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A Tour of the Geology of Our Solar System

Condensing 50 years' worth of solar system geology knowledge into a half-hour presentation

October 25, 2017

From The Staff Astronomy Physics Geology

Over the past 50 years, scientists and engineers have sent spacecraft to explore asteroids, comets, and all the planets of our solar system. With New Horizon's "Journey to the Solar System's Third Zone," we recently learned Pluto is a "startlingly complex, dynamic world." Just last month, before Cassini's grand finale—in which scientists directed the spacecraft to plunge into Saturn so as not to contaminate any of Saturn's moons, including Titan, "with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry"—the giant robotic spacecraft sent home detailed data and images of the planet's rings. Those rings are "arguably the flattest structure known to humanity," writes SETI researcher Matthew S. Tiscareno, "with an end-to-end dimension equivalent to circling the Earth seven times, but a vertical height about that of a house."

As one of the few faculty who studies planetary science full time at North Carolina State University, Paul Byrne accepted Sigma Xi's invitation to give a tour of the geology of our solar system to the Research Triangle Park membership chapter and community. As Byrne says at the beginning of his tour (video below), it's a big task to "Try and condense 50 years of spacecraft exploration of more than 2 dozen bodies that are more than four-and-half billion years old, to try to at least give you a flavor of the type of geology we see—the types of land forms and processes present throughout the solar system." 

After these thirty minutes, I certainly would have stayed for more, although maybe not for the "three days" Byrne quipped would be needed for a full tour.

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