Is an MSc in Astrobiology a good idea?

The ExoMars rover at the University of Leicester

The ExoMars rover at the University of Leicester

Your opin­ion, counts but it’s all a bit complicated.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Leicester is in the early stages of cre­at­ing a new dis­tance learn­ing course run through its Interdisciplinary Science Centre. It’s at the very early stages and we’re dis­cuss­ing two options. One is an MSc in Astronomy, another is an MSc in Astrobiology. The reason the depart­ment is look­ing ser­i­ously at mak­ing an Astrobiology course is that it ties in with our research strengths. We’ve worked on the Beagle2 and ExoMars pro­jects and are act­ively search­ing for Extra-solar plan­ets. At the same time, we don’t know if Astrobiology is too spe­cial­ised a field to have a viable mar­ket and this is where you come in. Would you be more inter­ested in an Astronomy or Astrobiology course?

The course will mod­u­lar in struc­ture, and you will be able to work towards three sep­ar­ate levels of attain­ment by tak­ing the courses described below. The full MSc in Astrobiology will require 180 cred­its, but you can also get a Postgraduate Certificate in Astrobiology with 60 cred­its or a Postgraduate Diploma with 120.

We are still in the pro­cess of design­ing the course struc­ture, but the pre­lim­in­ary con­tent we are pro­pos­ing includes:

Building blocks of a Solar System (30 cred­its)
Currently most astro­bi­o­lo­gical scen­arios are based on planet or moon dwell­ing life. This mod­ule looks at cos­mo­logy and star form­a­tion pro­cesses. It then exam­ines how plan­ets and moons come to exist, as well as the cre­ation of the chem­ical ele­ments neces­sary for life. In par­tic­u­lar it draws upon cur­rent research based in our own solar sys­tem and com­pares it with obser­va­tions of other star systems.

Building Blocks of Life (30 cred­its)
What is life and what is neces­sary for life to exist? This mod­ule looks at the chem­ical basis for life and pos­sible explan­a­tions for abio­gen­esis. It will exam­ine the basis of the evol­u­tion­ary pro­cess and the oper­a­tions of basic single celled life. The nature of life as a com­plex sys­tem will also be explored as the basis for a dis­cus­sion of the likely pre­val­ence of life elsewhere.

Life in the Solar System (30 cred­its)
Belief in life on other worlds goes back to at least the time of ancient Greece. This mod­ule will include an exam­in­a­tion of the nature of argu­ments about life on other worlds in the past. The mod­ule will tackle cur­rent the­or­ies of pos­sible hab­it­ats for life in the Solar System as informed by recent res­ults from probes. It will also cover forth­com­ing pro­jects such as the ExoMars lander being built at the University of Leicester. The mod­ule will con­clude with a brief intro­duc­tion to recent extra­ter­restrial surveys.

Life bey­ond the Solar System (30 cred­its)
Is our Solar System typ­ical or Unique? This mod­ule will cover the dis­cov­ery and obser­va­tion of Exoplanets. How can we find plan­ets? What chal­lenges would life on the plan­ets have? Are there unin­ten­tional sig­nals that would reveal the exist­ence of life on a planet? Are we neces­sar­ily look­ing for Oxygen or a nar­row concept of Earth-like worlds?

Research Project (60 credits)

The out­come will be an MSc from an inter­na­tion­ally recog­nized uni­ver­sity that should equip you to start a PhD in Astrobiology. I can’t say that Leicester will be offer­ing Distance Learning PhDs, because that depends on the take up of the course.

The course can be taken in part or as a whole. Two mod­ules (60 cred­its) con­sti­tute a Postgraduate cer­ti­fic­ate; 120 cred­its a post­gradu­ate dip­loma and 180 cred­its an MSc. The cost for a cer­ti­fic­ate might be around £2500; for a dip­loma around £5000. The total cost for an MSc would be around £7500 (~$12,000 at cur­rent rates), and it would take two years.

This is an ini­tial call of interest, part of our pro­cess in design­ing the course. Bearing in mind the cost, please e-mail us if you are inter­ested in tak­ing a course like this.

Is hand­ing over your email address going to get you email? Yes it might. In set­ting up the course, our mar­ket­ing depart­ment may want to ask you fur­ther ques­tions about your interest in the course, and will nat­ur­ally con­tact you if the course is con­firmed for its launch date in Autumn 2012.

I should also add that if the price puts it out of reach (it’s out of reach for me at the moment) then please don’t send me an email to help get the course off the ground. It’ll take some invest­ment put­ting on a top-quality course and it’ll end up very badly for me if it turns out that 99% people who emailed weren’t even remotely interested.

If you’ve got any com­ments about the course itself, feel free to leave them below. At the moment this is draft stage so the idea would be to give the rough guides over to the experts and they’d say “No, this won’t work, let’s expand on this” and so on.

I know Astrobiology isn’t to everyone’s taste. If you like the cost, but would want to do a gen­eral MSc in Astronomy with Leicester instead then let me know. You can email me at con­tact [at] alun​salt​.com If you put MSc Astrobiology in the sub­ject title then it’s a help.


Update: April 15 2011

I’ll try and pick my words care­fully here as I do not speak on behalf of any depart­ment. There has been interest in the course, but prob­ably not enough to per­suade the depart­ment to run it at the moment. I’d rather not go into why as polit­ics of Higher Education is a mine­field at the best of times. The depart­ment and the uni­ver­sity are both lovely, and I’d like them to stay that way by giv­ing the impres­sion my per­sonal opin­ion of the HE envir­on­ment at the moment in any way reflects their opinion.

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