ASTRO 140 (GN) Life in the Universe (3) The problem of the existence of life beyond Earth is investigated, drawing from recent research in astronomy and other fields. For non-science majors. Prerequisite: One of ASTRO 001ASTRO 005 or ASTRO 010.

Printable Syllabus


The possible existence of life beyond Earth is one of the most fundamental questions relating the human race to the physical Universe around us. While considerations of extraterrestrial life were in the domains of philosophy and science fiction in the past, today we have considerable scientific knowledge that can be applied to the question. Advances in modern astronomy have dramatically improved our understanding of our cosmic surroundings: tracing the cosmic origins of biological molecules, direct evidence for planets around most stars (exoplanets), and a deeper understanding of planet formation have all emerged in the past generation.  Several fields -- geology, biochemistry, paleontology (fossils), evolutionary biology --  give insight (though not a complete understanding) on how life arose on Earth, and spacecraft travel provides constraints on life elsewhere in our Solar System. 

The results from studies on Earth, the Solar System, and exoplanets across the Galaxy together indicate that the conditions for life are widespread in the Universe; extraterrestrial life has not been found yet, but does not seem implausible. Interstellar space travel between habitable planets, by humans or other beings, is exceedingly difficult but not physically impossible.   The course is thus rooted in modern science, but is connected to the long-standing philosophical question: Are we alone in the Universe? Today, this question is often embedded in science fiction (such as movies about aliens) and discussion about whether aliens have visited Earth.  Today, astronomical studies are leading the way in answering part of the question:  Earth-like planets seems to be extremely common.  But there is no evidence yet for life outside of Earth.

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Course Materials


  1. An Introduction to Astrobiology (Revised Edition) by Rothery, Gilmour & Sephton (2011), ISBN 9781107600935, required - please purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or elsewhere.

Please note that this is not the original 2004 edition! If you purchase a used copy or from an individual seller please be sure you get the revised (second) edition. Course content will closely follow the sequence presented in the text, and homework and quiz problems will be derived from the text and its questions and answers. The text has a large number of color images and figures, as well as tables of important numerical data, all of which should be very helpful in understanding the material. You will want to read the pages assigned for each week, keep your copy of the textbook at hand when doing homeworks, and use it in studying for exams.

Textbook web site:

Course Website:

Most course content will be on the ASTRO 140 course content website.

Homeworks, exams, discussion forums, paper and project submission dropbox, and the official course calendar and gradebook are all presented and maintained on the Penn State ANGEL course management system. Students will need to be registered for the course and have an Penn State ACCESS account to log into these sites.

Technical Specifications

World Campus Technical Requirements
Operating System Windows 2000/XP, Vista, or Windows 7; Mac OS X 10.3 or higher (10.4 or higher recommended)
Processor 1 GHz or higher
Memory 256 MB of RAM
Hard Drive Space 500 MB free disk space
Browser We recommend the latest Angel-supported version of Firefox or Internet Explorer. To determine if your browser fits this criteria and for advice on downloading a supported version, please refer to the following ITS knowledgebase article:
  • Note: Cookies, Java, and JavaScript must be enabled.
  • Pop-up blockers should be configured to permit new windows from Penn State web sites. 
  • Due to nonstandard handling of CSS, JavaScript and caching, 
  • older versions of Internet Explorer (such as IE 6 or earlier) do not work with our courses.
Additional Software
Internet  Broadband (cable or DSL) connection required
Printer Access to graphics-capable printer
DVD-ROM Required
Sound Card, Microphone, and Speakers


USB Headset (headphones with attached microphone)

Monitor Monitor (Capable of at least 1024 x 768 resolution)

If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the World Campus Helpdesk.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity — scholarship free of fraud and deception — is an important educational objective of Penn State. Academic dishonesty can lead to a failing grade or referral to the Office of Student Conduct.

Academic dishonesty includes, but is not limited to:

  • cheating
  • plagiarism
  • fabrication of information or citations
  • facilitating acts of academic dishonesty by others
  • unauthorized prior possession of examinations
  • submitting the work of another person or work previously used without informing the instructor and securing written approval
  • tampering with the academic work of other students

How Academic Integrity Violations Are Handled

In cases where academic integrity is questioned, procedure requires an instructor to notify a student of suspected dishonesty before filing a charge and recommended sanction with the college. Procedures allow a student to accept or contest a charge. If a student chooses to contest a charge, the case will then be managed by the respective college or campus Academic Integrity Committee. If a disciplinary sanction also is recommended, the case will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct

All Penn State colleges abide by this Penn State policy, but review procedures may vary by college when academic dishonesty is suspected. Information about Penn State's academic integrity policy and college review procedures is included in the information that students receive upon enrolling in a course. To obtain that information in advance of enrolling in a course, please contact us.

Additionally, World Campus students are expected to act with civility and personal integrity; respect other students' dignity, rights, and property; and help create and maintain an environment in which all can succeed through the fruits of their own efforts. An environment of academic integrity is requisite to respect for oneself and others, and a civil community.

For More Information on Academic Integrity at Penn State

Please see the Academic Integrity Chart  for specific college contact information or visit one of the following URLs:

Accommodating Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. If you have a disability-related need for reasonable academic adjustments in this course, contact the Office for Disability Services (ODS) at 814-863-1807 (V/TTY). For further information regarding ODS, please visit the Office for Disability Services Web site.

In order to receive consideration for course accommodations, you must contact ODS and provide documentation (see the documentation guidelines). If the documentation supports the need for academic adjustments, ODS will provide a letter identifying appropriate academic adjustments. Please share this letter and discuss the adjustments with your instructor as early in the course as possible. You must contact ODS and request academic adjustment letters at the beginning of each semester.

Additional Policies

For information about additional policies regarding items such as Penn State Access Accounts; credit by examination; course tuition, fees, and refund schedules; and drops and withdrawals please see the World Campus Student Policies Web site.

Disclaimer: Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus are subject to change, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. Your instructor will notify you of any changes.