New Frontiers: Modern Perspectives on Our Solar System

Course No. 1823
Professor Frank Summers, Ph.D.
Space Telescope Science Institute
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Course Overview

In recent years, cutting-edge telescopes, satellite imaging, and unmanned spacecraft have led to a fascinating series of discoveries that have changed our picture of the Sun and the family of objects that orbit it—including Earth. This new perspective has grown out of many intriguing findings such as these:

  • The reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet, one of countless icy bodies—and not even the largest—in the outer solar system
  • The 2005 landing of the Huygens probe on Saturn's moon Titan, which revealed a bizarre world where liquid methane acts like water does on Earth: falling as rain, carving channels in the landscape, and collecting in lakes
  • One of the largest radiation and particle storms from the Sun ever recorded, which blasted interplanetary space in 2003 and offered a vivid demonstration of the ferocity of space weather
  • The detection since the 1990s of several hundred planets orbiting other stars, allowing us to compare for the first time our solar system with other planetary systems

New Frontiers: Modern Perspectives on Our Solar System is a visually stunning and richly detailed investigation of what we know about the solar system today. Illustrated with insightful diagrams, amazing computer animations, and scores of spectacular images from telescopes and spacecraft, these 24 lectures show you a new and exciting way to view our celestial neighborhood—all under the guidance of astrophysicist and top astronomy educator, Dr. Frank Summers from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

Welcome to the 21st-Century Solar System

Often cited as the most profound change in our view of the solar system, the Copernican revolution of the 16th century proposed the philosophical shift that Earth and the planets orbit the sun instead of the universe revolving around Earth, as appeared to be the case from our vantage point.

But Dr. Summers, whose work at the STScI's Office of Public Outreach presents the findings of the Hubble Space Telescope and developments in general astronomy to the public through various media and educational outlets, suggests another candidate for the biggest change in our views.

"I think the space age is the most important epoch," he says. "It brought us new ways to observe the solar system in more wavelengths with bigger telescopes, new ways to analyze with better data and faster processing, and also a new way to explore, both with robots and with our own eyes."

Remodeling the Solar System

Not only does New Frontiers allow you to see the solar system with fresh eyes, it also offers you a new model to serve as an organizing guide. Gone is the familiar diagram you find in many old reference books depicting the Sun and nine planets forming a neat, straight line. Dr. Summers provides key points as to why this perspective is so outdated:

  • A straight-line alignment of the planets occurs only every three quadrillion years—600,000 times the present age of our solar system!
  • The distances between planets and their relative sizes compared to the Sun are wildly out of scale.
  • Most importantly, there is so much more to the solar system than just these 10 objects.

You discover what Dr. Summers, an expert astrophysicist who headed the development of exhibits for the opening of the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space, calls the "21st-century solar system." He suggests that, instead of a straight line, the solar system is best seen as a bulls-eye with six concentric circles, each of which represents the six families of objects in our solar system. Working outward from the center, you have the following alignment:

  • The Sun: The only star in our solar system.
  • The rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Composed of rock, they are close to the Sun and have few or no moons.
  • The asteroid belt: A band of small, mostly rocky bodies between Mars and Jupiter.
  • The giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Orbiting far from the Sun, these large planets have gaseous atmospheres, rings, and moons.
  • The Kuiper belt: The region beyond Neptune now known to be the reservoir of the short-period comets containing mostly icy bodies (including Pluto).
  • The Oort cloud: The reservoir of the Sun's long-period comets, located almost a quarter of the way to the nearest star.

The Usefulness of the Modern View

This modern view of the solar system is useful in many ways. Foremost, it provides you with a bigger picture of the solar system, organizing and classifying its objects based on similar characteristics and offering a better understanding of how they are grouped and structured.

In addition, it underscores the enormity of the solar system. Not only is the recently discovered Kuiper belt object Eris larger than Pluto, its orbit takes it almost twice as far from the Sun. The Oort cloud extends 500 times farther than Eris.

