Discovering Space - our Solar System

By: Mejo John

Age: 4.6 billion years

The Solar System we live in contains the Sun, its eight orbiting planets and any other astronomical bodies that are under its gravitational pull such as comets and asteroids.

Comets originate from the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt, beyond Neptune, while most asteroids orbit in a region between Mars and Jupiter.

Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars - the four planets closest to the Sun - are called terrestrial planets because they have solid rocky surfaces. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are known as gas giants. Pluto, a dwarf planet, has a solid surface but is much icier than the terrestrial planets.

Our Solar System is just one star system among many within the Milky Way galaxy. There are 300 billion stars in the Milky Way and the nearest, Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light years away. One light year is approximately 9,500 billion km, the distance travelled by light in one year.

There are around 100 billion galaxies in our Universe. So far, no one has detected life outside our home planet.

People and Space

British academics have made some of the most important discoveries in the history of space. And in Sir Isaac Newton, we have produced perhaps the most important scientist of all time.

The UK has also been responsible for much of the groundbreaking technology used in today's missions, and many of the experiments on them.

However, because we don't currently help to fund manned missions, only three people born in the UK have actually been into space. And two of those are American citizens.

i) In 1991 Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space, when she took part in the Soviet mission Project Juno.

ii) A year later, Michael Foale became the first British-born man in space onboard STS-45. He was also the first Briton to complete a space walk.

iii) The bronze medal went to Piers Sellers, another dual citizen, who took part in his first mission in 2002. Piers returned to space in July 2006 onboard STS-121.

iv) In December 2006, Nicholas Patrick became the fourth British-born astronaut in space on board STS-116 Discovery.

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