A Field Guide to the Planets

Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Delightful Tour of the Solar Neighborhood Of the nearly 70 Great Courses titles I've purchased so far this century, "A Field Guide to the Planets" ranks as one of my favorites. Dr. Stanley's engaging lecture style, supported by stunning images, does a fine job of providing a space voyager's perspective of the star system in which we live. With enough detail to keep a longtime Sky & Telescope subscriber entertained, the course is clearly designed to be easily appreciated by those with little or no prior astronomy knowledge as well. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2021-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Expands my knowledge of our solar system This greatly expands my knowledge of the Planets. I have been interested in astronomy since I was in 4 th grade in 1953. I learn something new each year as more and more things are discovered. I greatly enjoyed Dr. Stanley's casual approach to teaching. I particularly enjoyed the fact that many of the new things I learned were discovered by women in the field.
Date published: 2021-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Class on the Solar System I had my homeschooled kids in 3rd and 6th grade watch this. The information was presented in language simple enough for them to understand and enjoy, and it was also engaging and interesting enough to be of great interest to the college-educated adults in the family. This included more information and detail than the astronomy class I took in college. We were so incredibly impressed and can't wait to enjoy more content from Great Courses.
Date published: 2021-03-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from So-so For the most part a reasonable course, well presented. However, it was a little too simplistic for a supposed college-level course. And it's unfortunate that the professor perpetuated the myth that old cathedral windows are thicker at the bottom because the glass has flowed downwards under the influence of gravity -- this is completely false, an urban myth (check out the Corning Museum of Glass page "Does Glass Flow?"). Much worse is the absolute howler of a mistake in saying that a planetary nebula is a stage in planet formation! This is completely wrong and would probably fail you in an Astronomy 101 course. A planetary nebula is a badly misnamed type of supernova remnant.
Date published: 2021-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of the planets I had very little knowledge of the universe, just a interest, and this course gave me an understanding of the planets in the universe, and what causes things to happen. This course, increased by knowledge, and caused me to want to learn me. The professor is very knowledge, and easy to understand.
Date published: 2021-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great presentation Professor Stanley is not only knowledgeable and well-versed but an excellent public speaker. She covers a lot of otherwise very complex topics but her enthusiastic yet disarming presentation style makes each lecture in this series worth viewing.
Date published: 2021-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Good Indeed I have watched several of TGC products now, and this course sits up there on the podium for prize winners of most enjoyable ones. Provided you have some interest in the subject of our solar system in the first place, you are likely to enjoy this course. The lecturer, Sabine Stanley, is superb. She has a lovely manner, and twinkle of humour in her eye throughout, making her super-engaging. Information flows thick and fast, but her explanations and excellent diagrams, make the subject digestible to the newcomer.
Date published: 2021-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Packed with info and some good humor! I continue to be amazed by the quality of instructors and overall courses on this site. I appreciate the combination of information and the humor that was presented in this lecture series. I wish all television could be so well created!
Date published: 2021-01-25
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A Field Guide to the Planets
Course Trailer
How the Solar System Family Is Organized
1: How the Solar System Family Is Organized

Since 1962, robots have been exploring our solar system to help answer this most important question: Who are we? With fascinating data and images now in hand, explore this family album overview of our planets, dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, Kuiper Belt objects, and long-period comets—and fly through some of our solar system’s most unique features!

31 min
Mercury, the Extreme Little Planet
2: Mercury, the Extreme Little Planet

Mercury is a planet of many solar system extremes—smallest planet, closest to the Sun, shortest year, most elliptical orbit, smallest axis tilt, and largest fraction of iron. Learn how these characteristics and others have resulted in a planet where the Sun sometimes moves backwards across the sky, where water ice has been found at the poles, and a magnetic field that offers more protection than Mars’.

31 min
Venus, the Veiled Greenhouse Planet
3: Venus, the Veiled Greenhouse Planet

While the Venusian carbon dioxide atmosphere has resulted in a runaway greenhouse effect and the hottest surface temperature in the solar system, the Earth and Venus actually contain about the same amount of carbon. Explore the forces that resulted in the extreme atmospheric differences between these two otherwise-similar planets.

32 min
Earth: How Plate Tectonics Sets Up Life
4: Earth: How Plate Tectonics Sets Up Life

Given the striking similarities between the four terrestrial planets, why is Earth the only one teeming with life? Proposed as a bold theory less than 70 years ago, could plate tectonics be a main driver of life on Earth? Explore the fascinating movement of our planet’s surface and the many ways in which a geologically-active Earth has sustained our biologically-active planet.

