BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo

Planetary science


Planetary science or, more rarely, planetology, is the scientific study of planets (including Earth), moons, and planetary systems (in particular those of the Solar System) and the processes that form them. It studies objects ranging in size from micrometeoroids to gas giants, aiming to determine their composition, dynamics, formation, interrelations and history. It is a strongly interdisciplinary field, originally growing from astronomy and earth science, but which now incorporates many disciplines, including planetary geology (together with geochemistry and geophysics), cosmochemistry, atmospheric science, oceanography, hydrology, theoretical planetary science, glaciology, and exoplanetology. Allied disciplines include space physics, when concerned with the effects of the Sun on the bodies of the Solar System, and astrobiology.

Planetary scientists are generally located in the astronomy and physics or Earth sciences departments of universities or research centres, though there are several purely planetary science institutes worldwide. There are several major conferences each year, and a wide range of peer-reviewed journals. Some planetary scientists work at private research centres and often initiate partnership research tasks.

In more modern times, planetary science began in astronomy, from studies of the unresolved planets. In this sense, the original planetary astronomer would be Galileo, who discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter, the mountains on the Moon, and first observed the rings of Saturn, all objects of intense later study. Galileo's study of the lunar mountains in 1609 also began the study of extraterrestrial landscapes: his observation "that the Moon certainly does not possess a smooth and polished surface" suggested that it and other worlds might appear "just like the face of the Earth itself".

The Solar System has now been relatively well-studied, and a good overall understanding of the formation and evolution of this planetary system exists. However, there are large numbers of unsolved questions, and the rate of new discoveries is very high, partly due to the large number of interplanetary spacecraft currently exploring the Solar System.

This is both an observational and a theoretical science. Observational researchers are predominantly concerned with the study of the small bodies of the Solar System: those that are observed by telescopes, both optical and radio, so that characteristics of these bodies such as shape, spin, surface materials and weathering are determined, and the history of their formation and evolution can be understood.

The best known research topics of planetary geology deal with the planetary bodies in the near vicinity of the Earth: the Moon, and the two neighbouring planets: Venus and Mars. Of these, the Moon was studied first, using methods developed earlier on the Earth.

One of the main problems when generating hypotheses on the formation and evolution of objects in the Solar System is the lack of samples that can be analysed in the laboratory, where a large suite of tools are available and the full body of knowledge derived from terrestrial geology can be brought to bear. Direct samples from the Moon, asteroids and Mars are present on Earth, removed from their parent bodies and delivered as meteorites. Some of these have suffered contamination from the oxidising effect of Earth's atmosphere and the infiltration of the biosphere, but those meteorites collected in the last few decades from Antarctica are almost entirely pristine.

Measuring the changes in acceleration experienced by spacecraft as they orbit has allowed fine details of the gravity fields of the planets to be mapped. For example, in the 1970s, the gravity field disturbances above lunar maria were measured through lunar orbiters, which led to the discovery of concentrations of mass, mascons, beneath the Imbrium, Serenitatis, Crisium, Nectaris and Humorum basins.

Planetary geodesy, (also known as planetary geodetics) deals with the measurement and representation of the planets of the Solar System, their gravitational fields and geodynamic phenomena (polar motion in three-dimensional, time-varying space. The science of geodesy has elements of both astrophysics and planetary sciences. The shape of the Earth is to a large extent the result of its rotation, which causes its equatorial bulge, and the competition of geologic processes such as the collision of plates and of vulcanism, resisted by the Earth's gravity field. These principles can be applied to the solid surface of Earth (orogeny; Few mountains are higher than 10 km (6 mi), few deep sea trenches deeper than that because quite simply, a mountain as tall as, for example, 15 km (9 mi), would develop so much pressure at its base, due to gravity, that the rock there would become plastic, and the mountain would slump back to a height of roughly 10 km (6 mi) in a geologically insignificant time. Some or all of these geologic principles can be applied to other planets besides Earth. For instance on Mars, whose surface gravity is much less, the largest volcano, Olympus Mons, is 27 km (17 mi) high at its peak, a height that could not be maintained on Earth. The Earth geoid is essentially the figure of the Earth abstracted from its topographic features. Therefore, the Mars geoid is essentially the figure of Mars abstracted from its topographic features. Surveying and mapping are two important fields of application of geodesy.

Planetary science frequently makes use of the method of comparison to give a greater understanding of the object of study. This can involve comparing the dense atmospheres of Earth and Saturn's moon Titan, the evolution of outer Solar System objects at different distances from the Sun, or the geomorphology of the surfaces of the terrestrial planets, to give only a few examples.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782