EARTH 351: Forming a Habitable Planet

We will investigate whether intelligent life is rare or common in the universe, exploring the conditions under which the formation and evolution of a planet allow it to develop and support intelligent life. Using our solar system and Earth as our only definite example of a planet supporting life, we will consider global geophysical and geochemical processes critical in developing our planet such that sentient beings evolved. The prospects for life elsewhere within our solar system and beyond will be discussed. The rapidly expanding database of exoplanets – those around other stars – identified, and specifically the discoveries by NASA’s ongoing Kepler mission will be analyzed. Missions to Mars: rationale, past, present and possible, will be featured in the course.

Course Details

Class Lectures: Mon Wed 3:30-4:50 PM, Tech F285

Professors: Donna M. Jurdy & Seth Stein

Grader: Howard Chen

Syllabus: Click here for course syllabus (pdf)


Required Texts

Ward, P. D. & D. Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Rare in the Universe, Springer, 2004, ISBN 0387952896.

Langmuir, C. H. and W. Broecker, How to Build a Habitable Planet, Princeton Univ. Press, 2012, ISBN 9780691140063.(Reading assignments: RE# denotes chapters for Rare Earth; HP# for Habitable Planet)

Both books on Reserve at Main Library: Mudd Science and Engineering Library, (SEL), not available


Lecture Notes

Solar system evolution (pdf)


Class Project Materials

Presentation and project write-up (pdf)

Mars Teams (Team missions, dates and members, pdf)

Team Presentation (Presentation format and guidelines, pdf)

Team Report, Final Paper (Paper format, requirements and guidelines, pdf)


Problem Sets (pdfs)

Problem Set #1 – Solar System

Problem Set #2 – Timelines

Problem Set #3 – Comets and Meteorites

Problem Set #4 – Impact Craters

Problem Set #5 – Evolution and Extinctions

Problem Set #6 – Planetary Temperature

Problem Set #7 – Exoplanets

Problem Set #8 – Moon

Problem Set #9 – Final Vote: Reason(s) for the ‘Great Silence’


Lecture Notes


A Mercury-like component of early Earth yields uranium in the core and high mantle 142Nd, A. Wohlers and B. J. Wood, Nature, vol. 520, p. 337-341, 2015.

Seismic detection of the lunar core, Science, vol. 331, p. 309-312, 2011, R. C. Weber, P-W. Lin, E. J. Garnero, Q. Williams, and P. Lognonne.


The martian chroniclers, The New Yorker, April 22, 2013.

Hf-W-Th evidence for rapid growth of Mars and its status as a planetary embryo, Nature, vol. 473, p. 491-493, 2011, N. Dauphas & A. Pourmand.

Building a planet in record time, News and Views, Nature, vol. 473, p. 460-461, Alan Brandon.


Impact cratering on Earth: A history of controversy, Audeliz Matias.

Earth Impact Effects Program: A web-based computer program for calculating the regional environmental consequences of a meteoroid impact on Earth, G. S. Collins, J. Melosh and R. A. Marcus.

The Sun

How the Sun shines, Nobel prize lecture, John N. Bahcall.

The once and future Sun, Richard W. Pogge.

Solar System Evolution

The genesis of planets., Scientific American, May, 2008. Pg 50-59, Douglas N. C. Lin.

The cradle of the solar system, Science, vol. 304, pp. 1116-1117, 2004, J. J. Hester, S. J. Desch, K. R. Healy, and L. A. Leshin.

Early Earth

Initiation of clement surface conditions on the earliest Earth, N. H. Sleep and P. S. Neuhoff, PNAS, vol. 98, 3666-3672, 2001.

Plate Tectonics through Time Treatise on Geophysics, N. H. Sleep, vol. 9, 145-169, 2007.

EVOLUTION OF THE CONTINENTAL LITHOSPHERE, Norman H. Sleep, Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 2005, 33:369-93.

Did Earthquakes Keep the Early Crust Habitable? Norman H. Sleep and Mark D. Zoback, Astrobiology, vol. 7, 2007.

H2-rich fluids from serpentinization: Geochemical and biotic implications, N. H. Sleep, PNAS, 2004.

Palaeoproterozoic ice houses and the evolution of oxygen-mediating enzymes: the case for a late origin of photosystem II, J. L. Kirschvink and R. E. Kopp, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B, vol. 363, p. 2755-2765, 2008.

Was the Paleoproterozoic Snowball Earth a biologically-triggered climate disaster?, Kopp, R.E., Kirschvink, J.L., Hilburn, I.A. & Nash, C.Z., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 102: 11131-11136, 2005.

Mars and Life

Search for past life on Mars: Possible relic biogenic activity in Martian meteorite ALH84001, D. S. McKay and others, Science, vol. 273, pp. 924-930, 1996.

Mars, panspermia, and the origin of life: Where did it all begin?, J. L. Kirschvink and B. P. Weiss, Palaeontologica Electronica, 2002.