31 min
Orbiting Earth: Up through the Atmosphere
5: Orbiting Earth: Up through the Atmosphere

Compared to Venus or the giant planets, Earth has a relatively thin atmosphere. And yet, without this single, fragile layer, life would not have evolved and thrived. Discover the unique properties of each atmospheric layer— and encounter specific ways we’ve explored each layer as a springboard to exploring the rest of our solar system.

31 min
Exploring the Earth-Moon System
6: Exploring the Earth-Moon System

Our Moon, formed from the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, is by far the largest moon in the solar system relative to its planet’s size. Explore the many ways in which this uniquely coupled system affects the tides on Earth and on the Moon, our rotation and revolution, the process of tidal locking, and even the planetary stability that has allowed for the development of life on Earth.

30 min
Humans on the Moon: A Never-Ending Story
7: Humans on the Moon: A Never-Ending Story

Even before the invention of telescopes, humans were familiar with the dark lunar highlands and bright maria on the Moon’s surface. But now, with knowledge gained from both robotic and crewed missions, you can also explore fascinating and complex lunar swirls, sinuous rilles, and the lava tubes that hold promise as ideal locations for future lunar bases.

32 min
Exploring Mars from Space and the Ground
8: Exploring Mars from Space and the Ground

Humanity’s fascination with Mars is never-ending—from the days when we posited a planet covered in straight-line canals and vegetation to NASA’s current Moon to Mars program. Learn how the intriguing similarities and differences between Earth and Mars have resulted in Mars’ planet-wide dust storms, migrating polar ice caps, and 3.9-billion-year-old impact craters.

32 min
Water on Mars and Prospects for Life
9: Water on Mars and Prospects for Life

Recent robotic exploration provides tantalizing evidence: Mars’ barren landscape could have been much more Earth-like in the past. With warmer temperatures, a thicker atmosphere, and the possibility of water oceans and tsunamis, could Mars have an Earth sibling that supported life? Learn about the thrilling recent discoveries that will guide future exploration and scientific inquiry on the red planet.

32 min
Near-Earth Asteroids and the Asteroid Belt
10: Near-Earth Asteroids and the Asteroid Belt

Fans of science fiction, or the natural history of our planet, know that a collision with an asteroid has the potential to obliterate civilization as we know it. With 20,000 asteroids identified in near-Earth orbit, how can collision be avoided? Learn why these rocky bodies, and those in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, never accreted into planets and how we might harness their resources for future space travel.

33 min
Mighty Jupiter, The Ruling Gas Giant
11: Mighty Jupiter, The Ruling Gas Giant

Does Jupiter have a greater similarity to the Earth or to the Sun? It depends on which characteristics you consider. Explore the many ways in which Jupiter is unique among the planets and consider what our solar system would be like without it. This gas giant might seem too far away to make a difference in your daily life, but without Jupiter, life on Earth might never have had a chance.

31 min
Jupiter’s Planetlike System of Moons
12: Jupiter’s Planetlike System of Moons

Today we know of 79 Jovian moons—the spherical Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, and dozens of other smaller, odd-shaped satellites. Learn why Jupiter’s gravitational forces plus the orbital resonance of the three interior moons make these some of the most promising places to search for extraterrestrial life—and why scientists believe the Jovian system once included generations of other moons, now gone.

32 min
Saturn and the Rings: Gravity’s Masterpiece
13: Saturn and the Rings: Gravity’s Masterpiece

With its exquisitely complex ring system, NASA describes Saturn as the “jewel of our solar system.” Learn what decades of exploration have revealed about the origin and morphology of these ever-changing icy rings and how they interact with Saturn’s closest moons. From the rings to propeller moonlets, a massive hexagonal polar storm, and the giant vortex, our fascination with Saturn never ends!

32 min
Saturn’s Moons: Titan to Enceladus
14: Saturn’s Moons: Titan to Enceladus

With a system of 62 moons located in and far beyond its ring system, Saturn has outer moons that are some of the most fascinating worlds in the solar system. Learn why Titan and Enceladus hold such promise in our search for extraterrestrial life—from global subsurface oceans of water on both moons, to Titan’s Earth-like surface and organic molecules in its atmosphere. It’s no wonder that NASA has announced its Dragonfly mission to Titan, scheduled to launch in 2026.

32 min
Uranus: A Water World on Its Side
15: Uranus: A Water World on Its Side

What a fascinating world Voyager 2 revealed in 1986 during its short flyby of Uranus! Learn why Uranus seems to orbit “on its side” surrounded by a delicate system of 13 rings and 27 moons, how we discovered its multi-polar magnetic field, and why scientists think Uranus might contain an ocean made of liquid diamond, with floating chunks of solid “diamond-bergs!”

