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Planetary science and the search for life

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

You'll need a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of 64-bit Windows 10 (note that Windows 7 is no longer supported) or macOS and broadband internet access.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.

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 2022.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2024.

Course work includes:

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

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