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The Sun is a star.

It is at the centre of the solar system - solar means relating to the Sun - and
it lies within a galaxy of an immense number of other stars.
The solar system consists of planets, dwarf planets, asteroids and comets in orbit around the
Sun. The orbits of the planets are almost circular, but the orbits of comets are ellipses - very
squashed circles. Asteroids sometimes hit the Earth and this could have serious
Galaxies contain billions of stars, and the distances involved are huge. The universe contains
at least one billion galaxies.
The conditions in space are hostile to life and spacecraft must be designed to protect their
occupants. Space probes can explore other planets without needing astronauts. Scientists are
using different methods to see if there is life on planets other than the Earth.

The solar system

The solar system consists of:

a star - the Sun

planets and dwarf planets in orbit around the Sun
satellites - moons - in orbit around most of the planets
comets and asteroids in orbit around the Sun

There are eight planets, including the Earth, and smaller dwarf planets, such as Pluto, Ceres
and Eris.

The Solar System showing from left to right from the Sun - Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars,
Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto
The Sun's gravity keeps the planets, dwarf planets, comets and asteroids in orbit. The gravity
of a planet keeps its satellites in orbit.


The planets take different amounts of time to go around the Sun. A single orbit is called the
planet's year, and the further out a planet is the longer its year takes.
The orbits of the planets in the solar system are almost circular with the Sun near the centre.
Many diagrams - including these here - show the orbits very squashed from top to bottom.
This is to give a sense of perspective or to fit the diagram to a page in a book.

The orbits of the eight planets and Pluto

Comets and asteroids

Comets are balls of ice and dust in orbit around the Sun. The orbits of comets are different
from those of planets - they are elliptical. A comet's orbit takes it very close to the Sun and
then far away again. The time to complete an orbit varies - some comets take a few years,
while others take millions of years to complete an orbit.

Comets have a range of different orbital periods and all leave a trail of debris behind them
Comets are often visible from Earth when they get close to the Sun, because the Sun's heat
vaporises material from their surface, and this vapour forms a tail.

Asteroids are rocky objects, smaller than planets. Most of them are found in an 'asteroid belt',
in orbit around the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. The minor planet Ceres is found here, too.
Asteroids can crash into each other. When they do, they may break apart and their orbit may
The orbits of some asteroids cross the Earth's orbit. At various times during the Earth's
history, asteroids have hit the Earth. When this happened, a tremendous amount of energy
was released, throwing up billions of tonnes of dust. This blocked heat and light from the
Sun, making the Earth very cold.
It is thought that it was the collision of an asteroid with the Earth that helped to drive the
dinosaurs to extinction. Scientists worry that an asteroid could still hit the Earth and cause a
global catastrophe.

Our Sun is a star. It seems much bigger than other stars in the sky because it is much closer to
Earth. Stars form immense groups called galaxies. A galaxy can contain many millions of
stars, held together by the force of gravity.
Our Sun is in a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way. The Sun is about half-way from the
centre of the galaxy, on one of the arms.

The Milky Way galaxy is home to planet Earth

The distances involved in galaxies are huge. The distance from one star and another in a
galaxy is millions of times more than the distance between the planets in the solar system.
Meanwhile, the distance from one galaxy to another is millions of times more than the
distance between the stars in a galaxy. The universe contains at least one billion galaxies.

Exploring space
What is space like?
The space between planets is called interplanetary space. These are some of the conditions

there is no atmosphere
the temperature varies from very cold - away from the Sun - to very hot - in sunshine
the gravitational field strength is close to zero, so objects are effectively weightless
there is a lot of cosmic radiation - radiation from the Sun and distant objects in space

If astronauts are to explore space, scientists and engineers must design systems to protect
them from these conditions.

Spacecraft provide the conditions needed for astronauts to survive in space. They provide:

an atmosphere (and equipment to remove waste gases such as carbon dioxide)

insulation and heating to provide a suitable temperature for life
exercise equipment to reduce the effects of weightlessness (bones become weaker the
longer an astronaut is in space, and exercise helps to slow this process down).

The walls and windows of spacecraft are designed to withstand the impact of
'micrometeorites' (tiny pieces of fast-moving rock). But they cannot protect astronauts from
all the cosmic radiation in space, which can cause cancer. The Earth's atmosphere and
magnetic field shield life forms on Earth from most of this, but scientists are not sure how
they can protect astronauts in space. This limits how long a mission can last without
damaging the health of the astronauts.