Solar System Twin Sheets

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 existence of ample amounts of hydrogen in the subsurface ocean of Enceladus indicates that microbes--if any exist there--could use it to obtain energy by mixing with carbon dioxide dissolved in water. This particular chemical reaction, termed methanogenesis, because it manufactures methane as a byproduct, may have been of critical importance in the emergence of life on our planet. Only recently have space missions begun to solve this beguiling Solar System mystery--that a small number of distant moons have been successfully hiding, from the curious eyes of astronomers, life-sustaining liquid water beneath secretive shells of ice. Until 2004, no spacecraft had visited Saturn for more than twenty years. Pioneer 11 had snapped the very first up close and personal images of Saturn when it traveled past it in 1979, Voyager 1 flew past Saturn about a year later, and in August 1981, Voyager 2 had its own fleeting but very productive close encounter. At last, on July 1, 2004, NASA's Cassini spacecraft went into orbit around Saturn, and started taking very revealing photographs of this bewitching planet and its many lovely and bizarre moons.