A Field Guide to the Planets

Course No. 9566
Professor Sabine Stanley, PhD
Johns Hopkins University
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Course No. 9566
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Reveal the development and morphology of the solar system.
  • numbers Explore the rocky planets, the gas giants, and the ice giants.
  • numbers Understand how scientists discover exoplanets.
  • numbers Better appreciate our own planet by learning about its relationship to others in the solar system.
  • numbers Get a fuller picture of what scientists know about the universe-and how much there is yet to learn.

Course Overview

Humanity’s first steps on the Moon were an immense accomplishment in 1969 and a fantastic milestone in the history of space exploration. And yet, how little we knew about our solar system as compared to what we know now!

Since those famous steps were taken, we’ve discovered what is approaching 200 additional moons of all shapes, sizes, and compositions. We’ve sent spaceships and robotic laboratories to photograph and study each of the planets, dozens of moons, and even the Sun. We’ve discovered ring systems around three additional planets; landed robotic explorers on Mars, on asteroids, and even on comets. We’ve also found thousands of exoplanets around other stars, with implications for our own origins. There has never been a more exciting time than today to explore and understand our solar system and beyond with A Field Guide to the Planets.

Your instructor, Professor Sabine Stanley, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University, guides you on a thrilling ride of discovery, illustrated by the phenomenal images NASA has gathered from throughout the solar system. In 24 lectures, you will experience a journey that was never before possible as your professor makes these astronomical wonders accessible to anyone, allowing you to experience, via our robot explorers, what it is like to visit worlds that were previously unknown.

What Is Our Solar System?

When we think of the solar system, we tend to visualize it in two dimensions, generally as a map with planets orbiting in almost circular ellipses around the Sun. We also imagine some moons in that same plane, an asteroid belt, a few more planets and satellites, and maybe a comet coming in at a different angle. Our visual map tends to end with Neptune, the eighth and farthest planet from the Sun, and the Kuiper Belt objects, including Pluto.

And yet the solar system is also so much more. We now know that even Neptune’s orbital distance is less than one tenth of one percent of the distance from the Sun to the farthest objects bound by its gravity—the Oort Cloud, a spherical shell of small icy bodies orbiting the Sun 50,000 times farther out than the Earth. The solar system that began its formation 4.5 billion years ago is still a work in progress today—a three-dimensional, dynamic, ever-changing system of energy and matter all gravitationally bound to our star.

And if we had any doubts about the continuing forming and re-forming of the solar system, recent exploration has allowed us to:

  • Witness for the first time a collision between two bodies in the solar system—Jupiter’s gravity capturing comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, ripping the comet apart, and causing it to crash into the planet;
  • Monitor active volcanic eruptions on moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune; and
  • Discover propeller moonlets constantly shaping and reshaping the rings of Saturn.

These and other observations have helped fill out our knowledge of the solar system—and by doing so, has helped us better understand our own place in the universe, too.

A Grand Scale and Unique Features

Earth is home to spectacular features created by erosion, plate tectonics, and collision impacts over billions of years. But many of Earth’s features pale in scope compared to those on other planets and moons. As we’ve explored farther out into the solar system, we’ve encountered features whose magnitude we hadn’t anticipated or even imagined, such as:

  • Jupiter’s Auroras. Some of the most energetic auroras in the solar system, they are 1,000 times more powerful than those on Earth and are emitted not just as visible light, but as high-energy X-rays.
  • Verona Rupes. A cliff face on Uranus’ moon Miranda, measuring 20 kilometers high. With a gravitational acceleration 100 times smaller than Earth’s, a rock falling from the top would take almost 12 minutes to reach the bottom.
  • Olympus Mons. Located on Mars, it’s the solar system’s tallest mountain and largest known volcano, measuring an amazing 27 kilometers tall. But when it comes to volcanic activity, Jupiter’s moon Io is the winner with 400 active volcanoes mapped to date.
  • Diamond Rain. On Uranus and Neptune, it’s possible that carbon atoms could condense into crystals of diamonds that would rain out through the icy layer above. Uranus might even have an ocean of carbon under high pressure with floating chunks of solid “diamond-bergs.”

