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Planetary science and the search for life

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This module tackles fundamental questions about our solar system. How did it form and how has it evolved? Why aren’t all the planets like Earth? How and why did life arise on Earth? Has life arisen elsewhere in the Solar System or beyond, and could it be intelligent? You’ll look at the exploration of the Solar System by spacecraft; planetary processes such as volcanism and impacts; the structure of planets and their atmospheres; and asteroids, comets and meteorites. You’ll use web-based resources and electronic conferencing extensively. Although the module is intended for a wide range of people, a background in science is required.

What you will study

The module comprises two parts, each consisting of a full-colour book. Web-based material supports and extend the two parts and is an integral part of the module.

An Introduction to the Solar System: we begin with a look at our own Solar System, examining the layout of the planets and their basic physical properties. You will learn about the structure and origin of the Solar System, and about the differences and similarities between Solar System bodies, from meteorites, asteroids and comets to the giant gas planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. You will also see how planetary processes such as impact cratering and volcanism have shaped the surfaces of many bodies in the Solar System, and explore the processes at work in the atmospheres of both terrestrial and giant planets. Throughout this first part, you will see how our knowledge has been added to from a wide range of space missions.

A range of activities support this first part, including extensive computer and web-based activities. For example, you will use computer spreadsheets to investigate some of the theoretical ideas that are presented in the module. The web provides a source of up-to-date information about planetary geology, space missions and experiments, and we will keep you abreast of developments by links to relevant web-based material on the module website.

An Introduction to Astrobiology: Earth, given our present state of knowledge, is unique in that it sustains a diverse range of life. But how does a habitable planet arise, and what are the chances of other earth-like planets elsewhere in the Universe? These are the exciting topics of a rapidly advancing field of planetary science known as astrobiology. We begin this second part with a look at how life might have arisen on earth, where the basic building blocks for life came from and how widespread these might be in the Universe. You will learn about other bodies in our own solar system that may have the right conditions for life, and examine how we might go about deciding if there is, or has ever been, life elsewhere in the Solar System. Moving on from our own solar system, we will examine the methods used to assess and characterise planets around other stars and consider what proportion of these may be capable of sustaining life. Finally, we will examine the possibility of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the Universe and look at humankind’s attempts to search for it.

Entry requirements

The module is intended for a wide range of people, so the amount of mathematics is modest: it includes simple algebra and graphs; powers of ten; graphs showing relationships between values of two quantities. Angles measured in both degrees and radians, and the sine and cosine of an angle occur in the text in several places. Several algebraic equations are used, but you have to manipulate only a handful of fairly simple equations. You must be able to put values into algebraic equations to obtain a result, and we give you practice in solving such problems. You do not have to remember lengthy equations and the values of physical constants, as they will be given in the examination paper. You must be competent with a scientific calculator; if you are not, you will need to refer to your calculator manual.

With proper preparation, this module is suitable for those who want to develop their understanding of planetary science: anyone who has a general interest; amateur geologists and astronomers; and schoolteachers (at all levels) who want to use the enormous appeal of the subject matter to enhance their teaching of science.

An appropriate level of mathematical knowledge as well as scientific and study skills can be obtained by studying the OU level 1 modules: Questions in science (S111) and Physics and space (SM123). Essential mathematics 1 (MST124) is another option; this exceeds the level of mathematics required for S283, but you will need to study this module if you are planning to study OU Level 3 modules in physics and astronomy.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The STEM Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For S283? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

You'll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials and activities
  • audio and video content
  • assessment details and submission section/li>
  • online tutorial access
  • access to discussion forums.

You'll also be provided with two printed module books, each covering one of the two parts of study.

You will need

A scientific calculator.

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either an up-to-date version of Windows or macOS.

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a personal tutor and you will be a member of a tutorial group. You'll have extensive communications with your tutor and fellow students through email and the online discussion forum. If you're new to the OU, your tutor can provide additional assistance with your study skills.

The module is taught via a combination of online and face-to-face tutorials. We aim to provide face-to-face tutorials in a range of locations students can travel to, though we cannot guarantee availability close to where you live. Online alternatives may also be provided, and recordings of these will typically be made available to students.

Student numbers on the module, and where tutors are based, will affect the locations of where tutorials are held, and what online alternatives are provided. We cannot guarantee that face-to-face tutorials will be hosted in specific locations, or locations that have been used previously. While you're not obliged to attend any of these tutorial events, you are strongly encouraged to take part.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.

Assessment

The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

The TMAs are designed to provide you with regular, targeted feedback in order to help you learn and to assess your own progress towards meeting the learning outcomes. You are required to send answers to your tutor in response to detailed questions and problems that address the various topics studied throughout the module.

Your final module result will be determined by the marks you achieve in your examination. However, you will also need to achieve a certain standard in your TMAs in order to pass the module.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S283 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Planetary science and the search for life (S283) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2020.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2022.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
Examination
No residential school

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