Exercises: Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
Collaborative Group Activities
Discuss and make a list of the reasons why we humans might want to explore the other worlds in the solar system. Does your group think such missions of exploration are worth the investment? Why?
Your instructor will assign each group a world. Your task is to think about what it would be like to be there. (Feel free to look ahead in the book to the relevant chapters.) Discuss where on or around your world we would establish a foothold and what we would need to survive there.
Some scientists criticized Carl Sagan for “wasting his research time” popularizing astronomy. To what extent do you think scientists should spend their time interpreting their field of research for the public? Why or why not? Are there ways that scientists who are not as eloquent or charismatic as Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson can still contribute to the public understanding of science?
Your group has been named to a special committee by the International Astronomical Union to suggest names of features (such as craters, trenches, and so on) on a newly explored asteroid. Given the restriction that any people after whom features are named must no longer be alive, what names or types of names would you suggest? (Keep in mind that you are not restricted to names of people, by the way.)
A member of your group has been kidnapped by a little-known religious cult that worships the planets. They will release him only if your group can tell which of the planets are currently visible in the sky during the evening and morning. You are forbidden from getting your instructor involved. How and where else could you find out the information you need? (Be as specific as you can. If your instructor says it’s okay, feel free to answer this question using online or library resources.)
In the Carl Sagan: Solar System Advocate feature, you learned that science fiction helped spark and sustain his interest in astronomy. Did any of the members of your group get interested in astronomy as a result of a science fiction story, movie, or TV show? Did any of the stories or films you or your group members saw take place on the planets of our solar system? Can you remember any specific ones that inspired you? If no one in the group is into science fiction, perhaps you can interview some friends or classmates who are and report back to the group.
A list of NASA solar system spacecraft missions can be found at nasa.gov/content/solar-missions-list. Your instructor will assign each group a mission. Look up when the mission was launched and executed, and describe the mission goals, the basic characteristics of the spacecraft (type of instruments, propellant, size, and so on), and what was learned from the mission. If time allows, each group should present its findings to the rest of the class.
What would be some of the costs or risks of developing a human colony or base on another planetary body? What technologies would need to be developed? What would people need to give up to live on a different world in our solar system?
Venus rotates backward and Uranus and Pluto spin about an axis tipped nearly on its side. Based on what you learned about the motion of small bodies in the solar system and the surfaces of the planets, what might be the cause of these strange rotations?
What is the difference between a differentiated body and an undifferentiated body, and how might that influence a body’s ability to retain heat for the age of the solar system?
What does a planet need in order to retain an atmosphere? How does an atmosphere affect the surface of a planet and the ability of life to exist?
Which type of planets have the most moons? Where did these moons likely originate?
What is the difference between a meteor and a meteorite?
Explain our ideas about why the terrestrial planets are rocky and have less gas than the giant planets.
Do all planetary systems look the same as our own?
What is comparative planetology and why is it useful to astronomers?
What changed in our understanding of the Moon and Moon-Earth system as a result of humans landing on the Moon’s surface?
If Earth was to be hit by an extraterrestrial object, where in the solar system could it come from and how would we know its source region?
List some reasons that the study of the planets has progressed more in the past few decades than any other branch of astronomy.
excluding the jovian planets, the planet where you would weigh the most on its surface (Hint: Weight is directly proportional to surface gravity.)
the smallest planet
the planet that takes the longest time to rotate
the planet that takes the shortest time to rotate
the planet with a diameter closest to Earth’s
the moon with the thickest atmosphere
the densest moon
the most massive moon
What characteristics do the worlds in our solar system have in common that lead astronomers to believe that they all formed from the same “mother cloud” (solar nebula)?
How do terrestrial and giant planets differ? List as many ways as you can think of.
Why are there so many craters on the Moon and so few on Earth?
How do asteroids and comets differ?
How and why is Earth’s Moon different from the larger moons of the giant planets?
Where would you look for some “original” planetesimals left over from the formation of our solar system?
Describe how we use radioactive elements and their decay products to find the age of a rock sample. Is this necessarily the age of the entire world from which the sample comes? Explain.
What was the solar nebula like? Why did the Sun form at its center?
What can we learn about the formation of our solar system by studying other stars? Explain.
Earlier in this chapter, we modeled the solar system with Earth at a distance of about one city block from the Sun. If you were to make a model of the distances in the solar system to match your height, with the Sun at the top of your head and Pluto at your feet, which planet would be near your waist? How far down would the zone of the terrestrial planets reach?
Seasons are a result of the inclination of a planet’s axial tilt being inclined from the normal of the planet’s orbital plane. For example, Earth has an axis tilt of 23.4° (Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets). Using information about just the inclination alone, which planets might you expect to have seasonal cycles similar to Earth, although different in duration because orbital periods around the Sun are different?
Using some of the astronomical resources in your college library or the Internet, find five names of features on each of three other worlds that are named after real people. In a sentence or two, describe each of these people and what contributions they made to the progress of science or human thought.
Explain why the planet Venus is differentiated, but asteroid Fraknoi, a very boring and small member of the asteroid belt, is not.
Would you expect as many impact craters per unit area on the surface of Venus as on the surface of Mars? Why or why not?
Interview a sample of 20 people who are not taking an astronomy class and ask them if they can name a living astronomer. What percentage of those interviewed were able to name one? Typically, the two living astronomers the public knows these days are Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Why are they better known than most astronomers? How would your result have differed if you had asked the same people to name a movie star or a professional basketball player?
Using Selected Moons of the Planets, complete the following table that describes the characteristics of the Galilean moons of Jupiter, starting from Jupiter and moving outward in distance.
Semimajor Axis (km3)
This system has often been described as a mini solar system. Why might this be so? If Jupiter were to represent the Sun and the Galilean moons represented planets, which moons could be considered more terrestrial in nature and which ones more like gas/ice giants? Why? (Hint: Use the values in your table to help explain your categorization.)
Figuring for Yourself
Calculate the density of Jupiter. Show your work. Is it more or less dense than Earth? Why?
Calculate the density of Saturn. Show your work. How does it compare with the density of water? Explain how this can be.
Barnard’s Star, the second closest star to us, is about 56 trillion (5.6 × 1012) km away. Calculate how far it would be using the scale model of the solar system given in Overview of Our Planetary System.
A radioactive nucleus has a half-life of 5 × 108 years. Assuming that a sample of rock (say, in an asteroid) solidified right after the solar system formed, approximately what fraction of the radioactive element should be left in the rock today?