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.

The books I picked & why

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By Carl Sagan,

Book cover of Cosmos

Why 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.

Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

By Donald K. Yeomans,

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

Why 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.

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

By Kevin Hand,

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

Why 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.

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

By Sarah Stewart Johnson,

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

Why 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.

The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

By Sara Seager,

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

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Mars, widows, and extraterrestrial life?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Mars, widows, and extraterrestrial life.

Mars Explore 47 books about Mars
Widows Explore 37 books about widows
Extraterrestrial Life Explore 99 books about extraterrestrial life

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Life on Mars, The Barsoom Series: A Princess of Mars; Gods of Mars; Warlord of Mars; Thuvia, Maid of Mars; Chessmen of Mars; M, and Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe if you like this list.