In this major new landmark series, Professor Brian Cox tells the extraordinary story of our Solar System's four and a half billion years of history, filled with spectacle and drama. Using the data from our very latest explorations of the Solar System combined with ground breaking CGI this series will reveal the beauty and grandeur of eight planets whose stories we are only just beginning to understand. One family. Worlds apart.
The Planets will be broadcast on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC Two for five weeks from 28th May 2019. To find out more or to watch on iPlayer go to the BBC programme pages11.
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The first episode traces the development of the four rocky worlds closest to the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Born together, they battled the violence of the early Solar System to become stable planets. For a while each had a moment when they experienced almost Earth-like conditions. In contrast, today Mercury is a scorched world bearing the scars of its primordial richness in volatile elements. Venus is a runaway greenhouse world with a hothouse atmosphere and Mars is a frozen desert. Only on Earth do oceans – and life – persist, although billions of years from now its fate will replicate that of its sister planets.
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Early in the story of The Planets, there was a beautiful watery world, but this was not Earth - this was the young Mars. Professor Brian Cox continues his tour of the Solar System revealing that it was once home to not one, but two blue planets.
Sadly, with the decay of its magnetic field Mars also lost most at its atmosphere and with that almost all its water. Today, Mars is an arid desert world that long ago had similar potential to the Earth. Which begs a big question: did life get a start on both worlds? In search of the answer, plans are afoot to take humans to the red planet; so perhaps one-day soon we will become the Martians.
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Professor Brian Cox continues his exploration of the Solar System with a visit to a planet that dwarfs all the others: Jupiter. Its enormous mass allows it to influence the other planets - it has changed their orbits and flung asteroids and comets both inwards and out of the Solar System.
Jupiter stunted the growth of Mars, a planet that might otherwise have grown as large as Earth, and might have obliterated every last rocky world as it migrated inwards towards the Sun, if a tussle with another giant - Saturn - had not brought it back from the brink.
Today Jupiter’s great mass continues to be felt. Its tidal forces torment its moon Io, creating the most volcanically active body in the Solar System.
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Saturn is the jewel of the Solar System, the most seductive of all the planets, but as Professor Brian Cox reveals - it wasn’t born that way. Raised in the freezing distant reaches of the solar system Saturn began as a strange planet of rock and ice. Born beyond the snow line, with an abundance of building materials, it soon grew to dwarf the Earth, drawing in colossal amounts of the hydrogen and helium that permeated the early Solar System. In time Saturn was transformed into a gas giant, ring-less and similar looking to its great rival, Jupiter.
As NASA’s Cassini probe has discovered, Saturn probably remained ring-less most of its life - until a fateful encounter changed everything. Less than a hundred million years ago, one of Saturn’s ice moons was drawn too close to the planet. In a truly cataclysmic event the entire moon was destroyed and the rings where born.
But Saturn’s true beauty may have remained hidden if it wasn’t for the decision to send Cassini on a risky close encounter with another moon, Enceladus. There we discovered an internal ocean sandwiched between ice and rock, with similar conditions to places on Earth where life thrives, fed by chemical energy where hot springs emerge onto the ocean floor.
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In the final episode of The Planets, Professor Brian Cox journeys to the remote outskirts of the Solar System., Here, beyond Saturn we have so far only visited each world once.
Uranus – barely visible to the naked eye - was once thought to be the furthest planet from the Sun. But with the telescope and some careful viewing the more distant planet Neptune was discovered. Thanks to a rare alignment of the planets in 1976, Voyager 2 was sent for our only flyby of these two ice worlds. There we discovered far more vibrant planets that we ever imagined. Even at such cold temperatures, great storms whip around these frozen worlds that are home to spectacular moons and intricate ring systems. After a few hours of observation at each planet, Voyager 2 left them behind. We have never returned.
For decades that’s as far as we got, until 2015 when NASA’s New Horizons probe pushed the frontier even further into space with its extraordinary passage to the dwarf planet Pluto. Once again, all our assumptions about this distant world were wrong. Pluto’s surface is marked by ice volcanoes, dunes, and geysers – and there is even evidence for a subsurface ocean. What’s more, we discovered that Pluto isn’t alone out there - there’s a plethora of other icy worlds in what we now call the Kuiper belt.
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Stephen Lewis is Professor of Atmospheric Physics at The Open University. His research interests include the dynamics of planetary atmospheres and using computer modelling to understand spacecraft observations. He has worked on subjects including Mars, Venus, the Giant Planets, Exoplanets and the climates of Earth and Mars in the distant past. Results from Stephen’s work have been used by both ESA and NASA in planning space missions, in particular for Mars exploration.
Stephen was an academic consultant on the series and co-author of the associated poster.
David Rothery is Professor of Planetary Geosciences at The Open University. He began his career as a geologist using satellite images to help make geological maps of parts of the Earth, and now uses similar techniques to map parts of other planets. He is on the European Space Agency team that sent BepiColombo towards Mercury in 2018, and is funded by the European Commission on ‘PlanMap’, a project to boost European capability in planetary mapping.
David was an academic consultant on the series and co-author of the associated poster.
Dr Sheona Urquhart is an astrophysicist and staff tutor at The Open University. Her current area of research is that of galaxy evolution using a multiwavelength approach, making use of some of the best facilities both around the world and out of it! Sheona works with scientists in many different countries, regularly presenting to diverse audiences and is passionate about contributing to outreach and media work.
Sheona was one of the authors on 'The Planets' poster.