Saturday, December 22, 2012

Exploring Planetary Worlds

A book read more for it’s pictures than the text surrounding them, Exploring Planetary Worlds is a guide to our Solar System.

Setup in six chapters with an extended prologue and epilogue, author David Morrison takes us on a grand tour of the planets that make up or Solar System. From little Mercury, close to the sun to frozen Pluto, Morrison provides extensive photographs (when available), diagrams and text to explore the differences and similarities between the various planets that make up the Solar System. 

The prologue provides a fairly extensive introduction to the history of Astronomy and exploration of the Solar System. Knowledge from the Greeks and other ancient civilizations are compared and contrasted to the discoveries in the Renaissance by those such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. Basic information on planetary motion and gravity is provided and is explained in a way that is easy to understand for both scientists and non-scientists. 

The heart of Exploring Planetary Worlds consists of 6 chapters. These chapters include: 

Giants – the Jovian planets 
Cratered Worlds – the Moon and Mercury 
Strange Twins – Venus and Earth 
Destination Mars – The planet most like Earth 
Fire and Ice – small bodies in the outer Solar System 
Remnants of Creation – comets, asteroids, and the origin of the Solar System 

The chapters are all filled with amazing photographs from space probes that have visited the various planets and their systems. These include photographs from the Mariner missions, the Galileo mission, the Voyager missions, Apollo missions, Viking missions and more. Some of the shots are simply amazing, others most people have probably seen in the news. In addition to the photographs, Morrison includes sketches and diagrams to explain various concepts that are introduced in the text, such as planetary magnetic fields, and rotational anomalies. 

The text in each chapter clearly goes over the history of exploration for each planet, the craft that have visited it, the current state of knowledge (as of 1993) and any future missions planned for the planets. The text is easy to read without becoming too bogged down in simplicity or in detail. Astronomy can be an incredibly exciting topic, but can get very tedious for the average reader when too much detail is provided - Exploring Planetary Worlds strikes a good balance, providing enough information to explain basic concepts, while not going so in-depth that the average reader loses interest. 

The prologue of the book takes in a topic that didn’t fit in elsewhere, that of impacts to the planetary bodies. This idea is explored here on earth and what a catastrophic impact would mean (or has meant) for life on earth. It’s thought that 65 million years ago, an asteroid impact hastened (or caused) the extinction of dinosaurs and even as recently as the early twentieth century, a major comet or asteroid exploded over Tunguska region of Siberia flattening a 30 kilometer radius of forest. This asteroid or comet didn’t even reach the surface, exploding about 10 kilometers up in the atmosphere, just imagine if it had made it all the way down or exploded further down in the atmosphere. Morrison’s explanation of this topic is fascinating and timely, considering that NASA is now considering how to notify and warn people if an asteroid were hitting the Earth. 

Rounding out the rest of Exploring Planetary Worlds, is a list of further reading for anyone interested in finding out more about various planets or the Solar System in general, a list of all the sources of the illustrations and photographs and finally an index that makes it easy to find specific information in the book. 


I find this book fascinating. I’ve always loved astronomy and Exploring Planetary Worlds is a great way to expand my knowledge and get some great pictures of the various planets. While it’s a bit basic, it nevertheless grabs my attention and I’ve found myself flipping through it time and time again taking a glimpse at the Solar System we are a part of. 

If anyone is looking for a basic introduction to the bodies of the Solar System, they can’t go wrong with Exploring Planetary Worlds by David Morrison.

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