With Professor Stanley’s guidance, you’ll learn more about these and dozens of other unexpected features and objects—from the surprising prevalence of water throughout the solar system (even on blazing hot and dry Mercury); to puzzling shapes on the Moon; to the quantity of near-Earth objects we need to track for safety, now numbering upwards of 20,000.

Looking Outward to Understand Ourselves

One thing we’ve learned from our solar system exploration is precisely how the Earth is unique—and not just because our planet is teeming with life: Earth is the only planet or moon whose surface has been constantly reformed by the process of plate tectonics.

While all planets and moons have a hot core and experience the process of outward cooling— and some are even transformed by their own geological processes—the Earth is the only body whose outer layer is formed of rigid plates that “float” on top of the mantle. Across billions of years, these plates have ridden on top of and underneath each other, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. But this process, along with weathering and erosion, also means that the surface history of our planet has been almost completely erased.

The only way we can learn about the earliest history of Earth is by exploring the nearby terrestrial planets and moons. And we continue to make new discoveries using fieldwork from decades earlier. In fact, the oldest Earth rock ever found was discovered in 2019—when scientists re-examined Moon rocks Apollo 14 brought back almost 50 years ago. Embedded in this cache of Moon rocks was a 2-gram fragment whose chemistry indicated it came from the Earth almost 4 billion years ago, likely jettisoned onto the Moon by a collision with a large asteroid.

Did you know the Earth shares its orbit around the sun with an asteroid? We already knew other planets had so-called Trojans asteroids that share an orbit with a planet at a stable point either in front of or behind the planet—but we did not know Earth had a Trojan until it was discovered by NASA’s WISE mission in 2011. We’ve also been able to make amazing headway into understanding the building blocks of life and how they might be more common throughout the solar system than we had thought. In fact, we have discovered complex hydrocarbons on several bodies in the solar system. This suggests that we may be able to learn about the earliest development of life on Earth from the processes we study on these other moons and planets.