Another advantage to this new model is that it tells you the story of the formation and evolution of the solar system:

  • Rocky planets formed near the Sun, where it was too hot for ices and gases to condense.
  • Asteroids populate a zone where planet formation was disrupted by Jupiter's gravitational field.
  • Jupiter and the other giant planets accreted in the region beyond the "frost line," where gas, ice, and rock were all available.
  • The icy objects in the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud coalesced in the super-cold, low-density conditions beyond Neptune.

With a better grasp on this new picture of the solar system, you explore the space-age solar system as we now know it. This approach is comparative, reflecting the way that planetary science is conducted today: where the same phenomena are examined in all their variety from world to world. You consider these and other examples:

  • Craters: These are found throughout the solar system. On the moon, craters can be dated to reveal a period of bombardment following the formation of the solar system. On Earth, one recently identified crater is thought to be the smoking gun in the demise of the dinosaurs.
  • Weather: Weather on other planets can be markedly more severe than weather on Earth. Jupiter has a gigantic, centuries-old storm that could swallow several Earths, and the air temperature on Venus is more than 460° C.
  • Moons: Moons are rich worlds unto themselves. Among the seven large and 160 small moons, our moon is unusual in that it is one-quarter of the size of its planet. Computer simulations show that it probably formed when a Mars-sized body smashed into the forming Earth.

Get Breathtaking Views

New Frontiers is illustrated with the many exhilarating views of the solar system afforded to us by continued advances in space technology. Indeed, there is no better guide for this visually rich journey than Dr. Summers, whose own work with scientific imagery (in the Academy Award–nominated IMAX film Cosmic Voyage and the IMAX short film Hubble: Galaxies Across Space and Time) reflects a deep understanding of and passion for the role that visualizations play in comprehending our universe.

From the celebrated rovers on Mars and the Galileo probe orbiting Jupiter or Cassini at Saturn to the lesser-known missions studying asteroids and comets, the pictures taken from ground-based observatories, space telescopes, and satellite missions help give you a clearer idea of just how critical the technological advancements of the space age have affected our views of the solar system. They also reflect the profoundly sublime nature of its diverse characteristics.

Fittingly enough, the course ends with a stunning movie from the Messenger spacecraft as it left Earth on its mission to Mercury—a movie that captures our slowly rotating planet growing ever smaller and that demonstrates a truly breathtaking new perspective on our solar system.

It is a perspective that continues to evolve as astronomers peer further into our galaxy and continue to explore the hundreds of planetary systems discovered around other stars. The stunning point of view on display in New Frontiers shows you just how much more there is to uncover about your true place among the stars.

following alignment:

  • The Sun: The only star in our solar system.
  • The rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Composed of rock, they are close to the Sun and have few or no moons.
  • The asteroid belt: A band of small, mostly rocky bodies between Mars and Jupiter.
  • The giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Orbiting far from the Sun, these large planets have gaseous atmospheres, rings, and moons.
  • The Kuiper belt: The region beyond Neptune now known to be the reservoir of the short-period comets containing mostly icy bodies (including Pluto).
  • The Oort cloud: The reservoir of the Sun's long-period comets, located almost a quarter of the way to the nearest star.

The Usefulness of the Modern View

This modern view provides you with a bigger picture of the solar system, detailing the story of the formation and evolution of the solar system and organizing and classifying its objects based on similar characteristics, offering a better understanding of how they are grouped and structured:

  • Rocky planets formed near the Sun, where it was too hot for ices and gases to condense.
  • Asteroids populate a zone where planet formation was disrupted by Jupiter's gravitational field.
  • Jupiter and the other giant planets accreted in the region beyond the "frost line," where gas, ice, and rock were all available.
  • The icy objects in the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud coalesced in the super-cold, low-density conditions beyond Neptune.

