Since his childhood in the 1960s, author Richard Corfield has been fascinated with rocket travel and the vastness of outer space. Now a planetologist, Corfield offers his latest book, Lives of the Planets: A Natural History of the Solar System. In this accessible yet still very challenging overview of the current state of humankind's knowledge of the sun, the planets, asteroids and other heavenly bodies, Corfield deftly interpolates the important formative observations of the great early sky-watchers and physical theorists (Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Laplace, etc.). Yet the bulk of his text concerns the vast amounts of information gathered in the past 30 years by such unmanned deep-space probes as those in the Pioneer, Voyager and Galileo series.

Indeed, the spirit of such imaginative stargazers as the late Carl Sagan infuses this volume, with its enthusiastic technical descriptions of the sun and the nearer planets but more so of the further planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and its tantalizing consideration of the possibilities for carbon-based life that might one day be found amid the swirling mix of gaseous elements that make up much of what we know of our star system. (Titan, a moon of Saturn, emerges as a strong candidate for Sagan-like contact.) Corfield brings us up-to-date on the recent debate over Pluto's planetary status, offering an explanation of its 2006 redefinition as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union, its size (Pluto is smaller than our moon) and its maverick orbit being key deciding factors. Corfield also cues us in to the fact that Neptune, like Saturn, has rings (who knew?), and that the scientific community, now looking past poor Pluto, has focused its far-reaching gaze on such trans-Neptunian bodies as Eris and its moon, Dysnomia. Along the way, the author discusses in detail the competitive efforts between the two key California exploratory agencies, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Ames Research Center, which, in addition to the European Space Agency, have been primarily responsible for collecting much of the ongoing research data and photographic evidence. This thoughtfully conceived contemporary primer is a must-read for general readers with an interest in astronomy.

Martin Brady writes from Nashville.

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