The best books to learn about the planets and life outside the Earth

Who am I?

As a child I was fascinated by space, planets, and the stars. Now I am a planetary scientist who has been involved with NASA’s interplanetary missions for four decades. I am curious, passionate about space exploration and discovery, and have been in leadership roles on some of these missions. I am also passionate about communicating these discoveries to the public. Learn about the planets from an expert, an insider who was there in the thick of the action during key times and who wants to communicate this excitement to you.

I wrote...

Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar: A Guided Tour of the Solar System

By Bonnie J. Buratti,

Book cover of Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar: A Guided Tour of the Solar System

What is my book about?

Join Bonnie J. Buratti, a leading planetary astronomer, on this personal tour of NASA's latest discoveries. Moving through the Solar System from Mercury, Venus, Mars, past comets and asteroids and the moons of the giant planets, to Pluto, and on to exoplanets, she gives vivid descriptions of landforms that are similar to those found on Earth but that are more fantastic. Sulfur-rich volcanoes and lakes on Io, active gullies on Mars, huge ice plumes and tar-like deposits on the moons of Saturn, hydrocarbon rivers and lakes on Titan, and nitrogen glaciers on Pluto are just some of the marvels that await readers. Learn about the search for life on other planets, and discover what it is like to be involved in a major scientific enterprise, with all its pitfalls and excitement. 

This engaging account of modern space exploration is written for non-specialist readers, from students in high school to enthusiasts of all ages.

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The books I picked & why


By Carl Sagan,

Book cover of Cosmos

Why did I love this book?

Carl Sagan was my advisor and mentor at Cornell (where I got my PhD), and everything good about him shines through in this book: his scientific rigor and honesty, his skill at making complex subjects and ideas clear, and his excitement for discovery and exploration. Cosmos is an overview of where we came from, where we are going, how we are all “star stuff”, and of course, possible life outside the Earth.

By Carl Sagan,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Cosmos as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* Spacecraft missions to nearby planets
* The Library of ancient Alexandria
* The human brain
* Egyptian hieroglyphics
* The origin of life
* The death of the sun
* The evolution of galaxies
* The origins of matter, suns and worlds

The story of fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution transforming matter and life into consciousness, of how science and civilisation grew up together, and of the forces and individuals who helped shape modern science. A story told with Carl Sagan's remarkable ability to make scientific ideas both comprehensible and exciting.

Book cover of Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

Why did I love this book?

If you think astronomy is useless, read this book. Most asteroids dwell in the space between Mars and Jupiter, but every so often one gets flung into the inner Solar System on a collision course with Earth. Scientists believe the dinosaurs were wiped out when a 10-mile wide asteroid collided with the Earth. How often does this happen? We’re not sure. Should we worry? Yes. This engaging book describes NASA’s plans to search for these killers, to know how often they hit the Earth, and to destroy them before they destroy us.

By Donald K. Yeomans,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Near-Earth Objects as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Of all the natural disasters that could befall us, only an Earth impact by a large comet or asteroid has the potential to end civilization in a single blow. Yet these near-Earth objects also offer tantalizing clues to our solar system's origins, and someday could even serve as stepping-stones for space exploration. In this book, Donald Yeomans introduces readers to the science of near-Earth objects--its history, applications, and ongoing quest to find near-Earth objects before they find us. In its course around the sun, the Earth passes through a veritable shooting gallery of millions of nearby comets and asteroids. One…

Book cover of Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

Why did I love this book?

The search for life outside the Earth is NASA’s greatest quest, and this book will bring you up to speed on it. Just a few decades ago, scientists thought life arose on the Earth in shallow seas, warmed by the early sun and zapped by energy-producing lightning. The best place to look for alien life was on Mars, where bacterial life may have formed in the shallow pools that covered the young Mars, and then hunkered down in subsurface spots of Martian water and ice as these pools evaporated. Scientists now suspect life arose in warm vents deep in the Earth’s ocean. Subsurface oceans in the moons of the outer Solar System may contain similar vents that serve as breeding grounds for primitive life. Kevin Hand describes NASA’s current missions and instruments to find this life in alien oceans.

By Kevin Hand,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alien Oceans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inside the epic quest to find life on the water-rich moons at the outer reaches of the solar system

Where is the best place to find life beyond Earth? We often look to Mars as the most promising site in our solar system, but recent scientific missions have revealed that some of the most habitable real estate may actually lie farther away. Beneath the frozen crusts of several of the small, ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn lurk vast oceans that may have existed for as long as Earth, and together may contain more than fifty times its total volume…

Book cover of The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

Why did I love this book?

No planet has held our imagination as Mars has. From the “canals” observed by Percival Lowell, to the terraforming of the planet into an Earth-like world, we are just drawn to Mars, and expect to find ourselves on it. NASA still spends most of its effort in planetary exploration to finding life on Mars, and Sarah Stewart Johnson weaves her very personal story of how she got involved in that search alongside the scientific advancements of that search.

By Sarah Stewart Johnson,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Sirens of Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a new wave of interplanetary exploration unfolds, a talented young planetary scientist charts our centuries-old obsession with Mars.

'Beautifully written, emotive - a love letter to a planet' DERMOT O'LEARY, BBC Radio 2

Mars - bewilderingly empty, coated in red dust - is an unlikely place to pin our hopes of finding life elsewhere. And yet, right now multiple spacecraft are circling, sweeping over Terra Sabaea, Syrtis Major, the dunes of Elysium and Mare Sirenum - on the brink, perhaps, of a discovery that would inspire humankind as much as any in our history.

With poetic precision and grace,…

Book cover of The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

There can be no question greater than “Is there life outside the Earth?”. Sara Seager places her own search for planets outside the Earth - almost 5000 planets in other solar systems have been discovered in the past three decades, including Earth-like bodies - against her own life story and struggles as a scientist weathering the unexpected loss of a spouse and the raising of her two young sons. Astronomers estimate there are billions of undiscovered planets just in our Galaxy. Seager paints our very own Earth as a bright point of community and connection in the vastness of space as she gives a first-person account of the technical challenges of seeking other planets and life elsewhere.

By Sara Seager,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Smallest Lights in the Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology in 2020

'A stunningly original memoir ... her most human tale of love, loss and redemption is illuminated and given meaning by this backdrop. A beautiful and compelling read' Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

In The Smallest Lights in the Universe, MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager interweaves the story of her search for meaning and solace after losing her first husband to cancer, her unflagging search for an Earth-like exoplanet and her unexpected discovery of new love.

Sara Seager has made it her life's work to peer…

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