What Do You Know About the Solar System?

Click the image to visit NASA's interactive Solar System website. (NASA)
Click the image to visit NASA’s interactive Solar System Exploration website. (NASA)

You probably know what Mars looks like, thanks to recent headlines about the Curiosity rover (if not, take a look at the first post here).

Would you also believe that you know – right off the top of your head – more about our solar system’s geology than most of the people who ever lived on Earth?

Pop quiz . . . relax – it’s easy.

What’s the Man in the Moon?

For centuries human beings have guessed that the dark splotches on its glowing white face are mud splashes, seas, Buddhist rabbits, children, etc.

Sure, it’s rock.  We filmed ourselves walking on it.  Maybe you’ve even seen a Moon rock in class or a museum.

Scientists say that the Moon’s dark areas are iron-rich members of the basalt family of volcanic rocks.  The white areas are anorthosite, another kind of igneous rock that contains aluminum-rich plagioclase feldspar.

Too much science is boring, so lets instead look at a video NASA put together about the Moon’s development after it most probably got blasted off  the very early Earth by a big impact.

Yeah – those myths about the dark areas being scars from a fight weren’t totally off, after all.

Name the Major Planets

Okay, you not only can do this, you probably also have an opinion on whether or not Pluto makes the list.

That’s because you saw “The Pluto Files,” by the director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and/or heard something in the news about global protests back in 2006 when some (but not all) scientists decided it was too small to be the equal of stone planets like Earth or gas giants like Jupiter.

Jupiter and one of its moons. (New Horizons/NASA)
Jupiter and one of its moons. (New Horizons/NASA)

Whichever side you take in the Pluto debate, did you know we have a spacecraft heading there?

New Horizons was launched the same year as the Great Pluto Wrangle and is scheduled to get there in 2015.

The spacecraft took the scenic route, passing by Jupiter in early 2007.  NASA has turned some images from that visit into the above stunning montage (need a soundtrack for that?).

The Voyagers are long-distance travelers, but New Horizons is the first mission to specifically investigate Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, a dimly-lit, icy zone on the outskirts of the solar system where hundreds of little worlds and some comets exist.

Most of those  objects likely date back to the formation of the Solar System.

Dust (red) in the Helix Nebula, seen with the Spitzer Space Telescope.  (NASA APOD)
Not Sauron’s eye.  The Helix Nebula, as seen with the Spitzer Space Telescope. (NASA APOD)

How Did the Solar System Form?

That’s right.  According to experts, the Sun formed in the center of a big dust cloud.

Something similar is happening in the Helix Nebula now (click the image for more information).

That red glow in the nebula could be from a debris disk near the sun-like star in the center.

Things get older and cooler, the  further out you go. At the fringes (like our Kuiper Belt), the original system building blocks are still floating around, waiting to be studied.

Ongoing Space Missions

See?  You’re more familiar with the Solar System than you thought.  That’s just a little bit.  What else do you know about it?

Scientists are trying to learn as much as they can.  Of course, Earth is the planet most intensively studied by mankind’s satellites and other spacecraft, but there are many other ongoing missions.

NASA has terrestrial, lunar, planetary and/or solar missions up there, as do the British, Canadians,  Chinese (Chinese Academy of Sciences – in Chinese) Europeans, IndiansJapanese, and  Russians.

Earth’s spacecraft haven’t overlooked asteroids and comets, either.

One more? OK.

Bonus Question


We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

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