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PX279 The Solar System

Lecturer: Peter Wheatley
Weighting: 7.5 CATS

The study of the Solar System has been one of the most important in the history of physics. Newton developed his theory of gravitation to explain Kepler's observations of the Solar System planets and effectively established what we now call the scientific method. Arguments and claims about the solar system have had ramifications well beyond science - Galileo was convicted of heresy for arguing that the earth moved round the Sun. In this module, we will introduce some of the intriguing phenomena observed in our Solar System. Questions we will touch on include: How does the Sun work? How do planets move and form? Do they have atmospheres? While the answers to some of these questions are complicated and still not completely known, we will construct convincing, qualitatively correct and appealing explanations of many of these phenomena using physics studied in the first year.


To explain features of the Solar system


After the module, you should

  • Be able to solve problems relating to the orbital motion of solar system objects;
  • Be able to compare the physical and atmospheric structures of the different solar system objects and how they were formed;
  • Understand elementary solar physics


Kepler's laws, Newtonian mechanics and gravity in the Solar System.

The Earth-Moon-Sun system, i.e. eclipses, phases of the Moon, tides, the formation of the Moon.

The Sun as a star. Physical structure of the interior, the solar surface (photosphere) and other atmospheres (chromosphere and corona). The solar cycle, sun spots, solar flares and the solar wind.

Solar-terrestrial effects. The magnetosphere and magneto-trail and Van Allen's belts. The effect of solar storms on the Earth's atmosphere, aurorae etc. Astronomical cycles affecting climate.

The planets. Internal structures, atmospheres, evolution of the atmospheres. Energy balance, the greenhouse effect, conditions for life. Earth, Venus and Mars’ atmospheres compared.

Planetary satellites, rings, minor bodies of the Solar system (asteroids and comets).

The formation and evolution of the Solar system. Comparison with exo-planetary systems.

Commitment: about 18 Lectures

Assessment: 1 hour examination.

Recommended Texts: B. W. Jones, Discovering the Solar System, 2nd Edition, Wiley 2017