BSc Physics / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:

Course unit fact file
Unit code PHYS31692
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by
Available as a free choice unit? No




Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
Introduction to Astrophysics and Cosmology PHYS10191 Pre-Requisite Compulsory


To gain an understanding of exoplanetary systems, including how they are detected and ideas on their formation and habitability.

Learning outcomes

On completion of the course students will be able to:

1. Outline the variety of methods used to detect exoplanets
2. Evaluate exoplanet detection probabilities for different methods and compare the efficacy
    of different detection techniques
3. Explain the properties of known exoplanetary systems in the context of detection biases
4. Summarize leading planet formation theories and explain dynamical effects such as planet
5. Explain how observations constrain exoplanetary interior and atmosphere models
6. Discuss current ideas about planetary habitability


1. Introduction    
Course overview. The brief history of exoplanet research. Definition of a planet and its orbital elements.

2. Our Solar System in context    
The architecture of our Solar System. Gas giant, ice giant and rocky planets. Planet equilibrium temperature. Surface temperature of a rocky planet with a simple greenhouse model.

3.  Exoplanet detection methods    
Radial velocity and astrometry; transits and TTV (exomoon detection); gravitational microlensing (bound and isolated exoplanets); direct imaging. The relative sensitivity of the different methods and their dependency on planet and host star properties.

4. Properties of detected exoplanets          
Planet frequency distribution versus planet mass, radius, host separation and host properties. Detection bias. Multiple planet systems and circum-binary planets.

5. Planetary structure       
Planet interior models for gas giant, ice giant and rocky planets. Constraints from observations. Observations of planetary atmospheres through transmission photometry and transmission spectroscopy. Comparison with simple theoretical models.

6. Planet formation theory           
Key phases of planet formation. Magneto-rotational instability. Core accretion and gravitational instability scenarios. The snow line. Planet migration.

7. Planet habitability and the prospects for extra-terrestrial life 
The stellar habitable zone and Galactic habitable zone. Current statistics of potentially habitable planets. Impact of current knowledge on speculative ideas of the abundance and spread of extra-terrestrial life and intelligent life: the Drake equation; the Fermi Paradox.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 100%

Feedback methods

Feedback will be available on students’ individual written solutions to example sheets, which will be marked, and model answers will be issued.

Recommended reading

Cassan, P., Guillot, T., Quirrenbach, A. Extrasolar Planets (Saas-Fee Advanced Course 31) (Springer 2006), ISBN: 978-3-540-31470-7
Perryman, M. The Exoplanet Handbook (CUP 2011), ISBN-10: 0521765595

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 1.5
Lectures 24
Independent study hours
Independent study 74.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Christopher Conselice Unit coordinator

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