Friday, January 27, 2012

7 Quick Takes- Astronomy vs Planetary Science

So priest's wife talks about her husband and what he does.  I thought I would explain some of what hubby does because I think thus far I've been rather vague about it.

Think of the bold as the most commonly asked questions and the regular text as the responses he gives.

1) So what do you do for a living?- I'm a planetary scientist.

2) I have this strange bush in my yard.  It looks like X,Y,Z.  What is it?- That's botany.  Planetary science is Earth, Mars, Venus...

3) Oh, so about that group of stars up there.  What is that?- Um, I'm not sure.  That's astronomy.  I really should know my constellations, but I don't.

4) Okay.  So if I want to point my telescope to Venus?- Um, I think it's over there.  I should know, but I study meteorites.  I don't work with telescopes.

5) So if you don't work with telescopes, what the heck do you do?- I work in a lab.  *Me interjecting* He used to work in the basement.  It's really cold down there.

6) A lab?- Yeah, I take meteorites and I heat them up in a furnace and I date them.  It's like carbon dating except I study potassium decaying to argon or argon- argon dating.  I can't tell you exactly the age of the rock, but I can tell you the last impact it had.  *me again* He means the last time something hit it.  You see meteorites are usually parts of an asteroid.  What he does fits into the overall picture of how old exactly the solar system is.

7) So let me spell it out for you.  Astronomy studies things outside the solar system and planetary science is all about stuff in the solar system.  Knee's godmother is an astronomer.  She studies outer planets.  That is planets not in our solar system and she works with telescopes.  Hubby is a planetary scientist.  He works with rocks from space either meteorites or lately lunar rocks.  He works in a lab with tiny samples.  There are amateurs out there who can run a telescope better than he can.  Also all those missions to Mars and stuff.  Those are run by planetary scientists not astronomers (although they have their own stuff too).  Hubby's former roommate was on the Phoenix mission.  So does it make sense now?


  1. When I determine an age for a meteorite it's usually dating an event like this...

    That's a painting by Bill Hartmann (scientists can be artists too!), who does stuff similar to what I do (we both got the same degree from the same university).

    Here's the page that image is from (it's halfway down the page)

  2. That was quite funny because I'm sure I would have asked the same questions!! (Except for the what is plant x,y,z). Interesting work your hubby does!

  3. I'm confused. I thought astronomy included everything in the solar system and everything beyond it.

    1. yes and no. Prior to our advances in the sciences, astronomy was mostly limited to our solar system. Think Galileo and Copernicus.

      As our telescopes have gotten better and we're able to capture more images from further away, science departments have changed.

      Depending on what university you are at, some like the University of Arizona and the University of Washington divide astronomy as one department limited to stuff beyond the solar system and planetary science as stuff only in the solar system. There is some over lap. If you study meteorites you could also be put in the physics department or in the geology department in a more interdisciplinary capacity.

      But that's not true of all departments. Some schools are really small and have budding programs. Arizona State University, for example, groups planetary science, earth science, and astro physics/chemistry under one department called SESE or School of Earth and Space Exploration. This big heading is then broken down into earth sciences (which has a few geologists), planetary science (which has meteoritists and asteroid people), and astronomy people (which includes cosmologists aka star people and astro physics etc). But they all work in the same group for the same small number of guys.

      So technically yes planetary science is part of astronomy but as far as talking about career paths, they study different things. Have I still confused you?

  4. Okay, so it meant about the way departments in universities are separated and things like that. I think I'm less confused now, thank you.


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