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?

  • Reveal the development and morphology of the solar system.
  • Explore the rocky planets, the gas giants, and the ice giants.
  • Understand how scientists discover exoplanets.
  • Better appreciate our own planet by learning about its relationship to others in the solar system.
  • 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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Reviews

A Field Guide to the Planets is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 9.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A field Guide to the Planets I haven't had a chance to watch these DVD's yet but I have always been extremely happy with the Great Courses DVD's. I have many of them.
Date published: 2019-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Much New Info and Even IF-THEN Reasoning Chains I expected (like maybe you do) that this course would be like other Great Courses on the topic (and as well like various books on the topic). Thus, I expected I'd be evaluating the presentation, not learning anything new. SO NOT the case. I learned a LOT new. Some due to recent or refined theories. Also new to me though were the quantity of IF-THEN reasoning chains. That's primarily how garden-variety chemistry of all types tends to go. Usually well more than one IF-THEN before you get to the therefore. It's OK if that similarity to chemistry doesn't mean much to you. The thing to note is that this course is NOT only descriptive and YET: very much the opposite of the quantitative and rigorous calculus-&-physics computing of the astrophysics course. Admittedly that course was quite luscious to some folks, including myself when in the highly cognitive mood. But calculus/physics/computations to grasp concepts and see the nitty gritty of how is rather taxing. Other planetary books and courses are primarily descriptive. This course has concepts in the form of IF-THEN reasoning CHAINS. No computations required. But far more intriguing that way than just descriptions alone. And -- even without the IF-THEN reasoning chains -- there is plenty of new info that prior planetary courses didn't cover. The course is a bit misnamed. the field guide isn't of the planets; the field guide is a guide to all the (macro) stuff in our solar system: that is, comets, asteroids, Kupier belt, Oort cloud and so on. So not particle physics or great details about the solar wind stuff (but of course mentioned a lot); mainly just don't think only planets. Oh yeah, another reason the couse is misnamed is because EXOplanets are covered nicely too. About what you FIND (so "field guide" is good) without getting into minutia of the methods (yet doing some of the exoplanet finding technique). So the most accurate title would be FIELD GUIDE to the STUFF THAT COMPRISES OUR SOLAR SYSTEM with a BONUS EXCURSION TO WHAT WE FIND IN EXOPLANETS. Planetary magnetism (the professor's field of expertise) is covered exquisitely simply. I happen to love that topic (and have read books on it); even so, I have no complaints about the simple, accessible explanations the professor offers. They do the subject justice. Finally, the last lecture is not at all vague or hand-waving platitudinous summary / speculation. A whole host of NEW ideas is presented -- even with some IF-THEN reasoning chains too.
Date published: 2019-12-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation! I greatly enjoy this course. The presenter is excellent and the material is very interesting. Lots of new info. Also, the course if V E R Y rich in illustrations; namely, photos, charts, plots, graphs, and maps.
Date published: 2019-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course I have completed about 3/4 of lectures and have enjoyed all. A good beginning cause for the study of the universe. Just enough tech detail and lots of good graphics and pictures. Easy for all to enjoy
Date published: 2019-11-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have only just begun the course, but am amazed at the detailed information that has been gathered about our neighbors in the sky. I'd like more detail about the research but even so am happy with the detail already provided.
Date published: 2019-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well presented and great visuals. This is another course in my growing collection. Excellent for the novice explorer of our world and universe. Not to difficult or technical to comprehend. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2019-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Up-to-date and superb: just a few minor problems Dated 2019, this course includes the latest research and discoveries even into 2019. Professor Professor Stanley speaks clearly. The diagrams and photographs are superb. Just a few problems: The director includes side views of Professor Stanley; eye contact with students is preferred. The correct pronunciation of "kilometer" accents the first, not the second syllable. She incorrectly accents the second syllable of "micrometer" in the Neptune lecture. That is a device for measuring thickness. She gets it right in the Meteorites lecture. Why mix metric and English units? Decades ago Scientific American went all metric, and the U.S.A. will someday follow Canada in doing the same. She gets "compose" versus "comprise" wrong, but only once. The shape of an ellipse is its "eccentricity". These are minor points. This is an absolutely terrific course, and I wholeheartedly recommend it with hearty congratulations to Professor Stanley.
Date published: 2019-11-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rapid-fire facts and beautiful pictures The Applied Physics Laboratory at this professor's university (Johns Hopkins) has led many of NASA's robotic expeditions to the planets during the past few years. As a result, this course is packed with new revelations (as of 2019) about our solar system, accompanied by a cavalcade of stunning images. My only caveat is: keep your finger on the pause button. You will often want to freeze and repeat items.
Date published: 2019-11-17
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