With A Field Guide to the Planets, you will experience a uniquely satisfying, vicarious journey—to every major destination in our solar system, and really understand a whole range of features with the excitement of a traveler who’s just returned from a truly eye-opening trip. You will look to humanity’s next space missions with new anticipation, and experience our own Earth with greater understanding and appreciation than ever before.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    How the Solar System Family Is Organized
    Since 1962, robots have been exploring our solar system to help answer this most important question: Who are we? With fascinating data and images now in hand, explore this family album overview of our planets, dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, Kuiper Belt objects, and long-period comets-and fly through some of our solar system's most unique features! x
  • 2
    Mercury, the Extreme Little Planet
    Mercury is a planet of many solar system extremes-smallest planet, closest to the Sun, shortest year, most elliptical orbit, smallest axis tilt, and largest fraction of iron. Learn how these characteristics and others have resulted in a planet where the Sun sometimes moves backwards across the sky, where water ice has been found at the poles, and a magnetic field that offers more protection than Mars'. x
  • 3
    Venus, the Veiled Greenhouse Planet
    While the Venusian carbon dioxide atmosphere has resulted in a runaway greenhouse effect and the hottest surface temperature in the solar system, the Earth and Venus actually contain about the same amount of carbon. Explore the forces that resulted in the extreme atmospheric differences between these two otherwise-similar planets. x
  • 4
    Earth: How Plate Tectonics Sets Up Life
    Given the striking similarities between the four terrestrial planets, why is Earth the only one teeming with life? Proposed as a bold theory less than 70 years ago, could plate tectonics be a main driver of life on Earth? Explore the fascinating movement of our planet's surface and the many ways in which a geologically-active Earth has sustained our biologically-active planet. x
  • 5
    Orbiting Earth: Up through the Atmosphere
    Compared to Venus or the giant planets, Earth has a relatively thin atmosphere. And yet, without this single, fragile layer, life would not have evolved and thrived. Discover the unique properties of each atmospheric layer- and encounter specific ways we've explored each layer as a springboard to exploring the rest of our solar system. x
  • 6
    Exploring the Earth-Moon System
    Our Moon, formed from the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, is by far the largest moon in the solar system relative to its planet's size. Explore the many ways in which this uniquely coupled system affects the tides on Earth and on the Moon, our rotation and revolution, the process of tidal locking, and even the planetary stability that has allowed for the development of life on Earth. x
  • 7
    Humans on the Moon: A Never-Ending Story
    Even before the invention of telescopes, humans were familiar with the dark lunar highlands and bright maria on the Moon's surface. But now, with knowledge gained from both robotic and crewed missions, you can also explore fascinating and complex lunar swirls, sinuous rilles, and the lava tubes that hold promise as ideal locations for future lunar bases. x
  • 8
    Exploring Mars from Space and the Ground
    Humanity's fascination with Mars is never-ending-from the days when we posited a planet covered in straight-line canals and vegetation to NASA's current Moon to Mars program. Learn how the intriguing similarities and differences between Earth and Mars have resulted in Mars' planet-wide dust storms, migrating polar ice caps, and 3.9-billion-year-old impact craters. x
  • 9
    Water on Mars and Prospects for Life
    Recent robotic exploration provides tantalizing evidence: Mars' barren landscape could have been much more Earth-like in the past. With warmer temperatures, a thicker atmosphere, and the possibility of water oceans and tsunamis, could Mars have an Earth sibling that supported life? Learn about the thrilling recent discoveries that will guide future exploration and scientific inquiry on the red planet. x
  • 10
    Near-Earth Asteroids and the Asteroid Belt
    Fans of science fiction, or the natural history of our planet, know that a collision with an asteroid has the potential to obliterate civilization as we know it. With 20,000 asteroids identified in near-Earth orbit, how can collision be avoided? Learn why these rocky bodies, and those in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, never accreted into planets and how we might harness their resources for future space travel. x
  • 11
    Mighty Jupiter, The Ruling Gas Giant
    Does Jupiter have a greater similarity to the Earth or to the Sun? It depends on which characteristics you consider. Explore the many ways in which Jupiter is unique among the planets and consider what our solar system would be like without it. This gas giant might seem too far away to make a difference in your daily life, but without Jupiter, life on Earth might never have had a chance. x
  • 12
    Jupiter's Planetlike System of Moons
    Today we know of 79 Jovian moons-the spherical Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, and dozens of other smaller, odd-shaped satellites. Learn why Jupiter's gravitational forces plus the orbital resonance of the three interior moons make these some of the most promising places to search for extraterrestrial life-and why scientists believe the Jovian system once included generations of other moons, now gone. x
