Astro 114 Planetary Astronomy
Bruce Partridge

Catalog Description

A survey of the overall structure of the Solar System, the laws governing the motions of the planets and the evolution of the Solar System. Next, we study general processes affecting the surface properties of planets. This takes us to a detailed treatment of the properties of several planets. We end by studying the (surprising) properties of planets found in other stellar systems.

Fuller Course Description

The arrangement of the planets and their motions in the Solar System are consequences of both the laws of physics and the evolution of the Solar System. We'll begin 114 by considering how the apparent motion of planets across the night sky is a consequence of their actual motion around the Sun. We will analyze Kepler's Laws and show their consistency with Newton's more general laws of motion. Then we will use one of Kepler's Laws to determine the mass of Jupiter or Saturn.

The architecture of the Solar System is in large measure a consequence of the process that formed the Sun and the planetary system. We will examine the formation of the Solar System in the light of data (partly lunar and partly from comets and asteroids) on the early history of our system and of observations of other stellar systems now in the process of formation.

We then turn to the evolution of individual worlds (planets and their satellites). We will initially concentrate on worlds with solid surfaces, starting with general processes such as volcanism, subduction, erosion, cratering, and the evolution of atmospheres. In this section of the course, we'll learn a little geology. We will then survey the general properties of the gas giants and of ice worlds.

Next, we will undertake a more detailed examination of the properties of 2-3 worlds (chosen to reflect your interests or hot news from the space program). In this section of the course, heavy use will be made of planetary images available from NASA over the Net or in other formats. We will also look at a number of videos.

Finally, we will look at the convincing and growing evidence for planetary systems around other stars. Interestingly, most such systems are radically different from the Solar System. Is this difference real, or do we have a strongly biased sample? Do these observations provide hints about the future of our own planetary system?

Required work

Almost weekly homework sets, a mixture of problems and short essays. Three take-home, open book exams. Several lab sessions devoted to: photography of the planets and moon; "weighing" a planet; naked eye observations of the planets; finding the rotation period of a planet or the sun; cratering as a test of age; solar chemical composition; etc.


Morrison and Owen The Planetary System, plus substantial additional reading on the structure and evolution of the Solar System, on specific planets and on planetary systems around other stars. This will be xeroxed for you, or placed on reserve.

Tentative syllabus

(Chapter numbers are from D. Morrison and T. Owen, The Planetary System, 2nd ed.)

Week 1.
Census and architecture of the Solar System. Chapter 1. Kepler's Laws.
Review lectures*. The cosmic context. Review of Newtonian physics and the laws of radiation.

Week 2.
Chapters 1 and 3. Newton's Laws; gravity; energy; the masses of planets; orbits and space flight.

Week 3.
Chapters 2, 3 and 19. Formation of the Solar System; evolution of the Sun.

Week 4.
Chapters 4, 5 and 6. Asteroids and comets. The future of the Solar System (Is it chaotic?)

Week 5.
Chapters 7 and 8. The Moon and Mercury. Cratering.

Week 6.
Chapter 9. Properties and evolution of the Earth's surface. Volcanism; plate tectonics; erosion.
(Less certain from here to end.)

Week 7.
Chapters 10, 11 and 12. Comparative atmospheres.

Week 8.
Chapters 10, 11 and 12. Mars and Venus.

Week 9.
Geology and biology. Life on Mars?

Weeks 10-11.
Chapters 13 and 14. The gas giants.

Week 12.
Chapters 16, 17, 18. Ice worlds.

Week 13.
Additional coverage of selected worlds.

Week 14.
Part of Chap. 19. Extrasolar planets. (The future of the Solar System revisited.)
*Note : For those of you who have not taken Astro 101 (or who wish to review some material from that course), I will give a pair of review lectures during the first week of the course. They will be scheduled Monday and Thursday nights at 7:00, and, if needed, I'll run extra sessions of each on Tuesday and Friday (time to be determined). evolution of the Solar System and on planetary systems around other stars.