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Frontiers in Astrobiology


  • Credit value: 15 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor and tutor: Dr Andrew Rushby
  • Assessment: a 3000-word essay/report (50% each) and 2.5-hour examination (50%)

Module description

In this module we build on topics introduced in the Level 5 module Introduction to Astrobiology to provide a more detailed overview of our current and rapidly evolving understanding of the distribution of life in the galaxy. This includes the search for habitable environments and life on solar system objects and distant exoplanets, analogue studies and lab-based experiments on Earth, as well as research outlining the history of life on Earth and modelling studies undercovering life’s biogeochemical limits. We will also discuss the future of human and robotic space exploration of habitable environments and the search for life in the solar system and beyond, while encouraging you to consider the historical development and philosophical context of astrobiology research.

Indicative syllabus

  • The co-evolution of life and the planet: biogeochemical and climatological feedbacks, atmospheric and geochemical evolution of terrestrial planets, mass-extinction events and the palaeontological record of life on Earth
  • Habitability I: the astronomical habitable zone, habitability metrics, temporal habitability
  • Habitability II: habitable environments beyond the HZ, alternative biochemistries, extremophiles
  • Solar system I: astrobiological investigations of Mars - past/current/future missions etc.
  • Solar system II: astrobiological surveys of the solar system planets and moons (excl. Mars) - past/current/future missions etc.
  • Exoplanet characterisation I: (observations) mass/radius relations, statistical methods, atmospheric spectroscopy, exoplanet 'weather'
  • Exoplanet characterisation II: (theory and modelling) exoplanet climate/geophysical modelling and exoplanet systems science
  • Biosignatures: history, examples, techniques, controversies, current/future prospects
  • Technosignatures and SETI: history, rationale, potential examples, techniques (active, passive) etc.
  • Philosophical concepts in astrobiology, including, for example: the anthropic principle, the Rare Earth and Gaia hypotheses, as well as the potential social and economic impacts of the discovery of life and habitable environments elsewhere in the Solar System and/or beyond

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to demonstrate:

  • knowledge of our current understanding of the distribution of life, and the varied methods and techniques involved in the search for life and habitable environments, in the solar system and beyond
  • knowledge and understanding of the landscape of possibilities for the future astrobiological exploration of the solar system and beyond.