INTRODUCTION

Scientists have studied the surfaces of the planets and satellites in our solar system for hundreds of years. Geologists first studied the surface of the Earth, and when telescopes were invented, astronomers began to look at the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, and later the other planets. Today, we have sent unmanned space probes to all the planets except Pluto, we have Earth-observing satellites, and we have even walked on the Moon and brought back samples to study in our labs. All these explorations have allowed us to compare surface features on other worlds to the terrestrial ones with which we are the most familiar. Such comparisons are crucial for understanding more about how the Earth and other planets formed, and how they may change in the future.

This series of activities will describe how scientists study the surfaces of our own and other planets. First, we will discuss how to locate features on the surface of a spherical planet. Then, we'll talk about cratering, one of the most important surface processes in the solar system. Analysis of craters on the surfaces of planets can help scientists estimate how old the surface is, what its composition is, and what agents of change are important on that body. We'll discuss how craters are made, and what can remove them from the surface of a planet. Then, we'll look in detail at some of the planets in the solar system, and what we can tell about the history of a planet by examining its craters. Finally, we'll apply our understanding of the inner solar system to try to interpret some of the new images from the Galileo spacecraft currently orbiting Jupiter.

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This module was written by Cynthia Phillips, Dept. of Planetary Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson AZ, and funded in part by the NASA Spacegrant program.


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