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Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Charles Cockell

Learn about the origin and evolution of life and the search for life beyond the Earth.

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Next Session:

Jan 28th 2013 (5 weeks long) You are enrolled!
Workload: 3-4 hours/week

About the Course

Over two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks wondered if other worlds were habitable. In the coming years this question will be experimentally tested. This course is an introduction to astrobiology. It explores the origin and evolution of life on the Earth and its potential to exist elsewhere. Astrobiology addresses compelling questions of wide interest such as: How did life originate on the Earth? Is this an inevitable process and is life common across the Universe? Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary science that bridges fields as diverse as astrophysics, biology, geosciences and chemistry.

In this course we will explore what we know about life’s ability to live in extreme environments on the Earth, we will look at different hypotheses for how it originated. We will look at some of the missions to search for life in our own Solar System and on planets orbiting distant stars. We will discuss some of the extreme environments on the Earth that help us understand the limits of life and how life has adapted to cope with extremes. We will explore the possibility of intelligent alien life and some of the implications of its detection. The course will provide a foundation in astrobiology and introduce students to concepts in a diversity of scientific fields.

About the Instructor(s)

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh. He received his doctorate at the University of Oxford and was a National Research Council Associate at the NASA Ames Research Centre. He was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and the University of Arizona. Cockell is currently Director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology and his research interests focus on how microbes survive in extreme environments, including volcanic and impact crater environments.

Cockell is a Senior Editor of the journal, Astrobiology. His popular science books include ‘Impossible Extinction’ (Cambridge University Press), which explores the tenacity of microbes on the Earth, and ‘Space on Earth’ (Macmillan) which looks at the links between environmentalism and space exploration. He is Chair of the Earth and Space Foundation, a non-profit organisation he established in 1994. He was the first Chair of the Astrobiology Society of Britain.

Course Syllabus

Week 1: What is life and what are the definitions of life? What do we know about the origin of life and what are the current hypotheses for how it originated on the Earth?
Week 2: What was the environment of early Earth like when life first emerged and what do we know about life on the earliest Earth? How did life evolve to cope with survival in extreme environments? What have been the major evolutionary transitions of life on the Earth?
Week 3: What are the prospects for life on other planetary bodies in our Solar System and how do we go about searching for it? What conditions are required for a planet to be habitable?
Week 4: How do we search for Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars and how would we detect life on them?
Week 5: What are the possibilities for intelligent life elsewhere? How would we deal with contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence and what would be the impact on society? Who would represent Earth?

Recommended Background

No background is required.

Suggested Readings

Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction by Kevin W. Plaxco and Michael Gross

Course Format

The course will consist of ten lectures of one hour each.


  • Will I get a certificate after completing this class?Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a certificate signed by the instructor.
  • Do I earn University of Edinburgh credits upon completion of this class?No. The certificate of completion is not part of a formal qualification from the University of Edinburgh. However, it may be useful to demonstrate prior learning and interest in your subject to a higher education institution or potential employer.
  • What resources will I need for this class?No resources needed.
  • What are the learning outcomes of this course and why should I take it?You will learn about the search for life beyond the Earth.

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