  • 13
    Saturn and the Rings: Gravity's Masterpiece
    With its exquisitely complex ring system, NASA describes Saturn as the jewel of our solar system." Learn what decades of exploration have revealed about the origin and morphology of these ever-changing icy rings and how they interact with Saturn's closest moons. From the rings to propeller moonlets, a massive hexagonal polar storm, and the giant vortex, our fascination with Saturn never ends!" x
  • 14
    Saturn's Moons: Titan to Enceladus
    With a system of 62 moons located in and far beyond its ring system, Saturn has outer moons that are some of the most fascinating worlds in the solar system. Learn why Titan and Enceladus hold such promise in our search for extraterrestrial life-from global subsurface oceans of water on both moons, to Titan's Earth-like surface and organic molecules in its atmosphere. It's no wonder that NASA has announced its Dragonfly mission to Titan, scheduled to launch in 2026. x
  • 15
    Uranus: A Water World on Its Side
    What a fascinating world Voyager 2 revealed in 1986 during its short flyby of Uranus! Learn why Uranus seems to orbit on its side" surrounded by a delicate system of 13 rings and 27 moons, how we discovered its multi-polar magnetic field, and why scientists think Uranus might contain an ocean made of liquid diamond, with floating chunks of solid "diamond-bergs!"" x
  • 16
    Neptune: Windy with the Wildest Moon
    Neptune is the coldest, but also the stormiest, planet in the solar system and the only planet that cannot be seen with the naked eye from Earth. Its moon Triton is the only spherical moon in the solar system that's an irregular satellite that orbits opposite the direction of all the planets. Learn how tidal forces are not only changing that orbit, but also causing geologic activity on its surface-a surface that contains organic compounds. x
  • 17
    Pluto and Charon: The Binary Worlds
    Although Pluto is no longer categorized as a planet, Pluto the dwarf planet" and its "moon" Charon are considered the closest thing in the solar system to a binary planet system. Explore the fascinating revelations from the New Horizons mission, including Pluto's glacial flows, floating mountains, extreme seasons, unexpectedly complex atmosphere, and a surface that appears to be dusted in complex organic molecules." x
  • 18
    Comets, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud
    Learn why scientists believe comets-the leftovers" of planet formation in the outer solar system-could be partially responsible for the flourishing of life on Earth, bringing both water and organic material to the inner solar system. And explore the more distant Oort Cloud, where billions of cometary objects orbit at the outermost boundary of the solar system." x
  • 19
    How Our Sun Defines Our Solar System
    Fly through the corona of what is by far the largest, most massive, and most significant object in the solar system: the Sun. In fact, at 99.9 percent of the total mass of the system, you could say the Sun IS the solar system. With its gravity, heat, light, magnetic fields, and plasma storms, learn how the Sun affects every object in the system-and how we are in a race to learn more about coronal mass ejections before one destroys trillions of dollar's worth of electronics on Earth. x
  • 20
    A Solar System Time Machine and Meteorites
    Today we see an orderly solar system with planets staying in their orbits around the sun, moons staying in their orbits around the planets, and comets coming and going in predictable fashion. But how did it all start? Learn how a molecular cloud gave rise to a proto-planetary disk in which our solar system developed step by step across time and space-and is developing still. x
  • 21
    What the Biggest Exoplanets Reveal
    Planets orbiting other stars used to be purely in the realm of science fiction. How did we begin discovering them by the thousands? Learn about the methods scientists have used to discover so many exoplanets so quickly. From hot Jupiters" to "mini-Neptunes" to planets whose clouds rain molten glass, these discoveries demonstrate that ours is not the only type of planetary system possible!" x
  • 22
    Closing in on Earthlike Exoplanets
    Beginning in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope began staring intensively at a single patch of sky, about one quarter of one percent of the sky. After staring for four years straight, scientists had identified about 1,200 new planets. Sift through the Kepler discoveries for planets with a variety of Earth-like features, including presence in a habitable" zone, and learn why billions of Earthlike planets are estimated to exist in our galaxy." x
  • 23
    Planets Migrated in Our Early Solar System!
    The surprising detection of gas giant planets orbiting extremely close to other stars has led to the realization that planets can form in one part of a stellar system and then migrate to another part. Did that happen in our own solar system? Learn about the evidence for a Late Heavy Bombardment" on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury, how migration of one or more giant planets could have caused it, and how such migration could have affected the solar system we see today." x
  • 24
    Human Futures in the Solar System
    What are the next big ideas that will help us ask and answer the next big questions? Consider the fascinating future technologies of centimeter-sized satellites propelled by laser photons, liquid mirror telescopes on the Moon, a magnetic shield large enough to help terraform Mars, and more. Nourish your imagination, and experience the inspiration of space exploration! x

