Theoretical planetology

Theoretical planetology, also known as theoretical planetary science[3] is a branch of planetary sciences that developed in the 20th century.[4]

Sequence of New Horizons images showing Io's volcano Tvashtar spewing material 330 km above its surface. The discovery of volcanism on Io in 1979 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft confirmed the previous prediction made by theoretical planetology and is considered one of the major successes of theoretical planetology.[1][2]

Nature of the workEdit

Diagram showing Earth's magnetic field: theoretical planetologists study many aspects of planetary bodies, such as how their magnetic fields are generated in their cores.[5]
Scientific visualisation of an extremely large simulation of a Raleigh–Taylor instability caused by two mixing fluids. [6] Theoretical planetology uses computer graphics, scientific visualisation, and fluid dynamics extensively.[7][8]
Theoretical planetologists study atmospheric circulation over planets.

Theoretical planetologists, also known as theoretical planetary scientists, use modelling techniques to develop an understanding of the internal structure of planets by making assumptions about their chemical composition and the state of their materials, then calculating the radial distribution of various properties such as temperature, pressure, or density of material across the planet's internals.[4]

Theoretical planetologists also use numerical models to understand how the Solar System planets were formed and develop in the future, their thermal evolution, their tectonics, how magnetic fields are formed in planetary interiors, how convection processes work in the cores and mantles of terrestrial planets and in the interiors of gas giants, how their lithospheres deform, the orbital dynamics of planetary satellites, how dust and ice are transported on the surface of some planets (such as Mars), and how the atmospheric circulation takes place over a planet.[5]

Theoretical planetologists may use laboratory experiments to understand various phenomena analogous to planetary processes, such as convection in rotating fluids.[5]

Theoretical planetologists make extensive use of basic physics, particularly fluid dynamics and condensed matter physics, and much of their work involves interpretation of data returned by space missions, although they rarely get actively involved in them.[7]

Educational requirementsEdit

Typically a theoretical planetologist will have to have had higher education in physics and theoretical physics, at PhD doctorate level.[9][10]

Scientific visualisationEdit

Because of the use of scientific visualisation animation, theoretical planetology has a relationship with computer graphics. Example movies exhibiting this relation are the 4-minute "The Origin of the Moon"[8]

Major successesEdit

One of the major successes of theoretical planetology is the prediction and subsequent confirmation of volcanism on Io.[1][2]

The prediction was made by Stanton J. Peale who wrote a scientific paper claiming that Io must be volcanically active that was published one week before Voyager 1 encountered Jupiter. When Voyager 1 photographed Io in 1979, his theory was confirmed.[2] Later photographs of Io by the Hubble Space Telescope and from the ground also showed volcanoes on Io's surface, and they were extensively studied and photographed by the Galileo orbiter of Jupiter from 1995-2003.


D. C. Tozer of University of Newcastle upon Tyne,[11] writing in 1974, expressed the opinion that "it could and will be said that theoretical planetary science is a waste of time" until problems related to "sampling and scaling" are resolved, even though these problems cannot be solved by simply collecting further laboratory data.[12]


Researchers working on theoretical planetology include:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Mark, Hans (2003). Encyclopedia of Space Science & Technology. Wiley. p. 883. ISBN 0-471-32408-6.
  2. ^ a b c "Io's Volcanic Features". 1979-03-08. Retrieved 2009-05-21.
  3. ^ [1] Archived December 11, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b Celebonovic, V. (2000). "Semiclassical planetology : Some results". Publications de l'Observatoire Astronomique de Beograd. 67: 19. arXiv:astro-ph/0005117. Bibcode:2000POBeo..67...19C.
  5. ^ a b c "UCLA - Earth and Space Sciences - Research in Planetary Physics". 2008-04-16. Archived from the original on 2009-04-26. Retrieved 2009-05-21.
  6. ^ Visualizations that have been created with VisIt. at Updated: November 8, 2007
  7. ^ a b c [2] Archived August 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ a b "Présentation de la journée". Retrieved 2009-05-21.
  9. ^ [3][dead link]
  10. ^ Media Relations (2007-11-14). "Four from Caltech Named to National Academy of Sciences - Caltech". Archived from the original on 2007-08-14. Retrieved 2009-05-21.
  11. ^ Tozer, D. C. (1974). "The internal evolution of planetary-sized objects". The Moon. SpringerLink. 9 (1–2): 167–182. Bibcode:1974Moon....9..167T. doi:10.1007/BF00565402.
  12. ^ (page 169)
  13. ^ LARRY COPENHAVER Tucson Citizen (2006-09-15). "Small 'scope used in discovery of new planet". Retrieved 2009-05-21.
  14. ^ "Solar System Exploration: News & Events: News Archive". Archived from the original on 2008-10-07. Retrieved 2009-05-21.

External linksEdit