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The inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, and the dwarf planet Ceres, their sizes to scale.

A terrestrial planet, telluric planet or rocky planet is a planet that is primarily composed of silicate rocks. Within the solar system, the terrestrial planets are the inner planets closest to the Sun. The terms are derived from Latin words for Earth (Terra and Tellus), and an alternative definition would be that these are planets which are, in some notable fashion, "Earth-like".

Terrestrial planets are substantially different from gas giants, which might not have solid surfaces and are composed mostly of some combination of hydrogen, helium, and water existing in various physical states.



Terrestrial planets all have roughly the same structure: a central metallic core, mostly iron, with a surrounding silicate mantle. The Moon is similar, but lacks an iron core. Terrestrial planets have canyons, craters, mountains, and volcanoes. Terrestrial planets possess secondary atmospheres — atmospheres generated through internal volcanism or comet impacts, as opposed to the gas giants, which possess primary atmospheres — atmospheres captured directly from the original solar nebula.[1]

Theoretically, there are two types of terrestrial or rocky planets, one dominated by silicon compounds and another dominated by carbon compounds, like carbonaceous chondrite asteroids. These are the silicate planets and carbon planets (or "diamond planets") respectively.

Solar terrestrial planets

Relative masses of the terrestrial planets of the Solar System, including the Moon

Earth's solar system has four terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and one terrestrial dwarf planet, Ceres. Objects like Pluto are similar to terrestrial planets in the fact that they do have a solid surface, but are composed of more icy materials (see ice dwarf). During the formation of the solar system, there were probably many more (planetesimals), but they have all merged with or been destroyed by the four remaining worlds in the solar nebula. Only one terrestrial planet, Earth, is known to have an active hydrosphere.


Density trends

The uncompressed density of the solar terrestrial planets, Ceres and the two largest asteroids generally trends towards lower densities as the distance from the sun increases.

Object mean density uncompressed density semi-major axis
Mercury☿ 5.4 g cm-3 5.3 g cm-3 0.39 AU
Venus ♀ 5.2 g cm-3 4.4 g cm-3 0.72 AU
Earth ⊕ 5.5 g cm-3 4.4 g cm-3 1.0 AU
Moon Moon symbol decrescent.svg 3.3 g cm-3 3.3 g cm-3 1.0 AU
Mars ♂ 3.9 g cm-3 3.8 g cm-3 1.5 AU
Vesta Vesta symbol.svg 3.4 g cm-3 3.4 g cm-3 2.3 AU
Pallas Pallas symbol.svg 2.8 g cm-3 2.8 g cm-3 2.8 AU
Ceres Ceres symbol.svg 2.1 g cm-3 2.1 g cm-3 2.8 AU

The main exception to this rule is the density of the moon, which owes its smaller density to its unusual origin. It remains to be seen whether extrasolar terrestrial planets will also follow this trend.

Extrasolar terrestrial planets

SIM PlanetQuest will be able to detect Earth-sized planets, such as in this artist's rendering.

The majority of planets found outside our solar system have been gas giants since they produce more pronounced wobbles in the host stars and are thus more easily detectable. However, a number of extrasolar planets are suspected to be terrestrial.

In the early 1990s, the first extrasolar planets were discovered orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12 with masses of 0.02, 4.3, and 3.9 times that of Earth's. They were discovered by accident: their transit caused interruptions in the pulsar's radio emissions (had they not been orbiting around a pulsar, they would not have been found).

When 51 Pegasi b, the first and only extrasolar planet found up until then around a star still undergoing fusion, was discovered, many astronomers assumed it must be a gigantic terrestrial, as it was assumed no gas giant could exist as close to its star (0.052 AU) as 51 Pegasi b did. However, subsequent diameter measurements of a similar extrasolar planet (HD 209458 b), which transited its star showed that these objects were indeed gas giants.

Re-creation of carbon planet

In June 2005, the first planet around a fusing star that may be terrestrial was found orbiting around the red dwarf star Gliese 876, 15 light years away. That planet has a mass of 7 to 9 times that of earth and an orbital period of just two Earth days. But the radius and composition of Gliese 876 d is unknown.

On 10 August 2005, Probing Lensing Anomalies NETwork/Robotic Telescope Network (PLANET/RoboNet) and Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) observed the signature of a cold planet designated OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, about 5.5 times the mass of Earth, orbiting a star about 21,000 light years away in the constellation Scorpius. The newly discovered planet orbits its parent star at a distance similar to that of our solar system's asteroid belt. The planet revealed its existence through a technique known as gravitational microlensing, currently unique in its capability to detect planets with masses down to that of Earth.

