The Inner Planets

Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun and the eighth largest. Mercury is smaller in diameter than Ganymede and Titan but more massive. 
Orbit: 57,910,000 km (0.38 AU) from Sun.
Diameter: 4,880 km
Mass: 3.30e23 kg
Mercury's orbit is highly eccentric; at perihelion it is only 46 million km from the Sun but at aphelion it is 70 million. The perihelion of its orbit precesses around the Sun at a very slow rate. 19th century astronomers made very careful observations of Mercury's orbital parameters but could not adequately explain them using Newtonian mechanics. The tiny differences between the observed and predicted values were a minor but nagging problem for many decades. It was thought that another planet (sometimes called Vulcan) might exist in an orbit near Mercury's to account for the discrepancy. The real answer turned out to be much more dramatic: Einstein's General Theory of Relativity! Its correct prediction of the motions of Mercury was an important factor in the early acceptance of the theory. 
Mercury is the only body in the solar system known to have an orbital/rotational resonance with a ratio other than 1:1 (though many have no resonances at all). 
This fact and the high eccentricity of Mercury's orbit would produce very strange effects for an observer on Mercury's surface. At some longitudes the observer would see the Sun rise and then gradually increase in apparent size as it slowly moved toward the zenith. At that point the Sun would stop, briefly reverse course, and stop again before resuming its path toward the horizon and decreasing in apparent size. All the while the stars would be moving three times faster across the sky. Observers at other points on Mercury's surface would see different but equally bizarre motions. 
Temperature variations on Mercury are the most extreme in the solar system ranging from 90 K to 700 K. The temperature on Venus is slightly hotter but very stable. 
Mercury is in many ways similar to the Moon: its surface is heavily cratered and very old; it has no plate tectonics. On the other hand, Mercury is much denser than the Moon (5.43 gm/cm3 vs 3.34). Mercury is the second densest major body in the solar system, after Earth. Actually Earth's density is due in part to gravitational compression; if not for this, Mercury would be denser than Earth. This indicates that Mercury's dense iron core is relatively larger than Earth's, probably comprising the majority of the planet. Mercury therefore has only a relatively thin silicate mantle and crust. 
Mercury's interior is dominated by a large iron core whose radius is 1800 to 1900 km. The silicate outer shell (analogous to Earth's mantle and crust) is only 500 to 600 km thick. At least some of the core is probably molten.
Mercury actually has a very thin atmosphere consisting of atoms blasted off its surface by the solar wind. Because Mercury is so hot, these atoms quickly escape into space. Thus in contrast to the Earth and Venus whose atmospheres are stable, Mercury's atmosphere is constantly being replenished. 
The surface of Mercury exhibits enormous escarpments, some up to hundreds of kilometres in length and as much as three kilometres high. Some cut thru the rings of craters and other features in such a way as to indicate that they were formed by compression. It is estimated that the surface area of Mercury shrank by about 0.1% (or a decrease of about 1 km in the planet's radius). 
One of the largest features on Mercury's surface is the Caloris Basin (right); it is about 1300 km in diameter. It is thought to be similar to the large basins (maria) on the Moon. Like the lunar basins, it was probably caused by a very large impact early in the history of the solar system. That impact was probably also responsible for the odd terrain on the exact opposite side of the planet (left). 
In addition to the heavily cratered terrain, Mercury also has regions of relatively smooth plains. Some may be the result of ancient volcanic activity but some may be the result of the deposition of ejecta from cratering impacts. 
A reanalysis of the Mariner data provides some preliminary evidence of recent volcanism on Mercury. But more data will be needed for confirmation. 
Amazingly, radar observations of Mercury's north pole (a region not mapped by Mariner 10) show evidence of water ice in the protected shadows of some craters. 
Mercury has a small magnetic field whose strength is about 1% of Earth's. 
Mercury has no known satellites. 


