celsius or 107,540 degrees Fahrenheit).

Coronal loops

Bursts of super hot plasma can rise from the visible surface of the sun to a height spanning more than 30 times the diameter of the Earth. The explosive activity of the solar corona (the Sun’s outer plasma layer or crown) can generate “solar winds” and can even affect the weather on Earth.

The Blue Marble

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
This famous image of Earth, called The Blue Marble, shows how our planet looks from space. Scientists are yet to locate an exoplanet with the unique qualities of Earth.  Its oceans, its atmosphere, its diverse land features and its moderate temperature conditions are just a few of the things that make Earth so special.

Mountains of the Moon

NASA/GFSC/Arizona State University
Most mountains on the Earth are formed as plates collide and the Earth’s crust buckles. Not so for the Moon, where mountains are formed as a result of asteroid impacts. This photograph Shows the Cabeus crater, thought to contain large icy deposits of water and methane.

Almost a Star

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The “gas giant” Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System. Measuring by diameter, it is about 11 times the size of the Earth and its mass is more than 300 times that of Earth. In some ways, Jupiter is more like a star, or a “failed star” than like a planet since its composition is primarily hydrogen and helium. But Jupiter never heated up enough to start burning its hydrogen, as stars do.  If you look closely to the left side of the image, you can see the shadow cast by Europa, one of the largest of Jupiter’s more than 50 moons.

The Eye of the Storm

This collage of color shows swirling clouds around Jupiter's Great Red Spot, as photographed by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. The Great Red Spot is actually a persistent hurricane-like storm that has lasted for at least 180 years.  The storm is so large that 2 or 3 Earths would fit within it.

The Rings of Saturn

Saturn's rings seem poised to slice through its large moon Titan while the smaller moon, Enceladus, looks on.  The gaseous Saturn, the second largest planet in the Solar System, is orbited by countless particles of ice and dust.  This matter, in sizes varying from tiny grains to larger automobile-sized chunks, reflects light, forming Saturn’s trademark rings.

The Neighborhood

Big History Project
Exoplanets are far more common than originally thought. This diagram shows numerous star systems within 65 light years of the Sun where exoplanets have been observed.  Scientists continue to gather more information about these alien worlds.

Close Quarters

ESA - C. Carreau
This artists depiction of the exoplanet HD 189733b shows the intensely hot planet in relation to its star. Scientists discovered this exoplanet, some 63 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula, when its star’s light dimmed by 3 percent every time the planet moved in front of it.

Primordial Soup

It’s hard to know what the surface of an exoplanet might look like up close. In this artist's conception of a hypothetical exoplanet during its solar system's early days, a soupy mix of chemicals pools around the base of the jagged rock formations while meteors fill the sky.  Early Earth may have had a similar look.

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