MPhys Physics with Astrophysics

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Comparative Planetology

Course unit fact file
Unit code EART30232
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 6
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


In this course unit students will learn about the geology of the terrestrial planets and consider what we can learn about the processes of planet formation and evolution.  Content varies somewhat from year to year to reflect current areas of exciting research, but in outline will cover these areas.

•       The backdrop to the course is a consideration of whether our solar system is typical of solar systems in general, or whether only unusual solar systems are capable of supporting a technological civilization.

•       There will be a few classes on the environment of the early solar system where the planets formed.  This will include the evidence for the presence of massive stars nearby as our sun was forming, and the processing of material on the first asteroids as they were heated by radioactive decay of short-lived isotopes produced in those stars.

•       In discussing the planets, we will start with the Moon.  We will find out what sorts of structures impacts produce, and how they are used with the principle of superposition to establish the relative ages of planetary surfaces.  We will see how impact cratering has affected the surfaces of other planets and icy moons, and what the cratering record of the moon tells us about the bombardment history of the inner solar system.  We will compare Mercury’s history with that of the Moon.

•       Moving on, we will look at the histories of Mars and Venus, especially the contrasting fates of water , varying styles of volcanic activity, and the reasons their climates have differed from that of the Earth.  This will lead to a discussion of the features of the Earth that lead to its being able to support us, and how they arose.

•       Finally, we will turn to the icy worlds of the outer solar system, and try to see how geology works in an environments where "rocks" are made of ice and, on Titan, the fluid is a hydrocarbon. 

There is an emphasis in the course on developing your own understanding, applying it in new contexts, and supporting your opinions with evidence.  In previous years physics and other students successfully followed this class in spite of a clash with another option on Fridays – lectures are recorded and available via blackboard as audio files with accompanying power points.  Students are encouraged to read around the subject, following their interests and starting from some recommended papers on the blackboard site.

This course unit detail provides the framework for delivery in 20/21 and may be subject to change due to any additional Covid-19 impact.  Please see Blackboard / course unit related emails for any further updates.






First two years of a BSc degree


To allow students to develop an integrated view of the formation and evolution of our solar system and the rocky and icy bodies within it.

Learning outcomes


On the successful completion of the course, students will be able to:




Provide an up-to-date account of the properties of the solar system and of some of the planetary bodies with rocky and icy surfaces it contains.




Discuss the merits of theories relevant to the formation and evolution of the solar system and the icy and rocky planetary bodies within it.




Comment on areas of uncertainty in our understanding of the solar system and the icy and rocky planetary bodies within it.




Support their opinions with evidence from scholarly reviews and primary sources.






  • The course starts with an overview of the solar system.
  • There is a discussion of selection bias in the position from which we view the universe. (One week)
  • We then trace the formation of the solar system from a molecular cloud, focusing on the processes that defined the properties of planetary bodies.  This is illuminated by data from meteorites. (Around 4 weeks)
  • Starting with the moon, we then look at the record of solar system evolution preserved in surfaces in the inner solar system and how that helps us understand the evolution of planetary bodies. (Around 4 weeks)
  • The course finishes with a discussion of some of the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. (1 week).

Elements of the first item in particular recur in other parts of the course.


Teaching and learning methods


20 one hour sessions, lectures are podcast.  Powerpoints are presented on blackboard with mp3 recordings enabled (additional to the podcast if podcast is available in the lecture theatres).

Blackboard site including anonymous discussion board and suggested reading


Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 30%
Written assignment (inc essay) 70%


Assessment type

% Weighting within unit

Hand out and hand in dates



How, when and what feedback is provided

ILO tested





Via turnitin when marks are available




In exam period


Via turnitin when marks are available



Feedback methods

Essay - Via turnitin when marks are available

Exam - On request (final year unit) or via formal mechanism

Recommended reading


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 20
Independent study hours
Independent study 78

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Gilmour Unit coordinator

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