Reanlysis of the Viking results suggests perchlorate and organics on Mars, R. Navarro-Gonzalez, E. Vargas, J. Rosa, A. Raga, and C. P. McKay, J. of Geophysical Res., vol. 115, doi10.1029/210JE003599, 2010.

Life in the Solar System

The search for life in our solar system and the implications for science and society, C. P. McKay, Philos. Trans. of the Roy. Soc., v. 369, p. 594-608, 2011.

Evolution of Life

Acidication, anoxia, and extinction: A multiple logistic regression analysis of extinction selectivity during the Middle and Late Permian, Geology, vol. 39, 1059-1062, 2011.

On the origin of mitosing cell, J. Theoret. Biol., vol. 14, 225-274, 1967. L. Sagan (nee Margulis).

Niches of the pre-photosynthetic biosphere and geologic preservation of Earth’s earliest ecology, Norman H. Sleep and Dennis K. Bird.

Evolutionary ecology during the rise of dioxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, Norman H. Sleep and Dennis K. Bird Philosophical Trans. B., 2008.

Possible presence of high-pressure ice in cold subducting slabs, Craig R. Bina & Alexandra Navrotsky, Nature, 408, 844-845, 2000.

A new view of the tree of life, Laura A., Hug, Jillian F. Banfield, others, Nature, art. #16048, doi: 10.1038, 2016 (pdf)

Most of the Tree of Life is a Complete Mystery, Ed Yong, Atlantic Monthly, April 2016. Nature, art. #16048, doi: 10.1038, 2016.

Signatures of a Shadow Biosphere, Davies, P.C.W., S.A. Benner, C.E. Cleland, C.H. Lineweaver, C.P. McKay, and F. Wolfe-Simon, Astrobiology, Volume 9, Number 2, 2009

Planet Habitability

L. Elkins-Tanton, What makes a habitable planet?, EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, vol. 94, no. 16, 16, April 2013.

T. M. Hoehler, An energy balance concept for habitability, Astrobiology, Vol. 7, 2007 DOI: 10.1089/ast.2006.0095

The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, National Academies press, 2007.

J. F. Kasting, Essay Review: Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s “Rare Earth”, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 44, 117, 2001.

J. F. Kasting, Habitable planets: What are we learning from Kepler and ground based searches, Astrobiology, Vol. 11 2011.

A Wellner, et al., Recent near-Earth supernvae probed by glab deposition of interstellar radioactive 60Fe, Nature, 532, 69-72, 2016.

Breitschwerdt et al., The locations of recent supernovae near the Sun for modelling of 60Fe transport, Nature, 532, 73-76, 2016.

Foley, B. J., and P. E. Driscoll (2016), Whole planet coupling between climate, mantle, and core: Implications for rocky planet evolution, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 17, doi:10.1002/ 2015GC006210, 2016.


S. Naoz, W. M. Farr, Y. Lithwick, F. A. Rasio, and J. Teyssandler Hot Jupiters from secular planet-planet interactions, Nature, vol. 473, pp. 187-198, 2011.

J. I. Lunine, B. Macintosh, and S. Peale, The detection and characterization of exoplanets, Physics Today, May 2009, pp. 46-51.

Project Cyclops: A design study of a system for detecting extraterrestrial intelligent life, NASA, 1971

M. J. Holman and others inc, Jason Steffen, Kepler-9: A system of multiple planets transiting a sun-like star, confirmed by timing variations, Science, vol. 330, 51, 2010.

N. M. Batalha and others inc, Jason Steffen, Kepler’s first rocky planet: Kepler-10b Astrophysical Journal, 729:27, 2011.

J. J. Lissauer and others inc, Jason Steffen, A closely packed system of low mass, low density planets transiting Kepler-11, Nature, vol. 470, 33, 2011.

D. W. Latham and others inc, Jason Steffen, A first comparison of Kepler planet candidates in single and multiple systems, Astrophysical Journal, 732:L24, 2011.

Jason H. Steffen and others, Kepler constraints on planets near hot Jupiters, PNAS, in press, 2012.

Nick B. Cowan, D. S. Abbot, and A. Voight, A false positive for ocean glint on exoplanets: The latitude-albedo effect, Astrophysical Letters Journal, in press, 2012.


David Brin, Mystery of the great silence, in, First Contact: The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, edited by Ben Bova and Byron Preiss, 1990.

Seth Shostak, Messaging the Stars, New York Times, March 27, 2015.

Dark Matter

Davide Castelvecchi, Controversial dark-matter claim faces ultimate test, Nature, vol. 531, 7 April 2016.

Space Policy, Mars Missions

John M. Logsdon, Why did the United States retreat from the moon? Space Policy, 2015.

Trump has grand plan for mission to Mars but Nasa advises: cool your jets, The Guardian, 5/1/17.

Journey to Mars, get dementia. All the more reason to stay here and fix Earth? The Guardian, 5/1/17.

Mars Curse, Universe Today, Space and Astronomy News.


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