The ancient Greeks saw the five visible planets and called them “wandering stars” because they moved randomly across the sky instead of staying in fixed positions like the stars. The word “planet” comes from the Greek word for “wanderer.”
We have known for many centuries that the planets are not stars. They appear to wander because they orbit the Sun, just like our planet Earth. They orbit at different speeds, making them appear to wander in the sky. For astronomers to classify a celestial body as a planet, it must meet three requirements:
It must have enough mass for gravity to cause it to become spherical, unlike an asteroid.
It must not have enough mass to cause thermonuclear fusion, which would make it a star.
It must have cleared the area of debris known as planetesimals.
We have five planets that are visible without the aid of telescopes or even binoculars. Two of the visible planets are called inferior planets, not because of importance but because their orbit is inside Earth’s orbit. They are Mercury and Venus. The other three are known as the superior planets since they are beyond Earth’s orbit. They are Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
There is one essential thing the ancient Greeks did not understand about the solar system. They did not know that it is orderly. The Greeks saw a pantheon of gods controlling various aspects of the Earth and skies. Each of their gods had all of the bad traits of humans struggling with each other. It was the Judeo-Christian concept of one almighty and wise creator God who created an orderly system that led to the scientific understanding of the cosmos.
In recent years we have come to understand how God formed many of the elements that make up our world and our bodies. We watch stars producing new elements, and we realize that this system was designed by God to take the hydrogen produced in the beginning and continually make heavier elements by thermonuclear fusion. It is incredible to witness the power and design in a nova or supernova and to understand that this is God’s forge to make new elements. Now we have another picture of a design God has used for making molecules.
Molecules are combinations of atoms put together to produce a compound. Simple compounds like water and methane are difficult enough to produce. The huge molecules, such as amino acids that make up living materials, require a particular environment to form. Many of them have been found in space debris, but their origins are not clear.
The latest NASA report on Jupiter has given us some new understanding of making molecules. NASA’s robotic Juno spacecraft orbits only 15,000 kilometers above Jupiter’s cloud tops. Using new data from this spacecraft, astronomers have announced that Jupiter is apparently mostly liquid. It is not a ball of rock with a blanket of liquids and gases, as Earth-based observations seemed to indicate.
It’s hard to realize the size of Jupiter (2.5 times the mass of all other planets combined), its rapid spin rate (more than twice as fast as Earth’s), the amount of lightning that we observe, and the extreme temperatures are all working in a liquid. It indicates an environment similar to what we can create in our laboratories here on Earth to produce complex molecules. The Miller-Urey experiment of 1953 earned a Nobel prize for producing an environment in the lab capable of making molecules of amino acids. Now we see a location in space that duplicates much of Stanley Miller’s famous experiment. To be facetious, perhaps God should get a Nobel Prize for something that was operational long before any human existed.
The more we know of the creation, the closer we get to the Creator. Knowing His methods just increases our wonder at His power and wisdom.
Astronomers today use technology to examine areas of the cosmos far removed from our solar system. The fact that they are finding the other systems are very much different from ours should tell us something. In fact, the more we study those other systems, the more we learn about our solar system design and why it is the way it is.
One interesting fact about other systems is that even though some planets are very large and obviously gaseous, they can exist very close to their stars. Astronomers in the past explained the fact that the inner planets of our own solar system are rocky and hard by saying that the Sun burned off the gases and left the rocky material. That may be partially true, but in 2002 astronomers discovered a planet they named OGLE-TR-56b. It is about the same mass as Jupiter but over 30 percent larger. It has to be a gaseous planet to have such a low density.
The surprising thing is that OGLE-TR-56b orbits its star at an average distance of only 2 million miles (3.2 million km). Our innermost planet Mercury is 36 million miles (58 million km) from the Sun. The outer atmosphere of this planet must be around 3000°F (1650° C). It is evident that gaseous planets can exist very close to their stars, so our old explanation of the inner planets in our solar system design is vastly oversimplified.
Most of the planets we see around other stars are very large, which is not surprising since it is easier to see a big planet than a small one. One extra-solar planet is 17 times as massive as Jupiter. The strange thing is that many of the giant planets are closer to the Sun than Venus. Old theories of planet formation suggested that due to the large gravity values of stars, it was impossible for planets to form close to the stars. We now know that is not true.
Science programs on television have delighted in proposing that the cosmos is full of planets and that every galaxy has literally millions of planets. The hope is that if you have enough planets, the chance of having another Earth is improved. We now know that many galactic systems do not have planets at all. The composition and age of galactic systems obviously have a major impact on whether planets can exist, but claims of billions of Earth-like planets in the cosmos are highly exaggerated.
