The Ultimate Guide to the Solar System

The Ultimate Guide to the Solar System

This BBC Focus Special Edition reveals the wonders of the Solar System and the latest missions to explore new frontiers... IN THIS ISSUE… How humans will colonise Mars Searching for life in Europa’s oceans Mercury: our ticket into outer space The ice volcanoes of Titan The mission to return to the Moon The secrets of dwarf planets How the Solar System will die

United Kingdom
Immediate Media Company London Limited
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1 min
neighbourhood watch

How well do you know your neighbours? They might only be next door, a little further down the street or just around the corner; you might see them passing by most days, you may even pop in for a cuppa and a chat now and then. But however familiar your neighbours may be, there’s probably still a lot you don’t know about them – enough that they can still surprise you from time to time. The same can be said for our celestial neighbours spinning around the Solar System. We see the Sun, the biggest member of our neighbourhood, every day and a selection of the smaller ones (relatively speaking) every night. But the boundaries of our neighbourhood stretch so far that some members of it – most notably Neptune and,…

3 min
the big bang

he year 2009 could go down in the astronomical textbooks as the one when a revolution in our understanding of the Universe began. The iconoclast at the centre of this upheaval is not a person but a machine: a space probe called Planck. Named after the great German physicist Max Planck, the spacecraft was launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) that year, tasked with detecting the ‘blueprint’ of the Universe – a snapshot of the seeds of the stars and galaxies that surround us today. Since Albert Einstein published Cosmological Considerations of the General Theory of Relativity in 1917 cosmologists have been constructing mathematical theories that describe the story of the Universe from the earliest moments to the present day. But analysis of Planck’s findings revealed a number of plot…

2 min
after the big bang

1 THE BIG BANG At the moment of the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, there were no stars or galaxies, just a hot, dense sea of particles and radiation. Straight after the Big Bang, space began to expand, spreading out the matter and energy. 2 INFLATION 10-35 SECONDS POST-BIG BANG In the blink of an eye, the Universe grew bigger by a factor of at least 1,060. 3 PARTICLE CREATION 1 MINUTE POST-BIG BANG At one minute old, the entire Universe resembled the interior of a star on a vast scale. Particles that would become the nuclei of all the atoms in the Universe were built in this cauldron. Mostly these were single protons that would become hydrogen, but around a quarter of the particles transformed into helium nuclei. Trace amounts of lithium and beryllium were also…

8 min
how the solar system formed

The Solar System formed around 4.6 billion years ago. It started out as a huge cloud of dust and gas (hydrogen and helium), which collapsed and fused together until it formed the star that we now know as the Sun. The remaining debris gradually formed a protoplanetary disc-a huge, flat circle comprising hundreds of lumps of rock and ice known as planetesimals, which were the building blocks of the Solar System. After a few million years of crashing and melding together, these bodies began to resemble the planets as we know them today. HOW DO WE KNOW THIS? Asking questions about where we come from is one of the traits that marks us out as human. Yet this inquisitive streak hasn't always led us in the right direction. the story of our…

1 min
the key experiment

SCIENTIST Nicolaus Copernicus DATE 1543 DISCOVERY Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun It’s hard to see how astronomers could have formed their current theories of how our Solar System came to be if we still thought everything orbited Earth. Copernicus’s breakthrough – putting the Sun at the centre of things – is rightly lauded as one of the greatest scientific revolutions in history. And yet it wasn’t inspired by astronomical observation, but by mathematical elegance. The idea of geocentrism – that everything in the Universe orbited Earth – ran into a problem when observing the objects in the night sky. Some of the planets appeared to double back on themselves. To get around this the Ancient Greek polymath Ptolemy introduced ‘epicycles’, which saw the planets move in smaller circles, which in turn…

4 min
where are all the active spacecraft in our solar system?

*not including miniaturised, amateur or commercial craft INFOGRAPHIC: TIDY DESIGNS SOLAR AND HELIOSPHERIC OBSERVATORY The SOHO mission has revolutionised our understanding of the Sun. As well as providing valuable data on the Sun’s magnetic activity, it has also inadvertently discovered 3,000 comets as they have buzzed past. SPITZER SPACE TELESCOPE Spitzer, launched in 2003, is the fourth and last of NASA’s Great Observatories, after Hubble, Compton (de-orbited in 2000) and Chandra. Spitzer observes infrared light and although the cryogen needed to cool its instruments ran out in 2009, the telescope is still observing asteroids, comets and exoplanets. In 2016, Spitzer was among the telescopes used to discover what might be seven potentially habitable planets in the nearby TRAPPIST-1 system. AKATSUKI Many mysteries abound around Venus, and Akatsuki is the latest probe to take a closer look. It…