32 min
Neptune: Windy with the Wildest Moon
16: Neptune: Windy with the Wildest Moon

Neptune is the coldest, but also the stormiest, planet in the solar system and the only planet that cannot be seen with the naked eye from Earth. Its moon Triton is the only spherical moon in the solar system that’s an irregular satellite that orbits opposite the direction of all the planets. Learn how tidal forces are not only changing that orbit, but also causing geologic activity on its surface—a surface that contains organic compounds.

32 min
Pluto and Charon: The Binary Worlds
17: Pluto and Charon: The Binary Worlds

Although Pluto is no longer categorized as a planet, Pluto the “dwarf planet” and its “moon” Charon are considered the closest thing in the solar system to a binary planet system. Explore the fascinating revelations from the New Horizons mission, including Pluto’s glacial flows, floating mountains, extreme seasons, unexpectedly complex atmosphere, and a surface that appears to be dusted in complex organic molecules.

31 min
Comets, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud
18: Comets, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud

Learn why scientists believe comets—the “leftovers” of planet formation in the outer solar system—could be partially responsible for the flourishing of life on Earth, bringing both water and organic material to the inner solar system. And explore the more distant Oort Cloud, where billions of cometary objects orbit at the outermost boundary of the solar system.

32 min
How Our Sun Defines Our Solar System
19: How Our Sun Defines Our Solar System

Fly through the corona of what is by far the largest, most massive, and most significant object in the solar system: the Sun. In fact, at 99.9 percent of the total mass of the system, you could say the Sun IS the solar system. With its gravity, heat, light, magnetic fields, and plasma storms, learn how the Sun affects every object in the system—and how we are in a race to learn more about coronal mass ejections before one destroys trillions of dollar’s worth of electronics on Earth.

32 min
A Solar System Time Machine and Meteorites
20: A Solar System Time Machine and Meteorites

Today we see an orderly solar system with planets staying in their orbits around the sun, moons staying in their orbits around the planets, and comets coming and going in predictable fashion. But how did it all start? Learn how a molecular cloud gave rise to a proto-planetary disk in which our solar system developed step by step across time and space—and is developing still.

32 min
What the Biggest Exoplanets Reveal
21: What the Biggest Exoplanets Reveal

Planets orbiting other stars used to be purely in the realm of science fiction. How did we begin discovering them by the thousands? Learn about the methods scientists have used to discover so many exoplanets so quickly. From “hot Jupiters” to “mini-Neptunes” to planets whose clouds rain molten glass, these discoveries demonstrate that ours is not the only type of planetary system possible!

31 min
Closing in on Earthlike Exoplanets
22: Closing in on Earthlike Exoplanets

Beginning in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope began staring intensively at a single patch of sky, about one quarter of one percent of the sky. After staring for four years straight, scientists had identified about 1,200 new planets. Sift through the Kepler discoveries for planets with a variety of Earth-like features, including presence in a “habitable” zone, and learn why billions of Earthlike planets are estimated to exist in our galaxy.

31 min
Planets Migrated in Our Early Solar System!
23: Planets Migrated in Our Early Solar System!

The surprising detection of gas giant planets orbiting extremely close to other stars has led to the realization that planets can form in one part of a stellar system and then migrate to another part. Did that happen in our own solar system? Learn about the evidence for a “Late Heavy Bombardment” on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury, how migration of one or more giant planets could have caused it, and how such migration could have affected the solar system we see today.

31 min
Human Futures in the Solar System
24: Human Futures in the Solar System

What are the next big ideas that will help us ask and answer the next big questions? Consider the fascinating future technologies of centimeter-sized satellites propelled by laser photons, liquid mirror telescopes on the Moon, a magnetic shield large enough to help terraform Mars, and more. Nourish your imagination, and experience the inspiration of space exploration!

33 min
Sabine Stanley

I’m here to lead you through the solar system; back in time and even to planets around other stars in a way you’ve never experienced before.


Harvard University


Johns Hopkins University

About Sabine Stanley

Sabine Stanley, Ph.D., is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. She received a HBSc degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Toronto and then completed M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Geophysics from Harvard University. Prior to joining Johns Hopkins, Professor Stanley was a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a professor at the University of Toronto. At Johns Hopkins, she also holds appointments in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy, the Applied Physics Laboratory’s Space Exploration Sector, and the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute.

Professor Stanley has received several honors and awards for both her research and teaching. Her research honors include the American Geophysical Union’s William Gilbert Award for her major theoretical contributions to the study of planetary magnetism, and her teaching awards include the Dean’s Outstanding Teaching Award from the University of Toronto.

Professor Stanley’s research includes studies of the magnetic fields of Earth, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and exoplanets. She is also a coinvestigator on NASA’s Mars InSight mission. In addition to her research work, Professor Stanley has served as the editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets and has chaired the Women in Physics Canada Conference.

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