Why are planets round?
(Lansing State Journal, March 11, 1998)


 Yes, Planets seem to be spheres, not cubes or cylinders or oddball rocky shapes.  Some smaller bodies such as asteroids or Mars moons Phobos and Deimos, do have odd shapes, but larger bodies like the nine planets and most of their moons do look like spheres.  That's because of the nature of gravity.  You can think of gravity as a force that points inward toward the center of the planet so that every part of the surface is pulled evenly toward the center, resulting in a spherical shape.

Of course, planets are not perfect spheres because mountains and valleys and even skyscrapers are all deviations from the spherical shape.  However, as planets get larger, gravity gets stronger, until eventually large objects on the surface are crushed under their own weight.  That's why we don't have mountains that are 50 miles high or skyscrapers that are 2,000 stories tall.  Planets stay basically spherical because any large deviations get crushed.

Although gravity keeps planets close to spherical, there are other forces that cause deviations from the basic spherical shape.  For example, the rotation of the earth once every 24 hours, causes an apparent centrifugal force which creates a bulge at the equator.  In fact the earth's diameter at the equator is 7,926 miles while the diameter between the poles is only 7,900.
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