• The Open University


Explore the many moons of our Solar System. Find out what makes them special and ask whether we send humans to our Moon again.

60,436 enrolled on this course

A collection of moons of different sizes and colours floating in space


60,436 enrolled on this course

  • 8 weeks

  • 3 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

Find out more about how to join this course

Discover the amazing diversity of moons in our Solar System

There are lots of moons in our Solar System. The Earth is the only planet with just a single moon. Some are bigger than ours. Many are much smaller. Some moons have ongoing volcanic eruptions. Others have rivers of liquid methane. A small handful may even be home to primitive life.

This online course will allow you to explore the rich diversity of moons in our Solar System. With experts from The Open University, you’ll explore the fundamental processes that have shaped them, and the relationship between our Moon and the Earth.

The course was produced with the kind support of Dangoor Education.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds NARRATOR: This course introduces and celebrates the amazing diversity of moons in our Solar System, drawing on the unique teaching and research expertise of the Open University.

Skip to 0 minutes and 19 seconds JOHAN ZARNECKI: Every time I see Titan, I find it incredible to think that something we designed and built is sitting there on the surface. It’s there now. It will always be there.

Skip to 0 minutes and 30 seconds NARRATOR: With specially filmed contributions from moon experts from around the world.

Skip to 0 minutes and 35 seconds CHRISTIEN SHUPLA: When you get to the gas giants - the large, bloated planets that go around our Sun - they have immense amounts of gravity, and their wide orbits have enabled them to pick up many moons. Some of them probably formed in orbit around the planets. Others are captured asteroids and comets.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds MICHELE DOUGHERTY: This is the image that we took when went really close to Enceladus, and you can clearly see this large plume of water vapour coming off from the south pole. There are ice crystals, and there are organic compounds, the basic building blocks of life.

Skip to 1 minute and 6 seconds NARRATOR: Having examined a variety of very different moons, their origin, and their past and present activity, the course goes on to investigate the different ways that scientists study moons from highly sophisticated technology used on space probes to the incredible Apollo missions that sent 12 human beings to explore our own Moon.

Skip to 1 minute and 28 seconds SARAH NOBLE: I always remember coming home one night, I had been working late in the lab dealing with lunar samples, and I looked down and saw that my hands were sparkling in the moon light, and I realized that it was moon dust on my hands. And I looked up, and I thought, this dirt came from there.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds NARRATOR: Accessible even if you’re new to the subject, the course includes special, interactive elements allowing you to study Moon rocks using a virtual microscope and even to challenge the computer to a game of Moon Trumps. Towards the end of the eight weeks, the course asks some of the big questions about the likelihood of any moons hosting habitable environments as well as exploring the remarkable discovery of water on our own Moon.

Skip to 2 minutes and 14 seconds PAUL SPUDIS: Finding water, it not only enables human life to have a foothold in space, it also permits you to create a space transportation system that’s reusable and extensible.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds NARRATOR: Finishing the course, will leave you with insights into the often dramatic processes that shape the moons of our Solar System and the ingenious ways that scientists can study them.


  • Week 1

    What are moons?

    • Getting started

      Meet scientists describing their fascination with moons. Discuss the implications of finding life on a moon. Meet Jessica, your course guide. Take a tour through the Solar System and find out how much you already know about moons.

    • Moons and their orbits

      Learn about orbits and rotation of moons. Find out what sorts of bodies can have moons. Learn about the Moon's phases, and apply what you have learned to a question about the crescent Moon seen from the Equator.

    • How moons are formed, and tides

      Explore the origins of moons, including Earth's Moon, and how moons influence other bodies. Find out how tidal forces can keep moons geologically active.

  • Week 2

    Looking at moons

    • Moons and what they’re made of

      Like planets, moons can have an internal layered structure: a core, mantle and crust. At Jupiter and beyond, the outer part of each moon is ice that behaves like rock. How do moons get their names?

    • Craters

      Galileo discovered lunar craters in the 1600s but the debate about how they were formed was resolved only in the 20th century. Learn how different crater shapes and sizes come about, and have a go at classifying real Moon craters.

    • Making craters

      Watch an impact on the Moon in March 2013, one of hundreds detected by a NASA-led initiative since 2005. What determines crater size? Choose different impactor and target properties, and see what happens!

  • Week 3

    Looking closer

    • Volcanism on moons

      Find out about ancient volcanism on the Moon and elsewhere, as well as present-day hot volcanism on Io and icy volcanism on Enceladus. Discover the heat source that keeps such small bodies active.

    • Europa

      Explore Europa, Jupiter's icy moon that probably has an ocean below the surface. Could there be life there?