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Your professor

Sabine Stanley

About Your Professor

Sabine Stanley, PhD
Johns Hopkins University
Sabine Stanley, Ph.D., is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. She received a HBSc degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Toronto and then completed M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Geophysics from Harvard University. Prior to joining Johns Hopkins, Professor Stanley was a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts...
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A Field Guide to the Planets is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 60.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great presentation at the right level of detail This course is one of my favorites. The amount of time and level of detail and science for each lecture is perfect for what I wanted. As an example, I just finished the lecture regarding water and search for life on Mars; it provided sufficient time to cover many aspects of the science and evidence corroborating current theories without ever becoming a drag. Professor Stanley is a superb lecturer. She speaks clearly and distinctly without hesitation -- it feels like she's just sitting across the table from you and talking with you. Additionally, she throws in the right amount of flavor and analogies to help you understand concepts based on things we've all experienced. Finally, the format of the presentation is really appealing. There are many photos, graphics, and animations that really inform -- not just eye candy or special effects. If you have any interest in the subject at all, just go ahead and get this one.
Date published: 2020-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Illuminating and engaging series I loved this lecture so much that I watched it through twice. I was even inspired to read the book Dr. Stanley mentions (2312) in the Mercury lecture; now I’m hooked on K. S. Robinson!
Date published: 2020-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not Just Planets and not Just in Our Solar System This is a deceptively rich and detailed look at our solar system and also exoplanets. Deceptive because the first two lectures on the organization of our solar system and Mercury cover familiar ground, although even here there are items that were new to me (e.g. water in the form of ice being found at the poles). By the time we get to lecture four on Earth, it is clear that we are going to be treated to much more than just physical descriptions of the elements of the system, as Dr. Stanley spends quite a bit of time going over plate tectonics, that this is unique in our system and is essential to life as we know it. The theme of not only physical description of planets, comets, asteroids, etc. being important, but which items are usually present, infrequently observed and which ones are unique to one planet or moon. Usually with the thrust of what might be necessary or important for life to exist. There is really not a lot of math involved in the explanations, but what is being detailed is deep and insightful nonetheless, perhaps because of the straightforward, unpretentious explanations. Professor Stanley presentation skills are of a very high order. Each lecture and the course as a whole are well organized and flow easily from topic to topic, never leaving anyone in doubt as to the material. She has a rare skill of making the audience believe that they knew more about the topic than perhaps they really did, as even material that is new seems obvious. Plus she frequently throws in some quiet humor, just sometimes giving a slight smile to let us know it was intended. Most of the time Professor Stanley uses the metric system, although there is some back and forth, but the screen overlays almost always show both types of measurements. But that does not detract from things that are perhaps truly surprising. Who knew that planets could migrate, or even change their order within the system? And while many of these surprising things are still open questions, she always gives us the pros and cons of the academic debate. The lectures are enhanced by the use of graphics that greatly reduce the need for detailed explanations, as those graphics and photographs reinforce that verbal material. Kudos to TTC for this, as well as allowing Dr. Stanley to sit during the lectures, instead of pacing back and forth according to the dictates of the director. Perhaps in another five years or so, there will be enough new advances in technology, research and analysis that reviewers will complain that the material is out of date and needs to be redone, but in 2020 this is about as current as one could hope. There are so many, many positive things about the material covered in this course and the way in which it is presented, that I am hard-pressed to pick out examples. For me, the last five lectures perfectly close out the course in a direction that works the way I wish things to go. That Professor Stanley makes frequent references to Star Trek and includes some SiFi in her bibliography is just a bonus. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2020-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A field guide to the planets A very successful account of the planets in a language that a lay person is able to perfectly understand. The teacher is a must!!!
Date published: 2020-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful journey to space! A wonderful journey thru the heavens with a knowledgeable and clear speaking instructor.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course. Professor Sabine Stanley explained the planets in an informative and easy to understand method. At first I was hesitant to purchase this as I've been watching TV shows on the solar system for years. However, this course covered topics that I have never heard covered. I'm very glad I purchased this. If you want to learn about our neighborhood of planets I would highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The title sets the content of the course quite wel I teach a class titled Solar System Astronomy at the university level. I enjoyed this course a great deal. The presentation was different than the typical astronomy textbook. I will be incorporating some of the content and approach in my future classes.
Date published: 2020-07-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Understanding of Our Solar System This course provides a great understanding of our solar system. This was achieved by two things: 1- excellent images of the planets, moons, asteroids, comets, the sun, and other objects from the numerous space exploration missions 2- the presentation of many facts and tidbits about each object (characteristics of their orbit, surface, and atmosphere) In some ways Professor Sabine makes it easy for us to understand the characteristics of and differences between the planets. She provides a lot of comparisons when discussing the different objects in the solar system which helps put each subject in perspective vs. trying to understand each in isolation (an example: object A’s distance from the sun is 5.5 times the distance of object B). In other ways I hoped she would've made certain concepts of science more accessible. There are sections of lectures I had a hard time grasping (likely due to my inexperienced knowledge of science). I was hoping for some more explanations of some of the scientific processes she would bring up (what do they mean/their ramifications). All in all I learned a tremendous amount concerning our solar system coming out of the course than I had going in. This is enough for me to recommend this course to novices like me and I'm sure those more experienced in the sciences would take even more from it.
Date published: 2020-07-10
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