Get Breathtaking Views

New Frontiers: Modern Perspectives on Our Solar System is a visually stunning and richly detailed investigation of what we know about the solar system today. Illustrated with insightful diagrams, amazing computer animations, and scores of spectacular images from telescopes and spacecraft, these 24 half-hour lectures help give you a clearer idea of just how critical the technological advancements of the space age have affected our views of the solar system. The stunning point of view on display in New Frontiers shows you just how much more there is to uncover about your true place among the stars.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The 21st-Century Solar System
    Astronomical knowledge has expanded greatly in recent decades, giving us a new framework for understanding the solar system. The old focus on the Sun and nine planets has given way to a new picture of six families of objects. x
  • 2
    Geometry of the Heavens
    What do our eyes tell us about the motions of the heavens? The simplest model is the geocentric one: the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets orbit around a centrally located Earth. But complexities such as the retrograde motions of the planets call for refinements in this explanation. x
  • 3
    Truth, Beauty, and Heliocentrism
    In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model, in which Earth and the planets orbit the Sun. Although philosophically appealing, this theory originally gave no improvement in predictive power over the geocentric model. Only better data would tell which theory was to be preferred. x
  • 4
    Deducing the Laws of Motion
    Using detailed astronomical observations made by Tycho Brahe in the late 16th century, Johannes Kepler developed his three laws of planetary motion. In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton's law of universal gravitation provided a comprehensive mathematical theory of heavenly motion. x
  • 5
    Planetary Predictions and Scientific Theory
    What is the difference between a hypothesis and a theory? As examples, you look at the Titius-Bode rule, the prediction of Neptune based on perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, and the failure of Newton's theory to account for the precession of Mercury's orbit. x
  • 6
    From Observational Evidence to Discoveries
    This lecture emphasizes the importance of data gathering in astronomy and the wide range of observations required to make breakthroughs. It starts with the pretelescopic era and then explores the changes brought by ever-larger telescopes and their instrumentation. x
  • 7
    The Space-Age Solar System
    The space age revolutionized our view of the solar system. New realms have been revealed by telescopes that see in wavelengths beyond visible light. Even more amazing are the detailed images returned by space probes sent to fly by, orbit, and land on planets and other worlds. x
  • 8
    The Star of Our Solar System
    The closeness of our Sun allows us to investigate stellar processes to an unparalleled degree. In this lecture, you learn about the turbulent activity beneath the Sun's seemingly placid visible surface. x
  • 9
    Planetary Surfaces and Natural Wonders
    Earth's most impressive mountains, canyons, and volcanoes are surpassed and often dwarfed by those of our neighbors. Earth's oceans are its signature characteristic—a feature that is directly related to Earth's primary unique attribute: life. x
  • 10
    Craters, Impacts, and Cataclysms
    Impact craters exist on all solid bodies of the solar system and testify to an epoch of continuous bombardment during the formation of our planetary system. Such impacts continue to this day—with sometimes devastating consequences. x
  • 11
    Journey to the Centers of Planets
    Earth's interior serves as a template for understanding other worlds. You investigate the depths of planets, moons, and asteroids to learn how their interior structure is determined by their composition, their size, and how they formed. x
