Discover our neighbouring planet, Mars, and delve into the missions and mysteries surrounding life on the planet.

Life on Mars
  • Duration

    3 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours
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Take a front-row ride to the red planet

What’s it made of? Is there water there? Can we live there? These are the biggest questions experts are asking about Mars, and they’re getting ever closer to finding the answers.

On this three-week course, Dr Louisa Preston will take you on a tour of Mars, guiding you through the theories, evidence, and future plans surrounding the red planet.

Find out what it’s really like on Mars

With Mars being relatively close to Earth, in space terms at least, we’ve already managed to launch missions to the planet and build a picture of its history and makeup.

You’ll start by looking at the red planet against Earth, comparing the structure, environment, and weather of Mars with our home planet’s. You’ll then delve into the history of our neighbouring planet and discover the changes it has gone through, including the process of impact cratering.

Is there life on Mars?

While there isn’t any evidence of current life on Mars, some has been found that implies life could once have existed on the planet.

This course will guide you through the evidence for past water on Mars and how this could suggest, along with other findings, there was once life on the red planet. You’ll also take a broader look at the elements needed for life to thrive before examining the physical limits to life existing on Mars such as radiation, pH, and, of course, water.

Discover the many missions to Mars and what they found

So far, there have been roughly 50 missions sent to Mars, with around half of them being successful. Each mission has had its own purpose and used different tools and technologies to gather data.

Throughout this course, you’ll look at the search for life on Mars, delving into the missions sent to Mars to detect life and the evidence these missions have found that could imply past life on the planet.

Syllabus

  • Week 1

    Mars inside and out

    • Welcome to the course

      Mars might be the key to answering one of the most profound questions ever posed: Are we alone? And for us to start to answer this, we must first understand the geology and history of the planet.

    • Getting to know the Red Planet

      The fourth planet from the Sun is built a lot like the Earth. Here we will discover how similar our two worlds actually are and what that means for Mars’ potential to have hosted life.

    • The geological record on Mars

      Here we will explore the geological history of Mars and discuss the importance of studying the rocks of Mars to help us further understand the Earth.

    • Dating Mars

      How can you figure out the age of rocks on another planet without actually doing fieldwork in person on that planet? Here we will discover how we are using Martian meteorites and impact craters to date the Red Planet.

    • Weekly wrap-up

      Despite its similarities to Earth, Mars is a unique world that has undergone a lot of environmental change over time. Here we will recap key concepts and think about how we can apply them to our search for water on Mars next week.

  • Week 2

    Water

    • Welcome to Week 2

      This week we'll start to explore the availability of a key ingredient for life on Mars, water. Evidence suggests it flowed across the surface billions of years ago but has since disappeared. What happened to it? Where did it go?

    • Water on Mars

      Here we will focus on the properties of water and how this affects its stability on Mars. We will also explore the evidence for past liquid water activity on the surface and what this means for its ancient habitability.

    • Missions to Mars

      Here you will be introduced to the early explorations of Mars and complete a Peer Graded Assignment based on the missions sent in the search for water.

    • Mars today

      Mars today is a red and dusty world, a frozen dry vestige of the planet it used to be. Here we'll explore what happened to Mars’ surface liquid water, if there is still liquid water possible today, and what we're doing to find it.

    • Weekly wrap-up

      This week, you’ve learnt about the history of water on Mars, from a warmish wet world to a dry frozen one. Here we'll bring everything you’ve learnt about water together, ready for its application to the search for life next week.

  • Week 3

    Searching for life

    • Welcome to Week 3

      “Life on Mars?” is not just the name of one of David Bowie’s best songs. It is also the ultimate scientific question, one which I and many others are working to answer. This week we will explore how our work is progressing.

    • Mars habitability

      A toxic atmosphere, minimal oxygen and an average temperature of -63°C makes the surface of Mars seem rather inhospitable to life, especially humans. Yet here we'll explore whether there are in fact habitable environments on Mars.

    • Hunting for life on Mars

      Here we will bring earlier concepts together to look at the search for life on Mars, what we are looking for, and how the environment of Mars is throwing a spanner in the works.

    • Follow the carbon

      Previously, exploring Mars has been led by the premise ‘follow the water’. Now we've found water, we're ‘following the carbon’ in a bid to identify habitable environments on the planet, and maybe even find evidence of life itself.

    • Course wrap-up

      This week we have covered the search for evidence of life on Mars, both today and in the past. Now it is time to wrap-up and consolidate everything you have learned 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...

  • Compare the structure, environment and weather of Mars with Earth
  • Explain the significance of the geological history and environmental changes of Mars
  • Describe the process of impact cratering on Mars
  • Evaluate the evidence for past water on Mars
  • Evaluate the evidence the missions found and the implications for past life
  • Identify the different ways we can characterise water on other planets
  • Describe the elements needed for life
  • Discuss the physical limits to life existing on Mars
  • Describe the missions sent to Mars to detect life

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone interested in the fundamentals of astrobiology, particularly Mars and the search for life on the red planet.

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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