    • Small moons

      Small moons have too little gravity to pull themselves into spherical shape. Meet the tiny moons of Mars, moons orbiting asteroids, Saturn’s diverse moons (big and small), and gear up for the first visit to Pluto's moons.

  • Week 4

    Our Moon

    • Introducing the Moon

      Introducing the only moon you can see with the naked eye, how does it measure up against the others, what’s under the surface and how far away is it? What did early missions to the Moon discover, and why would we want to return?

    • Going to the Moon

      Learn about the space race, and one of the iconic moments in history when humankind first stood on the Moon. See what it was like to walk on the Moon and some experiments the astronauts undertook, like the ‘hammer and feather'.

    • Bringing it home

      The astronauts really did risk their lives, as Apollo 13 demonstrated, but they successfully landed and returned six times. Moon rock amounting to 382 kg was returned to Earth and stored in special conditions for scientific study.

  • Week 5

    What we learned from the Moon

    • Moon rocks

      Rocks are the key evidence for the Moon’s story. The meteorite-battered lunar highland rocks are more ancient than anything on Earth, and the ancient volcanoes on the Moon are better preserved than many modern volcanoes on Earth.

    • Moon rocks under the microscope

      The Moon rocks are stored at NASA, apart from fragments loaned to scientists for study. However the virtual microscope makes it possible to study Moon rocks up close and discover for yourself what they can teach us about the Moon.

    • How old is the Man in the Moon?

      How much do we know of the history of the Moon? Scientists have used both cratering density and direct dating of Moon rocks to measure the ages of events on the Moon including periods of heavy meteorite bombardment, and volcanism.

  • Week 6

    Water on the Moon

    • Dry Moon

      Scientists had long debated the presence of water, but the Apollo missions appeared to settle the matter – the Moon rocks were dry. In the few cases where water was detected, it appeared to be terrestrial contamination.

    • Wet Moon

      After the Apollo missions the debate over water on the Moon continued. Satellites orbiting the Moon in the last few years have discovered tiny amounts of water in ice within craters at the poles and locked up in rare minerals.

    • More water on the Moon and its significance

      The discovery of water was significant to more than a few academics. Water is key to human life and as a potential fuel. The presence does open new opportunities for habitation and long-distance space travel.

  • Week 7

    Exploring moons

    • How have we done so far?

      Find out about the missions that gave us our first close-up views of distant moons: Voyagers 1 and 2, Galileo and Cassini-Huygens. Learn why probes are crashed into giant planets rather than risk crashing into a moon.

    • Titan – a moon with seas of methane

      Titan is the only moon on which we have landed a probe, apart from our own Moon, and it has a dense atmosphere which makes it hard to see the surface from orbit.

    • Some other icy moons

      Compare Rhea, Miranda and Ariel - three varied icy moons.

  • Week 8

    Moons and the future

    • Moons and the future

      What does, or should, the future hold for moons exploration?

    • Life, but as we know it?

      How can life be defined and detected? What conditions does life require? Which moons are most likely to contain habitable environments?

    • Wrapping it all up

      Thoughts on moons, and that all-important end-of-course test.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Develop an awareness of the nature and diversity of moons in our Solar System, and their significance
  • Explain and understand the general nature of moons’ orbits and the effects of tides
  • Describe some of the possible origins of moons
  • Describe the compositions and nature of the surfaces and interiors of moons
  • Calculate and understand how impact craters are formed and recognise their significance for dating surfaces
  • Describe the nature and history of volcanic activity on several moons
  • Assess and be aware of which moons may have subsurface oceans, and the implications for hosting native life
  • Classify and become aware of the history of manned and unmanned lunar exploration, and of some of the major discoveries
  • Identify and recognise aspects of lunar samples seen under the microscope
  • Describe the different settings in which ‘water’ has been found on the Moon
  • Describe and be aware of the history of discovery and exploration of moons, and of future prospects
  • Reflect and suggest ways in which resources from the Moon may help future space exploration

Who is the course for?

An interest in learning about the moons of our Solar System and the methods used to understand them. Prior knowledge of astronomy is not expected.

Who will you learn with?

Prof of Planetary Geosciences, Open Univ
Moons Educator
Moons (2015) OUP
Planet Mercury (2014) Springer
Planets (2010) OUP

Mentor Moons and Orion on FL, Astronomy on Coursera. Have Extra Class Radio License, talked with International Space Station. Enjoy hiking, travel, astronomy, & geology. BA, MA, JD.

Who developed the course?

The Open University

As the UK’s largest university, The Open University (OU) supports thousands of students to achieve their goals and ambitions via supported distance learning, helping to fit learning around professional and personal life commitments.

  • Established

  • Location

    Milton Keynes, UK
  • World ranking

    Top 510Source: Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020

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