Venus is the second planet from the Sun and the sixth largest. Venus' orbit is the most nearly circular of that of any planet, with an eccentricity of less than 1%. 
Orbit: 108,200,000 km (0.72 AU) from Sun.
Diameter: 12,103.6 km
Mass: 4.869e24 kg
Venus' rotation is somewhat unusual in that it is both very slow (243 Earth days per Venus day, slightly longer than Venus' year) and retrograde. In addition, the periods of Venus' rotation and of its orbit are synchronized such that it always presents the same face toward Earth when the two planets are at their closest approach. Whether this is a resonance effect or merely a coincidence is not known. 
Venus is sometimes regarded as Earth's sister planet. In some ways they are very similar: 
Venus is only slightly smaller than Earth (95% of Earth's diameter, 80% of Earth's mass). 
Both have few craters indicating relatively young surfaces. 
Their densities and chemical compositions are similar. 
Because of these similarities, it was thought that below its dense clouds Venus might be very Earthlike and might even have life. But, unfortunately, more detailed study of Venus reveals that in many important ways it is radically different from Earth.
The pressure of Venus' atmosphere at the surface is 90 atmospheres (about the same as the pressure at a depth of 1 km in Earth's oceans). It is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. There are several layers of clouds many kilometres thick composed of sulphuric acid. These clouds completely obscure our view of the surface. This dense atmosphere produces a run-away greenhouse effect that raises Venus' surface temperature by about 400 degrees to over 740 K (hot enough to melt lead). Venus' surface is actually hotter than Mercury's despite being nearly twice as far from the Sun. 
There are strong (350 kph) winds at the cloud tops but winds at the surface are very slow, no more than a few kilometres per hour. 
Venus probably once had large amounts of water like Earth but it all boiled away. Venus is now quite dry. Earth would have suffered the same fate had it been just a little closer to the Sun. We may learn a lot about Earth by learning why the basically similar Venus turned out so differently. 
Most of Venus' surface consists of gently rolling plains with little relief. There are also several broad depressions: Atalanta Planitia, Guinevere Planitia, Lavinia Planitia. There two large highland areas: Ishtar Terra in the northern hemisphere (about the size of Australia) and Aphrodite Terra along the equator (about the size of South America). The interior of Ishtar consists mainly of a high plateau, Lakshmi Planum, which is surrounded by the highest mountains on Venus including the enormous Maxwell Montes. 
Data from Magellan's imaging radar shows that much of the surface of Venus is covered by lava flows. There are several large shield volcanoes (similar to Hawaii or Olympus Mons) such as Sif Mons (right). Recently announced findings indicate that Venus is still volcanically active, but only in a few hot spots; for the most part it has been geologically rather quiet for the past few hundred million years. 
There are no small craters on Venus. It seems that small meteoroids burn up in Venus' dense atmosphere before reaching the surface. Craters on Venus seem to come in bunches indicating that large meteoroids that do reach the surface usually break up in the atmosphere. 
The oldest terrains on Venus seem to be about 800 million years old. Extensive volcanism at that time wiped out the earlier surface including any large craters from early in Venus' history. 
Magellan's images show a wide variety of interesting and unique features including pancake volcanoes (left) which seem to be eruptions of very thick lava and coronae (right) which seem to be collapsed domes over large magma chambers. 
The interior of Venus is probably very similar to that of Earth: an iron core about 3000 km in radius, a molten rocky mantle comprising the majority of the planet. Recent results from the Magellan gravity data indicate that Venus' crust is stronger and thicker than had previously been assumed. Like Earth, convection in the mantle produces stress on the surface which is relieved in many relatively small regions instead of being concentrated at plate boundaries as is the case on Earth. 
Venus has no magnetic field, perhaps because of its slow rotation. 
Venus has no satellites, and thereby hangs a tale. 
Venus is usually visible with the unaided eye. Sometimes (inaccurately) referred to as the "morning star" or the "evening star", it is by far the brightest "star" in the sky. 


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