  • 12
    Structure and Behavior of Atmospheres
    Earth's atmosphere is 100 times thicker than that of Mars but only 1/100th that of Venus. The clouds of other planets can consist not just of water vapor, but also of carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and sulfuric acid. Winds can be gentle or many times hurricane speed. x
  • 13
    Weather on Other Worlds
    What's the weather forecast elsewhere in the solar system? Venus calls for 900° temperatures and a 100% chance of sulfuric acid rain. Mars has planetwide dust storms that last for months. Giant storms have been raging on Jupiter for centuries. x
  • 14
    Solar Storms and Planetary Consequences
    Belying its calm appearance in visible light, the Sun is seething with activity at higher energy bands. Solar magnetic forces drive both gentle winds and fierce storms of charged particles across interplanetary space. Auroral displays on Earth are one consequence of this intense solar weather. x
  • 15
    A Myriad of Moons
    Earth's Moon is one of 7 large moons, some bigger than Mercury. More than 160 smaller moons have been discovered, with many intriguing properties that tell us about their varied histories. x
  • 16
    Intricate Ring Systems of the Giant Planets
    Saturn's magnificent ring system provides a natural laboratory for studying gravitational and other interactions that produce gaps, clumps, waves, and other ring structures. Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune also have rings, but theirs are few, thin and dark. x
  • 17
    Comets—The Interplanetary Nomads
    Comets were once considered mysterious portents of change, but we now know where they come from and the nature of their orbits. Telescopic studies and space missions have uncovered details of their long tails, coma clouds, and tiny nuclei. x
  • 18
    New Outer Realms—Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud
    Kuiper belt objects, including Pluto, are icy worlds beyond Neptune. The most distant of these realms is the Oort cloud. x
  • 19
    Pluto and the Definition of Planet
    The number of planets has grown and shrunk, making us think about what defines a planet. The discovery of Eris, a Kuiper belt object larger than Pluto, brought this issue to the fore in 2006. x
  • 20
    Formation of the Solar System
    How did the solar system form? A rotating gas cloud collapsed, leading to planets in circular orbits around a star. However, computer simulations show that the outcome could have been very different from the solar system we know. x
  • 21
    Birthplaces of Stars and Planets
    For a broader perspective on our solar system, astronomers search nebulae where stars are born. They have detected disks of material around young stars and, within these disks, evidence of planet formation. x
  • 22
    Detecting Planets around Other Stars
    Planets around other stars are usually too dim to see directly, so indirect methods are used. The most successful relies on the fact that the tug of orbiting planets makes a star wobble ever so slightly and can create a detectable Doppler shift in its light. x
  • 23
    Extrasolar Planetary Systems
    Many multiple-planet systems have been found around other stars, yet none so far resemble our own. Previous ideas about other planetary systems were tailored to fit the Sun's family of planets. But now we see our solar system from a whole new perspective. x
  • 24
    Life in Our Solar System and Beyond
    The probability that life exists elsewhere depends on how common planets with the requisite energy, carbon-based chemistry, and liquid water are. The possibility of intelligent life appears to require billions of years to develop. x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
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Your professor

