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Course Date: 08 September 2014 to 29 December 2014 (16 weeks)
Are we alone? This course introduces core concepts in astronomy, biology, and planetary science that enable the student to speculate scientifically about this profound question and invent their own solar systems.
David Spergel is the Charles Young Professor of Astronomy on the Class of 1897 Foundation and Chair of the Department of Astrophysics at Princeton University. Spergel is best known for his work with the WMAP satellite that help determine the age and composition of the universe. He is currently co-chair of NASA AFTA Satellite science team, a mission that aims to both determine the nature of dark energy and directly image planets around nearby stars.
Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered over a thousand planets around nearby stars. Based on our current knowledge, it seems likely that there are millions of stars in the Galaxy that host Earth-sized planets in Earth-like orbits. What is the range of conditions for these planets to host life? In this course, students will engage with a wide range of concepts in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics with a focus on developing the background they will use need to think further about this profound question. We will explore the origin and evolution of life on Earth, particularly in extreme environments, the properties of planets and moons in our Solar System, the properties of stars and the newly discovered extrasolar planets.
Course assignments include two short papers describing proposed space missions to study nearby planets and to search for extrasolar planets and a final paper. In the final paper, students will have an opportunity to invent their own planetary system and describe it in terms of either the astronomy of how it was discovered, the properties of their planet and its host star, or the biology of life in the system. Papers will be circulated and evaluated by fellow students as part of the learning experience in the course; this will provide opportunities to develop students' abilities to think like a scientist by applying principles of scientific thinking, to learn new ideas from other students, and to creatively make new connections across different sciences and parts of the course.
Does Princeton award credentials or reports regarding my work in this course?
No certificates, statements of accomplishment, or other credentials will be awarded in connection with this course.
Lecture 1: The Universe is Big!
Lecture 2: What is life?
The Solar System
Lecture 3: Energy balance: What determines planetary temperature?
Lecture 4: Snowball Earth
Lecture 5: Planetary Atmospheres
Lecture 6: Earth, Venus and Mars: the goldilocks story
Lecture 7: Mars and the search for life
Lecture 8: The Moon and tides
Lecture 9: Titan and Europa: habitable moons?
Assignment 1: Report on Planetary Exploration Missions
Stars and Extrasolar Planets
Lecture 10: Kepler’s Laws Radial Velocity Searches for Planets