In April 2007, a team of 11 European scientists announced the discovery of a planet outside our solar system that is potentially habitable, with Earth-like temperatures. The planet was discovered by the European Southern Observatory's telescope in La Silla, Chile, which has a special instrument that splits light to find wobbles in different wave lengths. Those wobbles can reveal the existence of other worlds. What they revealed is planets circling the red dwarf star, Gliese 581. Gliese 581 c was considered to be habitable at first, but more recent study (April 2009)[2] suggests Gliese 581 d is a better candidate. Regardless, it has fueled interest in looking at planets circling dimmer stars. About 80 percent of the stars near Earth are red dwarfs. The Gliese 581 (c and d) planets are about five to seven times heavier than Earth, classifying them as super-Earths.

Gliese 581 e is only about 1.9 Earth mass,[2] But could have 2 orders of magnitude more tidal heating than Jupiter’s volcanic satellite Io.[3] An ideal terrestrial planet would be 2 Earth masses with a 25 day orbital period around a M dwarf star.[4]

The smallest confirmed diameter of an exoplanet around a main-sequence star is that of COROT-7b, which is about 70% larger than Earth.

The Kepler Mission endeavours to discover Earth-like planets orbiting around other stars by observing their transits across the star. The Kepler spacecraft was launched on 6 March 2009. The duration of the mission will need to be about three and a half years long to detect and confirm an Earth-like planet orbiting at an Earth-like distance from the host star. Since it will take intervals of one year for a truly Earth-like planet to transit (cross in front of its star), it will take about four transits for a reliable reading.

A number of other telescopes capable of directly imaging extrasolar terrestrial planets are also on the drawing board. These include the Terrestrial Planet Finder, Space Interferometry Mission, Darwin, New Worlds Mission, and Overwhelmingly Large Telescope.

Most Earthlike exoplanets

Title Planet Star Notes
Closest planet to 1 MEarth Gliese 581 e Gliese 581 1.9 MEarth (min mass) / close to star and potentially volcanic like Io.[3]
PSR B1257+12 C PSR B1257+12 3.9 ± 0.2 MEarth[5] orbiting a pulsar star.
Closest planet to 1 Earth Radius COROT-7b COROT-7 1.7 REarth (COROT transit) / potential Chthonian planet
Gliese 581 c Gliese 581 <2 REarth (estimate)[6]
Best bet for liquid water Gliese 581 d Gliese 581 7 MEarth (min mass) / in outer habitable zone of red dwarf star.[2]


Silicate planet (silicon planet)

The standard type of terrestrial planet seen in the Solar System, made primarily of silicon-based rocky mantle with a metallic (iron) core.

Iron planet

A theoretical type of terrestrial planet that consists almost entirely of iron and therefore has a higher density and smaller radius than other terrestrial planets of comparable mass. Mercury in our Solar System has a metallic core equal to 60-70% of its planetary mass. Like Mercury, iron planets are believed to form in the high temperature regions close to a star, and if the protoplanetary disk is iron rich.

Coreless planet

A theoretical type of terrestrial planet that consists of silicate rock but has no metallic core, i.e. the opposite of an iron planet. The Solar System contains no coreless planets but chondrite asteroids and meteorites are common. Coreless planets are believed to form farther from the star where volatile oxidizing material is more common.

Carbide planet (carbon planet)

A theoretical type of terrestrial planet, composed primarily of carbon-based minerals. The Solar System contains no diamond planets, but does have carbonaceus asteroids.


Super-Earths represent the upper-end of the terrestrial planet mass range.

See also


  1. ^ Dr. James Schombert (2004). "Primary Atmospheres (Astronomy 121: Lecture 14 Terrestrial Planet Atmospheres)". Department of Physics University of Oregon. Retrieved 2009-12-22. 
  2. ^ a b c "Lightest exoplanet yet discovered". ESO (ESO 15/09 - Science Release). 2009-04-21. Retrieved 2009-07-15. 
  3. ^ a b Barnes, Rory; Jackson, Brian; Greenberg, Richard; Raymond, Sean N. (2009-06-09). "Tidal Limits to Planetary Habitability". arΧiv:0906.1785v1 [astro-ph]. 
  4. ^ M. Mayor, X. Bonfils, T. Forveille, X. Delfosse, S. Udry, J.-L. Bertaux, H. Beust, F. Bouchy, C. Lovis, F. Pepe, C. Perrier, D. Queloz, N. C. Santos (2009). "The HARPS search for southern extra-solar planets,XVIII. An Earth-mass planet in the GJ 581 planetary system". arΧiv:0906.2780 [astro-ph]. 
  5. ^ Jean Schneider (2005-01-25). "Notes for PSR 1257+12". Paris Observatory. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  6. ^ Udry et al. (2007). "The HARPS search for southern extra-solar planets, XI. Super-Earths (5 and 8 M) in a 3-planet system". Astronomy and Astrophysics 469 (3): L43–L47. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20077612. 

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