Solar System Comic Strips

The Solar System formed 4. 6┬ábillion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a giant interstellar molecular cloud. The vast majority of the system’s mass is in the Sun, with the majority of the remaining mass contained in Jupiter. The four smaller inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, are terrestrial planets, being primarily composed of rock and metal. The four outer planets are giant planets, being substantially more massive than the terrestrials. The two largest, Jupiter and Saturn, are gas giants, being composed mainly of hydrogen and helium; the two outermost planets, Uranus and Neptune, are ice giants, being composed mostly of substances with relatively high melting points compared with hydrogen and helium, called volatiles, such as water, ammonia and methane. All eight planets have almost circular orbits that lie within a nearly flat disc called the ecliptic.

The original goal of Cassini-Huygens was to study Saturn and its large, misty, tortured, moon Titan. Titan, the second-largest moon in our Solar System, after Ganymede of Jupiter, is a world long-shrouded in mystery, hiding behind a thick orange veil, and slashed with hydrocarbon lakes and seas. However, there are other enticing moons known to circle the ringed planet. Saturn's mid-sized icy moons (Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Phoebe) are enchanting worlds. Each one of these frozen little moons reveals an interesting and unique geology. So far, Saturn is known to sport 62 icy moons! Makemake, like Pluto, shows a red hue in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The near-infrared spectrum is marked by the existence of the broad methane absorption bands--and methane has also been observed on Pluto. Spectral analysis of Makemake's surface shows that its methane must be present in the form of large grains that are at least one centimeter in size. In addition to methane, there appears to be large quantities of ethane and tholins as well as smaller quantities of ethylene, acetylene, and high-mass alkanes (like propane)--most likely formed as a result of the photolysis of methane by solar radiation. The tholins are thought to be the source of the red color of the visible spectrum. Even though there is some evidence for the existence of nitrogen ice on Makemake's frozen surface, at least combined with other ices, it is probably not close to the same abundance of nitrogen seen on Pluto and on Triton. Triton is a large moon of the planet Neptune that sports a retrograde orbit indicating that it is a captured object. Many astronomers think that Triton is a wandering refugee from the Kuiper Belt that was captured by the gravity of its large, gaseous planet. It is possible that eventually the doomed Triton will plunge into the immense, deep blue world that it has circled for so long as an adopted member of its family. Nitrogen accounts for more than 98 percent of the crust of both Pluto and Triton. The relative lack of nitrogen ice on Makemake hints that its supply of nitrogen has somehow been depleted over the age of our Solar System. "This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment. These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA's science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not," commented Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen in an April 13, 2017 NASA Press Release. Dr. Zurbuchen is associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington D.C.