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Q & A: planets different from Earth

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Most recent answer: 03/23/2010
why are other planets different than earth?
- savannah (age 10)
Planets have different properties because they are different distances away from the sun, are different sizes, and are made up of different stuff from the earth.

Very tiny planets do not have enough gravitational field to keep much of an atmosphere in. The moon has no atmosphere to speak of, and the Martian atmosphere is very thin. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune seem to be atmosphere as far as can be seen (there probably are liquid and solid cores in there because the pressures and densities get so high, and there's probably rock in there too). Of course the atmospheres may be nasty stuff, like CO2 and methane and ammonia, which give rise to different chemistry and weather than on earth.

Planets closer in to the sun than earth are hotter on average, and planets farther away are cooler, although some of the gas giants generate some heat on their own. Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect at work which keeps it even hotter than might be expected for a planet at its distance from the sun.

The earth too changes from time to time. Sometimes there's an ice age, and other times the average temperature is higher, melting the ice.

We have detected large planets in other solar systems, but experimental techniques are sensitive only to the very largest of these and those that are close to their systems' stars. This is for two reasons -- we can detect their presence because they make their central star wobble back and forth from gravitational attraction, so we can only see the ones that wobble quickly enough and with a big enough swing from side to side so we don't have to watch the star for decades and measure itsy bitsy wobbles. This restricts the kinds of planets we can detect to big ones close in with quick orbits (short years). A more recent planetary discovery was done with light scattered from the planet, with the host star's light subtracted away digitally. Again, we can only see the big ones, and planets closer to the central star will have more light on them to shine brighter.

Giant planets near stars are very different worlds from our own.


(published on 10/22/2007)

Follow-Up #1: temperature and atmosphere

You know you say that the moon does not have enough mass to have an atmosphere. Surely that depends on the temperature? Or does it? Titan has an atmosphere? but thats small.. what is the relationship between gravitationalfieldstrengh and heat for obtaining an atmosphere?? :)
- Lucy (age 17)
You're absolutely right that whether a planet keeps its atmosphere depends on both gravity and temperature. Roughly speaking, if the surface gravitational acceleration (g) times the planet radius (R) times the mass of a gas molecule (m) is much greater than the absolute temperature (T) time Boltzmann's constant (k) then the planet will hold on to its atmosphere. That's equivalent to saying that thermal jiggles very rarely give a molecule the escape velocity or more.

For the earth, you can try these approximate values:
g= 10 m/s2
R=6*106 m
m= 5*10-26 kg (for N2)
T= 300 K
kT= 4*10-21 J.

So the Earth has strong enough gravity to keep its atmosphere from thermally escaping very fast.  I'll try to find a more complete analysis of how long an atmosphere hangs around when the mgR/kT ratio is not so large, and post in later.

Mike W.

(published on 03/23/2010)

Follow-up on this answer.