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] alunsalt.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.