A planet is a large object in orbit around a star. It can be made of rock, metal, liquid, gas, or a combination of these. Planets do not produce light, but reflect the light of their parent star.

In our own Solar System, there are nine planets, including Earth, orbiting the Sun, our parent star. Observations of other stars made by astronomers using powerful telescopes indicate that they, too, have planets. There could therefore be billions of other planets in the Universe.

The Earth is the largest of the four inner, or “terrestrial”, planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. They are, as the scale illustration demonstrates, dwarfed by the four “gas giants”, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, so called because they have comparatively small rocky cores surrounded by thick layers of liquid and gas. Pluto fits into neither category, being a small, outer planet made of ice and rock.

The diagram shows the relative distances of the planets from the Sun. Pacing out their positions would give an even better idea of the huge distances between them. If the Sun were a football, Mercury would be pinhead 10 paces away from it. Earth (the size of a peppercorn) is a further 16 paces on from Mercury, with the Moon a thumb’s length away from Earth. Another 209 paces would bring you to Jupiter (a large marble), while Pluto lies 884 more paces distant. To reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, you must walk another 6700 kilometres!


Because the giant planets lie so far from Earth, it would take too long for people to travel to them. So space probes have been launched to “fly by” every planet except Pluto and send back pictures. Voyager 2 made the greatest journey. Space probe Cassini visits Saturn in 2004.


The Solar System began life as a cloud of gas and dust drifting across the Milky Way Ga1axy. It is thought that a supernova may have sent shock waves racing across space, striking the cloud and somehow causing it to collapse under its own gravity.

Within 100,000 years, the collapsed cloud became a swirling disc, called a solar nebula. Under pressure from gas and dust spiralling inwards, the centre became hotter and denser and began to bulge. It would soon evolve into the infant Sun.

Away from this central furnace, particles of dust began to clump together like snowflakes, first into small fragments of rock, then becoming large boulders. Over millions of years, some grew into blocks several kilometres across, called planetesimals. These eventually started to collide with one another, building up like snowballs to become the four rocky inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, and the cores of the four gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The solar wind stripped away any remaining dust and gas, including the atmospheres around the four inner planets. The giant planets lay beyond the solar wind’s fiercest blast, so they were able to hold on to their thick blankets of gas.

Jupiter’s gravitational pull caused nearby planetesimals to destroy one another rather than build up into another planet, leaving a belt of rock fragments, known as asteroids, still orbiting the Sun, as they do today.

Picture Credit : Google