Outer planets

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Not to be confused with Outer World, Outer Worlds, or Outworld (disambiguation).
From top to bottom: Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter to approximate scale and color.

The outer planets are those planets in the Solar System beyond the asteroid belt, and hence refers to the gas giants, which are in order of their distance from the Sun:

  • Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System. It has four very large satellites.
  • Saturn is the second-largest planet, with a large and bright ring system.
  • Uranus is the third-largest planet and the least massive of the four outer planets. It is tilted almost onto the plane of its orbit.
  • Neptune is smallest of the four outer planets. It has one big retrograde moon and many small ones.

The outer planets all have ring systems, although all but Saturn's are faint.

Another aspect common to the gas giants is their many natural satellites, two of which are larger than the planet Mercury (Jupiter's Ganymede and Saturn's Titan). That pair and Io, Callisto, Europa, and Triton, are larger than Pluto and Eris.

This region of space is also occupied by centaurs, various fields of trojans, and many comets.

Pluto was considered to be an outer planet from its discovery in 1930 until its reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006 (see also Kuiper belt).


Galileo probe plunged deep into Jupiter in 1995. It was carried to the Jovian system by the Galileo spacecraft, where it was released and survived what was then the highest-velocity atmospheric entry yet attempted.

In situ exploration by spacecraft includes Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Ulysses, Galileo, Cassini–Huygens, and New Horizons. Planned missions include Juno Jupiter Orbiter and possibly the Outer Planet Flagship Missions; there are various proposals too, such as Uranus orbiter and probe. Ongoing missions for the outer planets as of 2011 include Cassini probe, orbiting Saturn, New Horizons, headed for Pluto, and Juno, headed for Jupiter. Cassini and New Horizons also visited Jupiter with a flyby.

One of the breakthroughs that made exploration of the outer planets much easier, was the concept of the planetary gravity assist.[1] Discovered in the 1960s, a spacecraft approaches a planet like Jupiter in such a way as to be accelerated to a higher speed.[1] This allows a much smaller rocket to be used for a given launch.[1]

Another promising technology, tested on Deep Space 1, is the ion engine.[1] Ion engines can make much more efficient use of propellant than existing chemical rockets.[1]

Spacecraft Exploration Summary
Spacecraft Launch
Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune End
Pioneer 10 1972 Flyby 2003
Pioneer 11 1973 Flyby Flyby 1995
Voyager 1 1977 Flyby Flyby
Voyager 2 1977 Flyby Flyby Flyby Flyby
Galileo 1989 Orbiter 2003
Galileo Probe 1989 Entry 1995
Ulysses 1990 Flyby 2009
Cassini 1997 Flyby Orbiter
New Horizons 2006 Flyby
Juno 2011 Orbiter

Mission concepts[edit]

Real image of the northern hemisphere of Saturn, as taken by the Cassini–Huygens mission
Jupiter by Voyager 1 on February 25, 1979
  • Jupiter Europa Orbiter Study[2]
  • Europa Flyby Study[3]
  • Europa Lander Study[3]
  • Exploration of Jovian Atmosphere Using Nuclear Ramjet Flyer[4]
  • Io Observer Concept Study[2]
  • Ganymede Orbiter Concept Study[2]
  • Trojan Tour Concept Study[2]
  • Titan Saturn System Mission[2]
  • Europa Orbiter[5]
  • Europa Flyby[5]
  • Europa Lander[5]
  • Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe Study[2]
  • Saturn Ring Observer Concept Study[2]
  • Enceladus Flyby & Sample Return Concept Studies[2]
  • Journey to Enceladus and Titan (JET)[6]
  • Life Investigation For Enceladus (LIFE) - flyby sample return for Enceladus and Saturn's E-ring.[7]
  • Enceladus Orbiter Concept Study[2]
  • Titan Lake Probe Concept Study[2]
  • AVIATR (Titan Airplane)[8]
  • Titan Rover[9]
  • Chiron Orbiter Mission Concept Study[2]
  • Uranus and Neptune Orbiter and Probe Concept Studies[2]
  • Uranus orbiter and probe
  • Uranus Pathfinder[10]
  • Neptune-Triton-Kuiper Belt Objects Mission Concept Study[2]
  • Argo[11] - Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Kuiper belt flyby

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]