Planetary Science for Aerospace Professionals


Planetary exploration is big business, spending over $20B worldwide in the past decade, and launching over two-dozen missions in this same time period. Planetary exploration—once the sole domain of NASA and the Soviet Union—now involves numerous Asian, European, and North American nations. A revolution in our understanding of the objects in and the origin of our planetary system has taken place as a result of the intensive exploration of our solar system by telescopes on Earth, spacecraft across billions of miles of space, laboratory investigations, and computer modeling.

In this two-day course, aerospace engineers, program managers, business development professionals, and public affairs specialists will gain a comprehensive, survey-level knowledge of this major area of space exploration. In addition to surveying and updating course participants on modern knowledge, the course also surveys both the techniques used in planetary science and the priorities for future planetary exploration, including both robotic and human missions being discussed from 2015-2035.

What you will learn:

  • The history of NASA’s planetary exploration program.
  • The makeup of competitor planetary exploration programs from Russia to China to the European and Japanese space agencies
  • The modern view of our solar system’s architecture and a census of its content
  • The modern understanding of solar system origin
  • Why there is a debate about what is and isn’t a planet
  • A comparative understanding of planetary atmospheres, surfaces, and interiors across the solar system
  • Survey-level knowledge of planetary satellite systems, comets, and asteroids.

Course Outline:

  1. Introduction, course overview, and objectives.
  2. The architecture of our solar system. The structure of our solar system, including satellite systems, relic debris belts, and the Oort Cloud.
  3. Comets and asteroids, relics of planetary origins. The origin and composition of comets and asteroids, their subtypes, sizes, and other characteristics; their importance to solar system origins, the hazards they pose to Earth, and the economic resources they offer.
  4. The terrestrial planets. We will survey the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors, and magnetospheres of the four inner planets, as well as what is known about their past and future habitability.
  5. Special topic: The Moon. The composition, geology, atmosphere, and origin of the Moon will all be reviewed, using results from the latest space missions including LRO, GRAIL, and LADEE.
  6. The giant planets. We will survey the atmospheres, interiors, and magnetospheres of the four giant planets, as well as what is known about their origin and evolution over time.
  7. The satellites of the giant planets. We will survey the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors, and magnetospheres of the 100+ known worlds that comprise the satellite systems of all four giant planets. We will also touch on the habitability and prospects for life on satellites like Europa and Titan.
  8. The Kuiper Belt. This region, sometimes called the “Third Zone” of the solar system, contains vital clues to the solar system’s origin and evolution over time. We’ll review our understanding of its content, composition, and how it relates to similar belts around other stars.
  9. Dwarf planets. As a result of the discovery of numerous dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt, it’s known that dwarf planets, like Pluto, Eris, Sedna, and Ceres, dominate the planetary population of our solar system. A comparative survey of these worlds will be presented.
  10. Special Topic: What is a planet? Two Views. Two camps of scientists have debated planet definitions in recent years. We’ll review the arguments for and against both view points, and how Pluto fairs in each.
  11. The history of robotic planetary exploration. From the 1960s to the present, we’ll review the entire sweep of planetary exploration by unmanned vehicles that fly by, orbit, land, and return samples. The major findings of key missions will also be reviewed.
  12. Special topic: Apollo. The lunar exploration missions of Apollo, and the major findings they produced will be reviewed in this unit.
  13. NASA’s current planetary mission portfolio. Here we explore the budget of NASA’s planetary exploration program 2005-2015, the missions and other program elements that budget supports, and we’ll look ahead to missions already on the books or desired for 2015-2035.
  14. Planetary and lunar missions aboard. We’ll conduct a similar survey of planetary exploration programs across the world 2005-2015, and we’ll look at the foreign missions now on the books or desired for 2015-2035.
  15. Special topic: Extrasolar planets. Wrapping up our survey of modern planetary science, we’ll also see how our solar system compares to others, reviewing the major groundbased and spacebased techniques and missions which have discovered and explored planets elsewhere in our galaxy.
  16. Future Human Exploration of the Solar System. The course will close with a unit on plans for both civil and commercial exploration of the planets, the Moon, and asteroids in the next 20 years.


REGISTRATION:  There is no obligation or payment required to enter the Registration for an actively scheduled course.   We understand that you may need approvals but please register as early as possible or contact us so we know of your interest in this course offering.

SCHEDULING:  If this course is not on the current schedule of open enrollment courses and you are interested in attending this or another course as an open enrollment, please contact us at (410)956-8805 or Please indicate the course name, number of students who wish to participate. and a preferred time frame. ATI typically schedules open enrollment courses with a 3-5 month lead-time.   To express your interest in an open enrollment course not on our current schedule, please email us at

For on-site pricing, you can use the request an on-site quote form, call us at (410)956-8805, or email us at


  • S. Alan Stern is a planetary scientist, planetary mission and instrument Principal Investigator (PI), and the former head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Dr. Stern is also an author, aerospace consultant, and a member of the Time 100. He serves as the PI of NASA’s 2015 New Horizons mission to Pluto, and is the PI of the NASA ultraviolet spectrograph aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet orbiter mission set to arrive in 2014. Dr. Stern has served on numerous NASA and National Research Council committees, including the NASA Advisory Council—NASA’s highest-level advisory board. Dr. Stern has published over 200 research papers and authored and edited a variety of popular and technical books. He specializes in studies of icy outer solar system planets, satellites, and comets. He has been teaching short courses for aerospace professionals for over 12 years.

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