Frank Summers

About Your Professor

Frank Summers, Ph.D.
Space Telescope Science Institute
Frank Summers, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, earned his undergraduate degree summa cum laude in physics from Virginia Tech and his M.S. and Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. His work at STScI presents the findings of the Hubble Space Telescope and developments in general astronomy to the public through news media, websites,...
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Reviews

New Frontiers: Modern Perspectives on Our Solar System is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 34.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from well done in 2008 The lectures and presentations are excellent. The data used for these presentations is ten years old. In 2011 we had Messenger go to Mercury. In 2015 we had New Horizons at Pluto and will have new data on a KBO in January. We had Cassini-Huygens get a massive amount of data from Saturn. Various missions have produced more information on Mars.
Date published: 2018-03-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from New Frontiers: Modern Perspectives on Our Solar Sy All of the courses i've recieved from Great Courses have been very educational. Modern Perspectives of Our Solar System is no exception. The rating for this course is 5 stars!
Date published: 2018-03-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Unexpected Arrangement and Somewhat Dated I feel as though Dr. Summers hadn't quite decided who his target audience would be. At times he gets so detailed that I feel it would be most appropriate for an undergraduate student contemplating graduate work in astronomy. At other times the lectures are more suitable for the general adult public wanting to know a little more about the solar system. This course is also hampered by the fact that we've had so many wonderful, new, detailed photos that weren't available when it was made (copyright 2008) that it really ought to be completely re-done, to take advantage of more photos from Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, many of the outer moons, etc. In that sense, it is already obsolete. The organization was also unexpected. Out of 24 lectures, it's not until lecture 8 that he really gets serious on describing the solar system in some detail (starting with the sun). The introductory 7 lectures probably could have been reorganized to at most 4, leaving more time to focus on the main subject. Then, I think I expected he would focus on what we know about each planet in turn: discussing Mercury, then Venus, our earth and moon, then Mars and so on. That's generally not how it's organized. It's more organized around a series of subjects and compares multiple objects in our system from that perspective, for example: atmospheres, craters, planet centers, moons, rings, and prominent surface features. In the final third he covers the distant solar system with comets, the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, and then on to solar system theory in general like how we think they form, the search for extraterrestrial planets, and life. Yes, in discussing Pluto, of course he discusses the huge controversy triggered by reclassifying Pluto from a regular planet to a "dwarf" planet. Being an old guy, and recognizing that nature rarely fits itself neatly and perfectly into human categories, I still fondly think of Pluto as just a small and remote planet (albeit clearly an oddball in the group. There are other courses which cover our solar system which viewers might enjoy more than this one. It certainly approached the topic from a perspective I didn't quite expect, and I did learn some new facts. Most of all, I'd like to see it re-done and incorporating the great new photos which have become available since it was made.
Date published: 2018-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exciting Presetation. I greatly enjoyed this series of lectures. The presenter, Dr. Frank Summers, is both knowledgeable and very enthusiastic on this subject. I learned a lot of new things about our wonderful Solar System, and our galaxy. I looked forward to each lecture and was not disappointment. by any. I highly recommend this program to anyone who has even mild interest in our Solar System and it's planets.
Date published: 2017-09-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great instructor I've had this for a couple of weeks and have enjoyed what I've seen so far, although I have not seen the entire presentation. The instructor is knowledgable, personable and presents the material in an understandable way.
Date published: 2017-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from GOOD STUFF BUT TEACHING COULD BE BETTER The topic is absolutely fascinating. Many of the pictures shown are definitely breathtaking—more arrows to point to things in the pictures would have been helpful. The great service offered to us by this GC taught by Dr Summers lies in his bringing together and organizing so well such tantalizing material. The trouble is that the lecturer (a highly likeable guy) does not try to be a first class teacher. There are points, here and there, which he does not seem to be really able to explain and often, perhaps hard pressed for time, does not even try to explain or explains very sketchily. I should say that one can get used to this—when I watched the lectures for the second time I simply ignored the bits which were left inscrutable, the damage to the overall impression is rather minor. So lectures 2-7 which require some explaining are not in my view an unmitigated success—they still remain highly interesting and highly enjoyable and constitute a very serious approach to the history of science and astronomy in particular. Lectures 8 onwards are more descriptive and so the lack of good, patient, slow and gradual stepwise explanation is far less obvious (one feels the lack again in lecture 14). The final three to four lectures are the best, powerful stuff on the frontier of human knowledge. Even in these lectures the lecturer invokes without real explanation concepts such as the “Roche limit”, “tidal effects”, “Rayleigh –Taylor hydrodynamic instabilities,“ “gravitational resonance,” “internal rotation rate of Saturn” (one can only guess what this means). Even “edge-on from the sun”, “edge-on from the earth”, “back-lit”, “front-lit”, “face-on”, “opposition” should have been illustrated with some simple, primitive graphic (he does some illustrating with his fist and palm but that’s not very helpful). Characteristically, the familiar Doppler effect is mentioned already in the first half of the course but is only explained in full, diagrams and all, towards the end of the course in lecture 22. Thankfully, I had watched Schumacher’s Understanding Gravity just before watching this lecture series—Schumacher explains at length most of the aforementioned concepts. In sum, my overall assessment is that this is a highly interesting and recommendable course which I was quite happy to watch twice in succession.
Date published: 2017-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from New Frontiers Full of new informative information. I had a strong base in Earth and Space Science but I was pleasantly surprised at the new discoveries in the solar system
Date published: 2016-10-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good presentation with a few weak spots The lecturer had a good presentation, hardly using notes at all. He seemed to really know his stuff. At times it seemed like he dwelt too much on one topic such as the earth-centric solar system that works mathematically but turned out to be wrong. He has a friendly presentation and, unlike other lecturers he dresses more informally and has that style about him. The on screen videos and photographs are great. What most bothered me was his self assurance that everything he believes corresponds to reality. I always look for some introspection with scientists, knowing that what is true today may not be true tomorrow. Also a warning for Pluto fans: Even though New Horizons had not yet visited Pluto, the lecturer went along with those who say Pluto is not a planet -- something I feel is still questionable. This is not your typical perspective on the solar system so those who want something different may find this enjoyable.
Date published: 2016-01-24
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