THE SOLAR SYSTEM
This course provides an overview of what we know about the Solar System: how it began and evolved, its components and their properties, and how these elements interact as a system. However, much of our knowledge remains incomplete, and so unanswered questions and mysteries figure prominently in the story. This course addresses our scientific understanding of the Solar System, how we know what we know and many hotly debated questions at the cutting-edge of scientific research.
Each week features original essays authored by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Denton Ebel – two distinguished curators of the American Museum of Natural History. These essays provide a foundation for the overarching question posed during each week and include links to related websites. In addition, each week includes a Mission Profile: a short essay about a current space mission and one of the scientists centrally involved in its research efforts. These profiles complement the essays by describing the research goals, the experimental techniques and looking at how the data will be analyzed and interpreted.
The course begins at the center of the Sun. We learn how nuclear fusion generates energy, and how that energy travels through the star and out across the vast reaches of space. We study gravity and electromagnetism, two fundamental forces that determine much of the Solar System makeup and profoundly affect life on Earth. Then we journey back through time to investigate current theories about how the Solar System formed and what conditions and processes shaped the early Universe.
The middle section of the course takes an in-depth look at the variety of rocky and gaseous bodies that orbit the Sun. What do we know about the structure and surface of these planets? What challenges are involved in studying objects that range from tiny, dense Mercury to giant Jupiter and its curious moons? We also consider atmospheres: how they form and change over time, their effect on planetary surfaces, and the crucial role of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere in protecting our planet.
In the final weeks we dive into the Pluto controversy and the ways in which planets, comets, asteroids and other Solar System objects are classified. Participants are encouraged to consider alternative organizing schemes. Venturing further afield, we learn about the search for star systems beyond our own, the planets they contain, and the possibility of life beyond our own Solar System. We end the course in addressing the question “Are we alone?”
Student Learning Outcomes
Students will conclude the course with a firm understanding or conceptual foundation of:
Please refer to the Weekly Schedule below for a detailed outline of the course.
This is a six-week online graduate course with an additional week for assignment completion. The course is asynchronous and does not have specific meeting times. Assignments and discussions change on a weekly basis. Students are expected to complete work within the specific week it is assigned.
For the current schedule of offerings, please visit www.amnh.org/learn/calendar
This graduate course is co-taught by an experienced educator along with a research scientist.
For current instructor information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This course requires the following textbook.
Astronomy Today Vol 1: The Solar System
by Eric Chaisson and Steve McMillan
Softcover: 755 pages
Publisher: Addison-Wesley (8th edition, 2013)
Technical support is available by calling (800) 649-6715 or emailing email@example.com.
The American Museum of Natural History welcomes learners with disabilities into its Seminars on Science program and will make reasonable accommodations for them. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you require information about requesting accommodation services. These services are only available to registered students with documented disabilities. Please submit requests at least two weeks prior to the start of the course.
Assessments are based on a detailed grading rubric developed for this course:
Weekly Overview and Expectations
Week 1: : Why "Solar?" Why "System?”
We introduce the course with an exploration of the star at the center of it all, the Sun. How does star formation work, why do stars shine, and how does our star compare to others? We learn about the nuclear fusion at the Sun’s core, the solar wind that streams off its surface, and what will happen when its fuel runs out. Then we put this in context, learning how the Sun’s energy interacts with everything around it to create an interconnected system. We look at the two major forces that drive this system: gravity, which builds planets and maintains orbits; and electromagnetism, which is responsible for solar wind, light and heat. The week's Mission Profile is the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a satellite whose uninterrupted view of the Sun enables scientists to monitor its dynamic activity, especially “space weather” — vast clouds of charged particles that blast our way almost every day.
Week 2: How Did The Solar System Form?
Having reviewed the components of the Solar System and the forces at work upon them, the course turns towards the events that brought these bodies into being. Starting with the Big Bang, we journey through the birth of atoms, early galaxy formation, and the ignition of our Sun. Three fundamental forces (condensation, accretion and differentiation) shaped the early Solar System. We’ll examine how they acted sequentially and in concert to create the cosmos we observe around us today. The subject of this week’s Mission Profile is the Dawn spacecraft, which recently embarked on a nine-year journey to Ceres and Vesta, the asteroid belt’s largest and most planet-like bodies.
Week 3: Surfaces and Interiors
This week focuses on the planetary bodies that orbit our Sun. Although all are composed of a mixture of ice, rock, and gas, we divide them into three categories (rocky, icy, and gaseous) because it conveniently divides the Solar System into regions. What attributes define the inner, “rocky” planets and the outer gas giants? What do they share, and what makes each unique? What are the challenges of studying objects so diverse, remote, and harshly inhospitable? How do astrophysicists use phenomena like collisions, space weather, and orbital trajectories in their research? We examine research tools for space science, which range from Earth-bound telescopes to robotic landers, and the broad applications of spectroscopy and mathematical modeling. Ultimately, we reflect on the many puzzles posed by the planetary bodies, and the ongoing search for evidence and answers. The week concludes with a portrait of the Messenger mission to Mercury, the first orbital study of the innermost, smallest, densest, and least observed planet.
Week 4: Atmospheres
This week, starting with Earth, we explore the atmospheres (the layers of vapor that surround some of the planets) and their effects on all the planetary bodies. After all, atmospheres — or their absence — define a planet and shape conditions on its surface as much as its crust or interior does. We investigate the relation among the atmosphere, weather, and climate, and how Earth’s magnetosphere interacts with the solar wind. We learn what creates a greenhouse effect, its implications for life on Earth, and how it operates on Venus and Saturn. We look at the atmospheric activity evidenced by the storms of Jupiter and on the swamps and seas of frigid Titan — made not of water but liquid methane. The mission profile is the Earth Observing System (EOS), a system of satellites for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans.
Week 5: What Is A Planet?
Is the controversy over Pluto’s status semantic or scientific? We begin this week with a history of how early astronomers described the objects they discovered orbiting the Sun. We see how the list of planets has changed over time, and discuss the value of alternative criteria. Imagine, for example, investigating solar system bodies in terms of phenomena like cyclones, or properties like density, or questions such as whether they might contain water. We then move beyond the heliosphere to the search for other star systems and the planets within them. We’ll learn about the technologies involved in observing these extremely distant objects, and tackle the question of how unusual our Solar System might be. The mission profile is New Horizons, which is on a three billion mile journey to as-yet-unvisited Pluto, one of the largest of the ice dwarfs that populate the Kuiper Belt.
Week 6: How And Where Do We Look For Life In The Solar System?
Are we alone? Most astrophysicists accept the likelihood that Earth is not unique in harboring life. But there is great debate about where extraterrestrial life might be found and what characteristics it might possess. This week we explore the link between life and liquid water. What kinds of clues indicate the presence of water, and what tools do scientists employ in their search? What do we know about planets around other stars that might be hospitable to life? The mission is the Galileo mission to Jupiter’s icy moons, where the potential for liquid water is the highest yet observed in our solar system.