Explore the potential for life on icy moons, what exoplanets look like, and the role biosignatures play in the search for life.

Icy Moons and Exoplanets
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    3 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours
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Not so long ago on exoplanets far, far away

There are billions of stars outside our solar system, many with planets of their own orbiting them. Exoplanets are these planets that exist outside our solar system.

On this three-week course, Dr Louisa Preston will take you through what exoplanets look like, as well as the structure of icy moons, and the likelihood of either supporting life.

What lies beneath the icy shells of Europa and Enceladus?

Without having any probes land on the icy moons Europa and Enceladus, it’s difficult to be certain of the environments they hold.

You’ll discuss the theories of what lies beneath the icy shells of these moons, as well as the potential they both have for habitability. With missions in the works to send probes to both Europa and Enceladus, you’ll explore the opportunities and challenges these future missions face.

What makes an exoplanet Earth-like?

Earth is an extremely special phenomenon; a perfectly balanced environment for cultivating and maintaining life. So far, we haven’t discovered any other planet like ours, but the search continues beyond our solar system.

You’ll investigate what exoplanets are and the different types that we’ve discovered. You’ll then look at the criteria that an exoplanet needs to meet to be considered Earth-like and what they might be able to tell us about life on earth and beyond.

Follow the search for extraterrestrial life

Starting closer to home, you’ll explore the special nature of the icy moon Titan’s structure and environment, and delve into the different environments on Titan that could host life.

This course will then guide you through the different biosignatures that experts search for when investigating exoplanets. With this knowledge, you’ll design and justify alien life, theorising a lifeform that could hypothetically live on an exoplanet.

Syllabus

  • Week 1

    Icy moons

    • Welcome to the course

      Let’s begin with an overview of what you’ll be learning this week before we delve into the details of three different icy moons.

    • Europa

      Our first look at an icy moon takes us to Europa, belonging to the gas giant Jupiter.

    • Enceladus

      Next, we’ll hone in on Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon.

    • Titan

      Finally, we’ll take a look at Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and I’ll be chatting to Dr Melissa Trainer all about her work for NASA’s Dragonfly mission.

    • Weekly wrap-up

      Here we'll recap some key concepts and look forward to next week, where we'll be exploring the edges of the Solar System and the stars beyond.

  • Week 2

    Leaving the Solar System

    • Welcome to Week 2

      This week we’ll explore the edges of the Solar System, including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, and the stars beyond. We’ll also consider the role of stars in searching for exoplanets.

    • The edges of the Solar System

      They may be far away from the Earth in distance, but could Neptune, Uranus or Pluto sustain life? Let’s find out! We’ll also explore smaller bodies, like comets and asteroids, and follow the journeys of the Voyager probes.

    • What lies beyond...

      Here we will consider whether humans will ever leave the Solar System, and what we’d have to cross to leave it. We’ll also take a first look at exoplanets in preparation for Week 3.

    • Star light, star bright

      Let’s look to the stars! We’ll start with our very own Sun, before we move on to how stars work, their different types and how they help us to navigate the universe.

    • Weekly wrap-up

      Here we’ll recap some key concepts and look forward to next week, where we'll be exploring the faraway worlds of exoplanets.

  • Week 3

    Exoplanets

    • Welcome to Week 3

      This week we will explore exoplanets in all their glory: what do they look like? How do we detect them? What are we searching for there? And what are the goals of future missions to find them?

    • The diversity of exoplanets

      Exoplanets aren’t all the same! Here we will explore some of the different categories, including hot Jupiters, hot Neptunes and Super-Earths.

    • A second Earth

      What is the likelihood of another Earth-like planet, an ‘Earth 2.0’? Here we’ll explore the criteria it would have to meet, and the types of life it might hold if the conditions were right.

    • Hunting for exoplanets

      Today, scientists think that most stars have at least one exoplanet – we just have to find them! Here we’ll look at methods for this, as well as past and future missions.

    • Course wrap-up

      Now you’ve learnt all about exoplanets, it’s time to wrap-up and consolidate everything you have learnt in this course.

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Learning on this course

You can take this self-guided course and learn at your own pace. On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Investigate why exoplanets are so important
  • Explain the significance of gas giants in the investigation of/search for Exoplanets
  • Compare the main categories of exoplanet
  • Describe the criteria to be considered an Earth-like planet
  • Define the biosignatures searched for when investigating exoplanets
  • Design and justify an extraterrestrial lifeform in accordance with given parameters
  • Summarise key milestones in the history of searching for exoplanets
  • Compare the key methods for searching for exoplanets
  • Summarise the history and future of missions to exoplanets

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone interested in the fundamentals of astrobiology, particularly the icy moons of our solar system, Exoplanets and whether life exists outside our star system.

It will be especially useful to university applicants looking to identify areas that they’d like to specialise in and STEM teachers looking to bring science to life for their students.

Who will you learn with?

I am an astrobiologist, geologist, and author at the Natural History Museum in London. I am also on the science team for the European Space Agency ExoMars 2022 Mars rover ‘Rosalind Franklin'.

Who developed the course?

FutureLearn

FutureLearn is jointly owned by The Open University and The SEEK Group and has been providing online courses for learners around the world over the last eight years.

About this ExpertTrack

Discover the fascinating field of astrobiology; study life on earth, space exploration, and how they intersect.

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