The MPhil in Planetary Sciences and Life in the Universe (PSLU) is a 10-month cross-departmental programme designed to deliver outstanding postgraduate level training in the search for life’s origins on Earth and its discovery on planets beyond Earth.
We trace the requirements for life’s origins from its astrophysical beginnings to the emergence of biospheres, providing the essential knowledge for you to be research-active in planetary science and life in the Universe.
The course structure has been designed by leading scientists to provide you with the theoretical knowledge, practical experience, and transferable skills required to undertake world-leading research in Planetary Sciences and Life in the Universe. You will graduate equipped with the discipline-specific specialisations and skills of a masters course, whilst gaining understanding in how the core areas that bridge PSLU fields form the cross-disciplinary foundation of this exciting new frontier.
You will follow one of four pathways (astrophysics, biology, chemistry, or earth sciences) according to the focus of your first degree. All students follow the core themes providing the essential multidisciplinary foundation for planetary science and Life in the Universe, and you will take the advanced modules deepening your expertise in subjects from your particular pathway. Three group projects will give you research, communication and collaboration experience.
The taught element comprises two module types: core modules which trace the requirements for life’s origins from its astrophysical origins to the emergence of biospheres, providing the essential knowledge to be research-active in planetary science and life in the Universe; and advanced modules specific to the academic pathway followed (astrophysics, biology, chemistry, or Earth sciences), which allow for you to deepen your knowledge in an area you are competent in from your first degree. You will be required to take: 4 core modules and at least 2 pathway-specific advanced modules.
The core modules will be taught in Michaelmas and Lent terms. They will cover the main material that all students are expected to master in planetary science and life in the universe: the origin of planets, the origin of habitable environments, the origin and detection of life, and the evolution of biospheres. These core modules will equip students with the essential knowledge to lead multidisciplinary research in this field.
The pathway-specific advanced modules will be taught in Michaelmas and Lent terms. The pathways are: Astrophysics, Earth Science, Chemistry, Biology.
The selection of advanced modules offered will be updated annually to respond to changes in the research landscape. Options in each pathway will cover advanced topics that allow a deepening of your training from your first degree.
Each student will belong to one of four academic pathways:
Astrophysics, Earth Sciences, Chemistry, Biology.
They reflect the diversity of science contributing to planetary science and life in the Universe. Your pathway will be determined by the field of study in your first degree, which allow for you to deepen your knowledge in a field you are competent in. Your selection of pathway should be specified as part of your application (see ‘How to Apply’ for details of what to include).
The selection of advanced modules offered will be updated annually to respond to changes in the research landscape and are contributed by experts from participating departments. There may be a different number of modules running for each pathway, according to their respective durations, combining to broadly the same study hours.
The following are example pathways with module titles that have been previously delivered by departments contributing to the course. These are only indicative and subject to change year on year.
Physics of the earth as a planet
Extrasolar planets atmospheres and interiors
Probing lithospheric dynamics
Earth system and climate change
Computer simulation methods
Atmospheric chemistry & global change
Evolution of mammals
You will engage in three group-based projects providing key skills for research in life in the universe and careers beyond academia. Over the course of the year you will develop and present a funding proposal, engage in a scientific communication challenge and, as the major project work for the year, perform a multi-disciplinary investigation of the habitability of a planetary system.
Prospecting for Habitability
The major research project for the year will place you in a small group to evaluate a planetary system for the prospects for life’s emergence and continuation. You will be encouraged to think as broadly as possible about the factors contributing to habitability, which in your group could, for example, lead you to considering the effect of stellar winds on atmospheric photochemistry, or how the composition of exotic planetary crusts will shift the balance of aqueous geochemistry. This project will equip you with outstanding analytical, communication, and collaboration skills to lead future work, whether in this highly-interdisciplinary field or beyond.
Obtaining the resources to realise your research and innovation goals is often key to success. This is true whether you want to pursue a novel experiment, obtain telescope time, or are competing for a fellowship or job. In this project you will work in a team to write and present a funding proposal, developing your ability to powerfully motivate and convince colleagues of your ideas.
The field of planetary science and life in the universe has huge popular appeal, ranging from interest in our exploration of Mars, the discovery of the earliest life on Earth, out to the alien nature of exoplanetary systems. Public communication of the outstanding narratives to emerge from research in these areas is an exciting challenge and privilege of working in this field. In this project, you will work as a team to communicate a major result in this field. In so doing you will hone your science communication and oral presentation skills, setting you up excellently to present specialist topics to wide audiences.
Origin of Planets
How can we probe planetary systems around other stars?
What is the origin of planetary systems and how do they assemble?
What is the pre-history of planetary systems?
Planets are the cradles for life, but what properties do they need to have to enable life to emerge and evolve? This question is rooted in the astrophysical origin of planets, from the composition of their building blocks, the dynamics of their assembly in protoplanetary disks, through to the magma ocean processes that redistribute elements shortly after formation.
We explore this theme in the first term of the core course and the planetary habitability project can come back to this, considering the likelihood of habitable planets forming in other astrophysical contexts.
Origin of Habitable Environments
How do planets maintain stable climates?
How do planetary interiors connect with their surfaces?
What is the diversity of rocky worlds in the solar system?
What are the processes that take a planet from its bare rocky state immediately after formation, to a lush and verdant world? In this theme we are interested in the planetary geological processes that create and maintain planetary habitability. This is a journey that begins at the centre of the planet, with its core and magnetic field generation, out to the surface through volcanism, tectonics, and into the atmosphere. Earth and solar system planets provide essential case studies of these processes working out favourably and unfavourably for life.
This theme is focussed on in the first term of the course and may return during the planetary habitability challenge.
Origin & Detection of Life
How does geochemistry transition to prebiotic chemistry?
What is the history of life on Earth?
How does life impact planets?
Life on Earth, its present state and history, is the keystone to our search for life in the solar system and elsewhere. This theme is focussed on understanding those core aspects of life that help us understand its environmental requirements and the conditions that may allow it to emerge from geochemistry in the first place. To answer these questions we need to look back over billions of years, to how life has changed on Earth, and down to the smallest molecular scales of life, to understand its fundamental building blocks.
Developing this molecular understanding of life is also the first step to finding it in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets. Here, we are searching for the fingerprint of life in the mixture of gases in planetary atmospheres.
This theme runs in the second term of the core course and can be reflected in the habitability challenge project work.
Origin & evolution of Biospheres
How might pre-biotic to biotic transitions occur?
How do atmospheres participate in the origin and maintenance of life?
How can we find biospheres on other planets?
The co-evolution of life and the planet it resides on creates biospheres, the realm of large-scale interconnected biological and planetary phenomena. It is by life acting at this scale that we may eventually detect its presence on other worlds, and find evidence of its past activity in the composition of ancient sediments on Earth. This theme seeks to understand life as a planetary phenomenon.
This theme runs in the second term and may be part of the planetary habitability project.
Core modules trace the requirements for life’s origins from its astrophysical origins to the emergence of biospheres, providing the essential knowledge for you to be research-active in planetary science and life in the Universe:
- The origin of Planets – link to faculty on research pages. — for each of the bullet points
- The origin of habitable Environments
- The origin & Detection of Life
- The origin and evolution of biospheres