The type of star also has an impact on whether planetary systems can form. Most stars in the cosmos are binary systems containing more than one star. A planet can orbit the stars at a great distance, but shifting gravity fields make planets unlikely if the stars are close together, as most are. How much metal there is in a star system affects planet formation. Metal content varies within galaxies as well as between stars. A part of space dominated by gases like hydrogen and helium are not as likely to produce planets as areas where there are large amounts of iron, manganese, cobalt, and the like. Solar system design requires the right kind of star.
Perhaps one of the most exciting lessons we have learned from other solar systems is that the shape of the orbits of planets in our solar system is very unusual. Most of them have very circular orbits meaning that their distance from the Sun does not vary a great deal. Venus has an orbit that is .007 with 0 being a perfect circle and 1 is a straight line. Pluto has the most elliptical orbit, but even Pluto is less than .3 on the 0-1 scale. Our solar system design is unusual.
Circular orbits like ours are very rare in other solar systems where .7 is a very common orbital value, and virtually all orbits exceed .3. If a planet swings far out from its star and then comes much closer, it should be obvious that temperature conditions are going to be extreme. Not only will such a planet have extreme conditions itself, but it will have a very negative effect on any planets that do have a circular orbit in the system. If Jupiter came closer to the Sun than Earth with each orbit, imagine the conditions on Earth as Jupiter went by us.
We now know that our gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) are essential to us because their gravitational fields sweep up any debris from outer space. Without those planets, comets and asteroids would pound Earth and life here would be difficult if not impossible. The fact that they are outside Earth’s orbit at a considerable distance and in a circular orbit allows us to exist in a stable condition for an extended time. The comets that do enter our system by avoiding the gas giants do not come in along the plane of the solar system called the ecliptic. Coming in from other directions, they have no chance of hitting Earth since they are not in the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun.
June 10, 2019, is an excellent time to observe the largest planet in our solar system. The reason is that Jupiter is in opposition to our Sun.
When astronomers say that Jupiter is in opposition, they mean that planet Earth is passing between the Sun and Jupiter. At this time, Jupiter will rise in the east as the Sun sets in the west, and it will set in the west as the Sun rises in the east. In other words, Jupiter will be visible all night long, and it will be at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night.
The picture was taken by the JunoCam on NASA’s spacecraft Juno which is currently orbiting Jupiter. NASA posts the raw images online and encourages individuals to download and process them. Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill enhanced this one. You can find access to the raw images and see the work of other citizen scientists by clicking HERE.
When you see Jupiter in the sky tonight, it will not look like this picture, but it will be the brightest object in the sky. Jupiter is not a rocky planet like Earth. It’s a gas giant which if were 80 times more massive, would be hot enough to set off nuclear reactions in its core. Then it would be a star giving off its own light instead of just reflecting the Sun’s light. However, if you could lump all the other planets in our solar system together (including Earth), Jupiter would be 2.5 times more massive than them all.
Why do we need such a huge gas giant in the outer solar system? As we have said in previous posts, Jupiter is a comet sweeper. With its massive size and gravity, Jupiter protects us from objects such as comets coming from outside our solar system. In the 1990s, NASA observed Jupiter pulling apart and destroying comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. You can read about that in our previous post HERE. Jupiter also affects Earth’s climate cycles, which you can read about HERE.
Jupiter is in opposition about every 13 months. Last year opposition occurred in May. Next year it will be on July 14. If you miss seeing Jupiter tonight because of cloudy weather or any other reason, don’t despair. Jupiter will be closest to Earth on June 12, and it will continue to be visible, but right now it’s visible all night long.
When it comes to moons, it seems that Earth got cheated. We have only one moon while Mars has two. Neptune has fourteen moons. Uranus has twenty-seven. Saturn not only has rings, but it also has sixty-two moons. Lucky Jupiter has sixty-seven! To add to the embarrassment, puny little Pluto, which is no longer considered a planet, has five times as many moons as Earth has! The only bragging point we have is that we can say we have more moons than Mercury and Venus. (They have none.) So how many moons are enough?
Actually, one works very nicely. Our single moon is critical to the existence of life on Earth. It’s because of the moon that Earth has a stable tilt on its axis of 23.5 degrees. That tilt prevents temperature extremes on this planet. With no inclination, the area of the Equator would be extremely hot and the poles extremely cold and dark all year. With a greater tilt, seasonal weather changes would be extreme all over the planet. Because of the angle of the inclination, we have proper seasons, and the air gets mixed to temper the weather extremes.
Our moon has the right mass at the right distance to keep Earth’s tilt stable. The moon plays several crucial roles in making our planet a great place to live, but stabilizing the tilt is one that’s extremely important. So how many moons are enough? I would say that one moon of the right size and at the right distance is just right.
A new study shows that gravitational fields of Venus-Jupiter affect Earth’s climate cycle. A research group at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Rutgers University released the study on May 7, 2018. Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system, and Venus is our closest planetary neighbor. Together they have a significant influence on the Earth’s climate.
