Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered over a thousand planets around nearby stars. Based on our current knowledge, it seems likely that there are millions of stars in the Galaxy that host Earth-sized planets in Earth-like orbits. What is the range of conditions for these planets to host life? In this course, students will engage with a wide range of concepts in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics with a focus on developing the background they will use need to think further about this profound question. We will explore the origin and evolution of life on Earth, particularly in extreme environments, the properties of planets and moons in our Solar System, the properties of stars and the newly discovered extrasolar planets.
Course assignments include two short papers describing proposed space missions to study nearby planets and to search for extrasolar planets and a final paper. In the final paper, students will have an opportunity to invent their own planetary system and describe it in terms of either the astronomy of how it was discovered, the properties of their planet and its host star, or the biology of life in the system. Papers will be circulated and evaluated by fellow students as part of the learning experience in the course; this will provide opportunities to develop students' abilities to think like a scientist by applying principles of scientific thinking, to learn new ideas from other students, and to creatively make new connections across different sciences and parts of the course.