Dennis Kent, who led the study said, “The climate cycles are directly related to how the Earth orbits the sun and slight variations in sunlight reaching Earth lead to climate and ecological changes.” The study shows that there is a repeating cycle which they calculate takes 405,000 years. That cycle causes wobbles in the Earth’s orbit leading to climate extremes. Not only do studies like this help us understand the past, but they also help in our understanding of current global conditions such as climate change.
The enormous number of things that have to be just what they are for life to exist on Earth continues to grow. In 1961, American astronomer Frank Drake, a founder of the SETI program, presented an equation that attempted to calculate the number of “earths” that might exist in our galaxy. Drake’s equation took the variables that must be right for a planet like ours to support life. He then multiplied the variables together to get the probability of another planet like ours.
Dr. Drake had only seven variables in his calculation, and today that number exceeds 50. We list 47 of them on our doesgodexist.org website, but even that list is far from complete. Now that we know that the gravitational fields of Venus-Jupiter affect Earth’s climate cycle, we have one more factor to add to the list.
As astronomical equipment gets better, the details of stellar systems other than our own show patterns that highlight our unique solar system.
The January 3, 2018, issue of The Astronomical Journal published a report on a study of 909 planets in 355 systems discovered by the Kepler Telescope. The study shows two major patterns in neighboring exoplanets. The first is that those exoplanets tend to have similar masses. The second is that their orbits are regularly spaced from one planet to the next.
Our solar system has inner planets that have mismatched sizes, and they are widely spaced. All models of solar system formation fit what we see in exoplanets. The evidence suggests that exoplanetary systems have not been disturbed since their formation. Our system is different because it shows evidence that it has been disturbed. Jupiter and Saturn seem to be tools that modify the normal pattern of solar system formation.
In 1996 an extraterrestrial rock fragment was discovered in Egypt called the Hypatia stone. The mineral composition of that stone is unlike any other known object in our solar system. Scientists think that it originated outside of our system. Our solar system seems to be unique in both structure and chemical makeup. Astronomers are discovering indicators of how God created the Earth and all of the things that allow life to exist on it.
There is a significant amount of debris left over from the formation of the solar system existing in clouds outside the solar system. That debris eventually gets attracted toward the Sun. In 1992 scientists observed Jupiter pulling the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 apart and breaking it into more than 20 pieces which eventually slammed into Jupiter’ surface in 1994. We learned that we have a Jupiter comet shield to protect our planet.
It is obvious that Jupiter is essential to the survival of life on Earth if for no other reason than the shield it gives us. Right now a spacecraft named Juno is orbiting Jupiter and sending back data and pictures that are amazing. The spacecraft has made five elliptical orbits since last July dipping to within 2100 miles of Jupiter’s atmosphere, collecting data, and taking photographs. ScienceNews.org has some of the amazing pictures.
Here are some things we have learned about Jupiter:
*Polar cyclones 900 miles wide circle the planet.
*Jupiter has a powerful magnetic field about ten times stronger than Earth’s.
*Powerful auroras work in the polar areas of the planet but are different from what we observe on Earth in both structure and function.
*There is a concentrated band of ammonia near the planet’s equator.
A recently discovered asteroid is raising new questions. The cosmos is one of the great evidences for the existence of God. Romans 1:18-20 tells us that “we can know there is a God through the things He has made.” Psalms 19:1 tells us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork…” We see a constant stream of new proposals year after year giving possible scenarios about how the solar system and Earth were produced. In the nearly 50 years that we have been writing, we have seen a dozen or so theories advanced and discarded because they couldn’t account for new observations.
This month Science News (May 13, 2017, page 5), carried a story about a strange asteroid. This will once again cause some rearranging of the current best guesses as to how the solar system and the Earth were formed. Research reported in Nature magazine (March 30, 2017) shows an asteroid that revolves around the Sun backwards, even though it is in Jupiter’s orbit. If you were to look at the solar system from the north star, you would notice that everything revolves around the Sun in a counterclockwise direction. Moons, asteroids, and planets are basically all in one plane and all moving the same way. Jupiter is the most massive planet in the solar system, and it has a multitude of rocks called asteroids that orbit around the Sun in the same direction. Now we have an asteroid that is in Jupiter’s orbit but revolves clockwise around the Sun.
If you think about that for a minute, you will see that it would logically follow that in the first orbit this asteroid would have slammed into Jupiter like a car driving the wrong way down a one-way street. In time at least, Jupiter should have sucked in this wayward hunk of rock. The orbit of asteroid 1015 BZ-509 is such that in one orbit it goes on one side of Jupiter and on the next orbit it goes on the other side of Jupiter, so the gravitational jerk of Jupiter is canceled out. Computer simulations show that this arrangement is permanent. It has been going on for a long time and will continue into the future.